Authorities are searching for leads in the “tragic deaths” of a young Virginia couple who were fatally shot and found in the middle of a rural highway over the weekend, police said Wednesday.
Ayanna Maertens-Griffin, 19, and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Joel Bianda, were found dead around 2:51 a.m. on Saturday on Route 58 in Halifax County after authorities were called to the area to investigate a fatal car crash, Virginia State Police told The Daily Beast.
The couple was found “lying in the grass” near Biada’s silver 2009 Nissan, which was parked in the median on a “fairly isolated” stretch of highway, authorities said.
“So many things running through my head. It’s, you know, from one extreme to the other,” George Maertens Aramayo, Ayanna’s father, told WSLS. “I definitely now understand the words of, ‘a parent’s true nightmare.’”
While the couple’s official cause of death has not been released pending an autopsy by the medical examiner’s office, authorities confirmed that their deaths were not caused by the car running into the median. Family members told NBC Washington that Maertens-Griffin and Biada—who were driving to pick up a friend four hours away in Danville, Virginia—were found with gunshot wounds to the head.
Authorities are now scrambling to find any information or suspects related to the crime and believe there was a second vehicle involved in the incident. It was not immediately known if the second vehicle is suspected of foul play.
“I hope that whoever is responsible for this is caught and, you know, punished to the fullest extent,” Melissa Griffin, her mother, told WSLS. “I don’t think it’s fair that whoever did this is still breathing while my daughter isn’t.”
Her mother added she last spoke to her daughter on Friday—but hadn’t seen her since October, for the 18th anniversary of the death of Ayanna’s twin sister.
Maertens-Griffin, who graduated from high school at 16, was taking computer science classes at Northern Virginia Community College and recently moved to Fairfax County. The 19-year-old’s father said that instead of getting married this week, he is planning his daughter’s funeral.
“Ayanna was a very loving and extremely intelligent child who was a huge goofball! She always had a smile on her face,” her aunt, Kassie Rich, said in a statement. “Her whole future was ahead of her. I can go on and on about how great of a kid she was.”
Bianda, who wanted to pursue a career in music, died a little over two weeks after his 21st birthday, his brother said.
“Joel’s dream was to make it big with his music and to be able to make enough money to take care and move others. He loved us with all of his heart,” his brother, Ariane Bianda, said in a statement. “He was a hard-headed stubborn man, but he was so caring and would gladly lay his life down for us.”
“He was my best friend and my rock and I only want the best for him,” he added.