PEMBROKE PINES (CBS4) – Pembroke Pines police arrested and charged the son of a missing Pembroke Pines woman with first degree murder.
The arrest came just hours after a woman’s body was found in a wooded area in Pembroke Pines. Authorities believe it may be the body of missing Realtor Natalie Belmonte, although positive identification has not been made.
Wednesday afternoon, CBS4′s Ted Scouten reported Gerard Lopes, 22, was put into handcuffs outside his family’s home and placed in the back of a patrol car. Scouten reported that police have released neither a motive nor a cause of death.
Pembroke Pines Police Captain Sean Hemingway said investigators’ work has only just begun.
“The primary focus was locating the victim,” Hemingway told reporters. “Now the primary focus is bringing closure to the family and building a solid case and we’re going to collect every piece of evidence that’s out there.”
In a statement, the family of Natalie Belmonte expressed their gratitude for the work of investigators in finding her body.
“There are no words to adequately express the depth of our sorrow from the loss of Natalie — who (we) will forever love and cherish her memory. Senseless tragedies such as this remind us to cherish each day and bring us together as a family and community.”
Late Wednesday night, a Pembroke Pines Police officer drove Lopes to the Broward County Jail where he was booked on the murder charge.
Earlier Wednesday, police closed a section of 196th Avenue between Taft and Johnson Streets and brought in a mobile command center to the area where the body was discovered. The area is not too far from where Natalie Belmonte lived.
Police spokesman Captain Dan Rakofsky made an announcement just after noon. He said the Medical Examiner will determine identification and cause of death.
“We have not made a positive ID, but we believe this may be the body of Natalie Belmonte,” he said.
Detectives said they focused on the site because it was part of the search, not because they received a tip.
“The reason we found the body was because of evidence we uncovered through a diligent search,” Rakofsky said.
Earlier Wednesday, Rakofsky also stated that nobody was in custody and nobody has been named a person of interest.
Family, friends and neighbors were stunned by her disappearance.
“Since I saw the report Monday of the missing person, my heart sank,” her friend Jerry Gilbreath said. “I know how much she loved her children.”
With strong feelings Gilbreath told CBS4′s Peter D’Oench that he came to the site of the search for Belmonte, a nature preserve west of 196th Avenue.
Long before Belmonte was interviewed two years ago in The CBS Morning Show, Gilbreath and Belmonte worked together at a Home Depot store for five years.
“It’s a tragedy, because of the type of person she was,” he said. “She was kind. She was outgoing. She was generous with donations. She was a fellow associate of mine at Home Depot. My gosh, she was a good person.”
Neighbor Al Quintana’s said he lived two doors down form Belmonte for years.
“There was always some hope that the story wouldn’t end this way, now of course all that hope is gone, we know how it ended for her,” he said. “An extremely nice person, a person who cared a lot about her family and her friends.
What makes this so strange, he said, is that Belmonte was always such a vibrant, happy person, and it’s difficult to learn that she was likely murdered.
“Her life seems to have some to a violent end, an abrupt end and that’s not what she was about,” he said. “She was very giving person, friend person. It’s just hard to fathom that her life would end that way.”
Tuesday evening, police said evidence found in a dumpster behind an animal hospital at 195th and Sheridan Street, less than 2 miles from Belmonte’s home, indicated this is a possible homicide. Investigators wouldn’t say what that evidence was, but witness, Gabriel Osorio told CBS4′s Natalia Zea it was a bloody find.
Belmonte was last seen returning to her home, located at 19331 NW 5th Street, from a party around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, July 17th.
Quintana said the night before she disappeared, Belmonte and Lopes had gone to a party together.
“When they got home, he said he went to bed and the next thing he remembers is waking up to take out the dogs and finding out that she wasn’t there,” Quintana said.
Police said there were no signs of forced entry into her home and her cell phone, purse, personal belongings and vehicle were found at the home.
On Tuesday, police said Lopes has been cooperating with investigators.
CBS4 News has learned that Lopes was arrested and accused of stealing from his mother in 2008.
A police affidavit states that Lopes did “knowingly and intentionally remove approximately $20,000 in various jewelry items from the victim’s jewelry box.”
The affidavit also states that Belmonte “advised she wished to prosecute.”
CBS4 News also learned that Lopes turned himself in last month related to that case, and got out of jail three days before Belmonte disappeared.
Gilbreath said he hopes police will get closer to cracking the case.
“Closure,” he said. “That’s what that would mean. Closure for her family and for her two natural children.”
Many young people in the neighborhood have known Belmonte since they were kids,” Ted Scouten reported. She was one of the first people to move in and was well known and liked by everyone, according to neighbors.
“She was awesome to have around, she was really nice,” neighbor Lindon Ramsey said. “She always had people over. She had all the kids playing in the yard. There’s nothing you could possibly say that was really negative about her, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Ramsey says he used to be very good friends with Lopes, though he recently chose to cut Lopes out of his life. He and other neighbors suspect Lopes of breaking into their homes, and Ramsey believes he committed this latest deadly crime.
“I hate to say it but this is almost on his level. I can say that it’s on his level,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey is also upset that while it appears Belmonte’s body was lying in a field, where the neighborhood kids play paintball, Lopes was free to roam the neighborhood.
“I basically saw somebody who would sit outside with no remorse, no reaction to what was going on.”
Police impounded Belmonte’s car, which was found in her driveway but they believe it was actually on the road when she went missing.
Police are also asking anyone who saw Belmonte’s maroon Lexus sedan in the area of the Publix shopping center at 19400 Sheridan Street, between 5:16 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. Sunday morning to call the Pembroke Pines Police Department at (954) 431-2200, email to Tips@ppines.com, or call Broward Crime Stoppers at (954) 493-TIPS.