A sign on display at a memorial service for Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez
A sign on display at a memorial service for Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez at the Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J., Aug. 7, 2019. Image Credit: The New York Times

About a year ago, Karen Bermudez said goodbye to her family and set out to discover a world beyond Colombia, leaving behind a marriage proposal, a good job and a close-knit circle of friends.

"She wanted to have new experiences, she wanted to travel," said Yudi Lorena Padilla, 26, who went to college with Bermudez. "She wanted to know what it was like to be an independent woman."

At 26, she joined legions of young women like her who came to the New York region to find work as au pairs. It is a relatively safe rite of passage for young people trying to learn about the wider world before settling down. She found work in the leafy suburb of Maplewood, New Jersey, caring for the two small daughters of a comedy-club owner.

An affair and a double murder

But her adventure abroad took a tragic turn when she enrolled in an English-language course and met a young man named Joshua Porter.

She did not consider their affair to be a serious relationship, but he did, and over time he turned increasingly possessive and jealous, her friends said. When she finally tried to break up with him, he showed up before dawn at the house where she worked. He had a key.

He first turned his rage toward her employer, David Kimowitz, fatally stabbing him on the second floor, the police said. Then he killed Bermudez as she fled down the street.

The horror of the double murder reverberated through Maplewood, a picturesque town of 25,000 people 20 miles west of New York City, where it is common to see scores of young au pairs walking children up and down the streets. Their sense of safety has been shattered.

"The world is scary right now," the Rev. Janice Lynn told a couple hundred au pairs who had gathered at Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church to mourn Bermudez. "And we know that you are far from home, away from parents and family. There are times when we don't understand why things are happening."

Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez police search
An investigator searches the bushes of a home near the scene where Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez, an au pair, and her employer, David Kimowitz, were murdered, in Maplewood, N.J., August 4, 2019. Image Credit: The New York Times

Leaving a promising life in Bogota

Before moving to Maplewood in April 2018, Bermudez had a promising life in Bogota. She studied international business at Universidad Santo Tomas in the Colombian capital and had gone into marketing. And she was pondering a marriage proposal from a longtime boyfriend, Juan Guillermo Rivera.

But friends said she felt she had lived a sheltered life and was not ready to start a family. Even Rivera, whom she had known since they were teenagers, supported the idea of her traveling and spending some time apart from him, perhaps dating others, before making the final commitment to build a home together.

"As the song says, 'If you love her, let her be, if you love her, let her fly,' " said Rivera, 29, a project manager at an advertising company. "She decided she wanted to do this trip and I always supported her."

Soon after arriving in the United States, Bermudez began working with Au Pair Care, a company that matched her with the Kimowitzes. Like most clients, the family asked her to live with them while she cared for their two young daughters. Her plan was to stay in Maplewood for at least a year, improve her English and find time to travel, her friends said.

"This was the first time that she was by herself," a family friend, Natalia Garcia Barroso, said.

Au pair in an English language class

Porter, the son of a Brazilian woman and an American Marine, first caught Bermudez's eye in an English-language class they were both taking. Though she was not looking for a serious relationship, she began dating him.

Early on, Bermudez noticed red flags suggesting Porter, 27, was manipulative and controlling, her friends said. They had only been dating for two months when he asked her to marry him, even though he still lived in his mother's apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Padilla, her college friend, said.

Porter would also go through Bermudez's cellphone and would demand that she stay away from friends who liked to dance and drink, especially if they were Colombian, Padilla said. She said Porter had once told her friend, "Friends do not exist."

On a trip to Boston in February, she had a particularly bad fight with Mr. Porter, and she had called the police on him, Rivera said.

Padilla said she advised her friend to break up with him. Yet, Bermudez, who friends said often saw the best in people, continued to see him, staying occasionally at his mother's apartment. Fellow au pairs noticed similar obsessive patterns. Once, Bermudez had quarreled with Porter and was not speaking to him. He showed up unannounced at a bar where she had gone to have a drink with friends.

"She was like, 'How are you here? Who gave you the address? I didn't say where I was going,' " recalled one friend who was there, Barbara Mota, 22.

"He would do that often, appear out of nowhere," she added. "He was stalking her all the time."

Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez memorial 20190812
Mourners light candles during a memorial service for Karen Bermudez-Rodriguez at the Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J., Aug. 7, 2019. Image Credit: Bryan Anselm/The New York Times

Party, break-up and the murder

Even Porter's family viewed his feelings for Bermudez as toxic. "He was always suspicious of her," his older brother, Pablo Namor, said.

Porter's lawyer, Adrien Moncur, did not respond to messages from a reporter.

The Kimowitzes grew fond of Bermudez. In October, they allowed her relatives from Colombia to stay with them as they celebrated Bermudez's birthday. They also let her invite her fellow au pairs over for get-togethers during their time off.

The night before the murders, with Laura Kimowitz and the children out of town, Bermudez hosted a small party. She and a few other au pairs ate pepperoni pizza, sang and listened to Spanish-language songs in the living room while Kimowitz lounged upstairs.

Andrea Agudelo, who was there, said Bermudez was in an upbeat mood. She paid little attention to her phone, except to post a single video to Instagram. The fun ended at about 1 a.m. when the last of Bermudez's friends left, Agudelo, 20, said.

A half-hour later, Bermudez and Porter fought in an exchange of text messages, police said in an affidavit. She informed him she wanted him out of his life, and asked him to return the key he had to her employer's house. He was upset.

Four hours later, Porter used his key to enter the home on Walton Road, the document said.

The Kimowitzes did not know Porter had a key to the house, a friend of the family said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because publicity could negatively affect his career. Porter had attended a handful of the family's social events, the friend said, but when he came to pick Bermudez up he tended to wait for her outside in his car.

On the day of the murders, Porter first made his way upstairs, then picked up a knife and stabbed Kimowitz, he told the police, according to a court document. That knife was recovered near his body.

Porter then bound Bermudez's wrists with tape. She managed to free herself, ran out of the house and dashed down the street, the affidavit said. He caught up with her on Woodland Avenue and fatally stabbed her, using a different knife, the authorities said.

Later that morning, the authorities arrested Porter at Newark Liberty International Airport, where he was about to board an airplane headed to Cancun, MExico.

Porter will be arraigned Thursday on murder charges and has yet to enter a plea.

Remembering Kimowitz with laughter

So many people attended Kimowitz's funeral Wednesday at Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston, New Jersey, that the crowd spilled into the driveway.

The night before, two of his brothers and his widow had found themselves laughing hard as they remembered him, sitting next to his coffin in an empty funeral home, his younger brother said during a eulogy. It was fitting, he said, because Kimowitz, 40, had such a keen sense of humor.

"That's how he would want it to be," the brother, Rich Kimowitz, said. "I know he will never be physically with us again. But the smiles, laughter and memories will never fade."

David Kimowitz had managed comedians, who often became close friends. As one of the founders of the The Stand Restaurant and Comedy Club in Gramercy Park, he had also raised the standard for cuisine and cocktails at comedy venues. He had just reopened The Stand at a new location in Union Square.

The phone number of his wife, Laura, was saved on his cellphone as "the love of my life," and his two daughters were the beacons of his existence, Rich Kimowitz said.

Adam Kimowitz, Kimowitz's older brother, remembered in his eulogy talking with his brother about how to approach the delicate issue of death with their children.

"We talked about 'The Lion King,' " he said, his voice barely audible as he held back tears. "In 'The Lion King,' they would look at the stars and see the light looking down. And there is light everywhere."

Au pairs gather to share grief

Hours later in Maplewood, about 200 young women, most of them au pairs, gathered at the Morrow Church. Some wept as they stood next to a collage of photos of their beloved friend.

"She kind of acted like the mother of the au pairs," said Nikki Rodriguez, a Maplewood resident and representative of Au Pair Care. "If you were sad, she would bring you a piece of chocolate. If it was your birthday, she would celebrate it with you."

One photo showed Bermudez holding a glass of Champagne and smiling at the camera. In another, she's holding a Colombian flag. Then there was a photo her friend, Valeria Rodriguez, 27, took of her a year ago at the Brooklyn Bridge. She is smiling, turning to the camera, a hat tilted playfully on her head.

"She put that hat on and posed, because she loved taking photos," Rodriguez said. "That's how I am going to remember her, full of life."

Toward the end of the ceremony, the au pairs lit small white candles and brightened the otherwise somber room. They lifted their lights upward and bid one last farewell to their friend.

"Karen's light will be with you forever," Lynn, the reverend, said.