CHICAGO --One of our ABC7 Chicago colleagues was found murdered Friday while traveling in Belize, according to police in the Central American nation and the U.S. State Department.
Anne Swaney was executive producer of online operations at abc7chicago.com. She was 39. Autopsy results determined that she was strangled.
WATCH VIDEO: Remembering our ABC7 colleague Anne Swaney
Anne was an avid world traveler and on a vacation in the Cayo District of western Belize, a popular destination for American adventure travelers and horse enthusiasts. She was staying at the Nabitunich Farm near a tiny town called San Jose Succotz. Hotel owner Santiago Juan tells the I-Team she was killed on "public land" near the hotel. Juan reported her missing Thursday afternoon.
On Thursday morning, Anne was supposed to go on a group horseback trip through the woods, but there were more riders than horses, so she stayed back. She came down to a wooden deck on the river to do yoga and never returned.
"A horse riding tour returned in the afternoon and found her personal effects on the deck. This looked suspicious so they went to her cabin and she wasn't there. They told the owner who called the police. The police came with their canine unit and the scent led them along the river but due to the darkness the search was called off for the night before finding her," Supt. Arzu told the I-Team.
Police teams resumed searching Friday morning, when her body was found face down in the river. Police said there were obvious signs someone had killed her.
"Her neck and either side of her head had laceration and that led us to believe it was a case of murder," Supt. Arzu said.
WATCH VIDEO: Police chief speaks about Anne Swaney's murder in Belize
Authorities said Anne was taken to San Ignacio Hospital in Belize and was pronounced dead. Autopsy results released Saturday concluded the cause of death was manual strangulation as well as blunt force injuries to her head and neck.
"We offer our sincerest condolences to her family and loved ones on their loss," a state department spokesman in Washington said.
Investigators said Friday that they were questioning a man who was seen fishing near the crime scene but that he was not considered a prime suspect at this time. The man, a Guatemalan national, maintains he was just fishing and was not involved in her death, police said.
News of Anne's death brought tears at ABC7, where she was being remembered as a newsroom leader with a penchant for detail and a passion for getting facts straight.
"She was a trailblazer in the digital news space and was one of our first website employees," said John H. Idler, president and general manager of ABC7. "Anne helped us evolve our business and our newsroom, but most importantly, she was a kind person who was always had a smile and a positive attitude."
A local reporter in Belize said Anne's death is quite an embarrassment to the nation.
"Because it is on the fringes of our border with our neighbor in Guatemala it also provides another element that the police have to investigate. Where if the perpetrator came across the border, they will have a difficult time they will have to liaise with their counterparts in Guatemala," said Daniel Ortiz, NEWSBELIZE.
There is not a nationwide tourist advisory in effect for Belize. However, tourists are told to exercise a high degree of caution due to an increasing rate of violent crime throughout the country. In that specific "Cayo District," armed robberies occasionally occur near the western border with Guatemala, especially near Caracol to the south.
Police say criminal activity, including armed robbery, mugging and sexual assault, is a significant problem throughout Belize. Robberies and assaults have been reported in resort areas. There has been a noted increase in violent crime targeting tourists since the end of 2013. Criminals often operate in groups and target persons traveling alone.
Cases of sexual assault against female travelers have also be been reported in that district.
Drug-related crimes are also on the uptick. The transit of drugs, particularly cocaine and precursor chemicals for methamphetamine, has risen. Belize was included on the FY12, 13 and 14 U.S. Majors List of illegal narcotic producing and/or transit countries.
In January 2014, two American citizens were kidnapped at gunpoint from a resort area near the western border with Guatemala.
A Canadian filmmaker was killed in January 2015 to the south of the district.
In May 2015, two American men were murdered in a suspected drug-related armed robbery. An 18-year old suspect was charged.