The lonely, divorced carpenter thought he was going to Brazil to make wedding plans. Instead, he was drugged and held captive for days at...

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SAN BRUNO, Calif. — The lonely, divorced carpenter thought he was going to Brazil to make wedding plans.

Instead, he was drugged and held captive for days at his fiancée’s home while she and another man emptied his bank accounts, Brazilian authorities said. Then the fiancée and two other men drove the 56-year-old victim to a vacant lot, where they strangled him with copper wire, doused his body with fuel and set it on fire, investigators said.

Authorities found Raymond Merrill’s charred body in April.

Now, the woman he believed was his betrothed is under arrest, along with a man suspected of helping kill him.

“He would talk to me about ideal relationships and pure love,” said Merrill’s best friend, Bill Rauch. “With age doesn’t necessarily come wisdom.”

For months, his family knew nothing of his horrifying end. It was only after a bungled robbery in Brazil that investigators learned of Merrill’s fate.

Merrill met Regina Filomena Rachid last year through an online-dating service. At the time, he was depressed, having been dumped by a woman for whom he had bought expensive gifts, according to Rauch.

Merrill and Rachid, 41, exchanged dozens of calls, e-mails and photographs, often enlisting Rachid’s 18-year-old daughter as a translator.

“I thought, ‘This is going a little fast,’ but I didn’t want to sound critical,” said Merrill’s sister, Marcia Sanchez Loebick.

The warning signs were obvious to Merrill’s friend of nearly 30 years. Merrill gave Rachid $10,000 to start a skin-care clinic and bought her a $20,000 sport-utility vehicle. She complained it wasn’t a fancier model, Rauch said.

“This from a man who was tightfisted,” Rauch said. “Ray and I would go out and I’d have to buy all the beers. All of a sudden, he’s lavishing all these gifts and money on a relationship he’s not even close to consummating.”

Merrill visited Rachid twice in São José dos Campos, a city about 60 miles from São Paulo. Both times he stayed a week longer than planned. Both times he notified Rauch, who drove to Merrill’s home in San Bruno to water the plants and collect the mail. On the third trip, Merrill again overstayed his return, but this time he didn’t call.

Loebick, who lives in Cleveland, said she sent her brother repeated e-mails warning him that their 86-year-old father was dying but got no response. She called police in California to report him missing.

What happened to Merrill was more awful than either Loebick or Rauch could have imagined.

After Merrill arrived March 21, Rachid and her real boyfriend, Nelson Siqueira Neves, at some point drugged Merrill, kept him in a room in Rachid’s house and drained his bank accounts, stealing about $200,000, according to Merrill’s sister and Brazilian authorities.

On April 1 — the day he was scheduled to return to California — Rachid and her boyfriend hired Evandro Celso Augusto Ribeiro for $5,600 to help kill Merrill and set fire to the corpse, investigators said. Authorities found the scorched remains but could not identify the victim and buried the body in a pauper’s grave.

But Rachid — to raise money to pay off the hit man — took part in the holdup of a black-market money changer and accidentally left her purse behind, investigators said.

The money changer went to police and turned over the purse, which contained Merrill’s credit card. Hours later, Rachid showed up at the same police station to report her purse stolen. Police arrested her. The alleged hit man soon told authorities what happened to Merrill, investigators said.

Rachid and Ribeiro are in custody, charged with armed robbery followed by death.

Rachid’s boyfriend was questioned and released in early October. Now he cannot be found.

Kim Curtis reported from San Bruno and Stan Lehman reported from São Paulo.