Update (October 28): Police have identified 42-year-old Kevin Ray Moore as a suspect in the two killings, the Associated Press reports. Moore recently died in a suspected murder-suicide in Missouri, and prosecutors have not released any details regarding a possible motive for the murders.
The deaths of two South American scientists—24-year-old Camila Behrensen and 25-year-old Pablo Guzmán Palma—are being investigated as homicides after their bodies were recovered from a burning Kansas City, Missouri, apartment on the morning of October 1, the Kansas City Star reports. Both Behrensen and Guzmán Palma were predoctoral researchers and graduate students at the nearby Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
“We are devastated by the tragic deaths of two of our predoctoral researchers,” the organization states in a tweet. “These researchers were members of our 2020 class and vibrant members of our Stowers Institute community. Our deepest sympathies are with their families at this difficult time, and most importantly, out of respect for the two families, we want to honor and remember the joy, optimism, and exceptional work these two individuals embodied and all that they have accomplished.”
Behrensen, who hailed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, earned her bachelor’s in biotechnology from the University Argentina de la Empresa in 2020. Her research focused on metabolism, using Drosophila as a model system. At Stowers, she was a member of molecular physiologist Kausik Si’s lab, and in her free time, she was an avid middle-distance runner.
“Ms. Behrensen’s hope was to continue her studies and focus her research on how cells know who they are,” according to a statement from Stowers shared with The Scientist. “She dreamed of one day earning her postdoctoral degree and leading a research group by forming her own lab.”
As a child growing up in Chile, Guzmán Palma originally wanted to be an astronomer but instead made a career of gazing downward at the constellations of cells revealed by microscopy. According to his Stowers profile, he was “fascinated by the shapes and colors of plant cells, by how microorganisms move under the lens.”
After receiving bachelor’s and post-bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where he focused on spinal cord regeneration, Guzmán Palma joined the lab of developmental biologist Matt Gibson at Stowers. There, he was beginning to probe the ways in which “cells interpret and integrate various types of cues and signals during development,” his profile reads.
Police were called to an apartment fire early on the morning of October 1, where firefighters had found two individuals—Guzmán Palma and Behrensen—“suffering from apparent trauma” unrelated to the fire, according to a statement to the Star by Kansas City police officer Donna Drake. The pair was declared dead shortly after.
According to the Star, detectives have since obtained a search warrant pertaining to an Alexa device (Amazon’s virtual assistant) found in the apartment as part of their homicide investigation. In a warrant application viewed by the Star, detectives believe “the suspect spent a considerable amount of time” at the site, and that “detectives further believe there may have been verbal communication between the two victims and the suspect during the commission of the homicides.”
The Associated Press reports that there is a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and police have now asked residents living in the vicinity of the apartment to share video footage. Based on independent data tracking by the Star, the two deaths mark the 125th and 126th homicides in Kansas City this year.