Missing Step Up Actress Remembered as 'a Beautiful Spirit' as Investigators Reveal She Was Strangled

Tricia McCauley's friends open up to PEOPLE about the actress turned herbalist and yoga instructor, who was killed after going missing on Christmas night

When Bevin Claire first learned that Tricia McCauley, her friend and former student, had gone missing on Christmas night, she found herself hoping against hope that McCauley just “decided to go on some sort of whimsical spa trip and not check in with anyone.”

Less than 24 hours later, Claire learned the truth: McCauley’s disappearance became a homicide investigation after her dead body was discovered and a suspect was arrested.

As McCauley’s grief-stricken friends began making their way to the two memorial vigils in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the energetic 46-year-old lived, details in her killing began to emerge.

Adrian Duane Johnson, who was allegedly found driving McCauley’s car Monday night with her body still inside, has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in McCauley’s death, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department said in a news releasee Tuesday.

Johnson, 29, is also charged with theft and simple assault, after police allege he robbed a CVS Monday after McCauley vanished. It’s unclear if he has retained an attorney or entered a plea to his charges.

He has a criminal history this year, NBC Washington reports, including multiple arrests for theft and one arrest for assault with intent. According to the TV station, Johnson was ordered at a December court hearing to wear a GPS monitor.

The disposition of his previous arrests and whether he was wearing the monitor at the time of McCauley’s disappearance and death were not immediately clear.

McCauley’s body was discovered, following a search involving hundreds of her friends and acquaintances, inside her white Scion IQ at 11:58 p.m. on Monday. An autopsy revealed she died from “ligature strangulation with blunt force trauma.”

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Metropolitan Police Department

Longtime friend Brian McMonagle, who describes McCauley “as an amazing source of life,” spoke with her on Sunday afternoon — hours before she disappeared — as she was cooking Brussels sprouts for a Christmas dinner she was attending with friends.

“She was in good spirits,” McMonagle tells PEOPLE.

When he later learned that his friend hadn’t shown up at the party, he didn’t initially worry. But when she failed to board her flight the next morning, to visit family on the West Coast, her friends set up a Facebook page and began searching for her.

“She was such a beautiful spirit,” recalls another longtime friend, Deborah Randall, who watched as McCauley’s career path moved from acting (she worked as Jenna Dewan Tatum’s stand-in in Step Up and later appeared in several D.C. stage productions) to herbal medicine and yoga instruction.

“At her core, she was an entrepreneur,” Randall says. “She didn’t just drift into things, she conquered them. She was a very beautiful spirit.”

At the time of her death, McCauley, who created and sold a line of herbal lip balms, cuticle salves and beard oil, “seemed to be in a really good place in her life, a place she’d been trying to get to for a long time,” Randall says. “She loved to laugh and find the light in every situation. She lived everything fully.”

For the past decade, one of her passions had been urban gardening and she helped run several in the city’s Bloomingdale neighborhood where she lived, her friends say.

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“She just loved plants,” recalls Bevin Claire, an associate professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health where McCauley earned a degree in herbal medicine. “It may be hard to get excited over vegetables, but she really looked at the big picture of community health and healing through plants.”

McCauley’s family could not be reached, but her brother Brian wrote on Facebook shortly after learning of her death: “Tricia is gone.” He thanked her friends and “DC family” for their support, adding, “Hang on to each other.”

Metropolitan Police Department

Police have said that McCauley and Johnson did not appear to know each other but have not released further details about how they may have first crossed paths. On Tuesday, investigators sought the public’s assistance in recreating a more detailed timeline of McCauley’s disappearance, death and her body’s eventual discovery.

Her friends are convinced that whatever happened, it was a chance encounter gone terribly wrong.

“She was very street savvy,” McMonagle says. “I’ve never heard of this person [the suspect] before. I can only think that this was a completely random attack.”

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