CHARLOTTE, NC (Théoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - Mirjana Puhar had dreams of becoming a model, of becoming an actress, of finding happiness, success and love in a big city.
New York, or LA? She felt sure that a modeling agency from one of those two hotspots would come calling, that she'd be leaving Charlotte as soon as possible.
But despite earning a modicum of fame after appearing on the most recent edition of reality-TV hit "America's Next Top Model" late last year, the young model apparently never got the offer she was looking for. And despite her and her Serbian-refugee family's repeated attempts to permanently escape bad situations and influences, the worst kind of trouble found her.
On Tuesday, the bodies of Puhar, Jonathan Cosme Alvarado and Jusmar Isiah Gonzaga-Garcia were found in a one-story home on Norris Avenue a mile north of uptown. Police have not said how or when the three were killed but believe the killings were drug-related. Puhar was 19.
Emmanuel Rangel, who is charged in the three killings, is scheduled to make his first appearance at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on Friday.
When Puhar was interviewed by the Observer last August at the offices of WCCB Charlotte – the local affiliate for The CW, which airs "America's Next Top Model" – she indicated that her teenage past was checkered without getting into specifics.
She said she was a good kid through middle school but started running into more trouble after that.
"I was a wild child," Puhar said. "I wanted to make a name for myself … and didn't make the best name.
"I didn't really have the best influences around me. We used to skip school all the time, got into fights here and there."
Puhar attended East Mecklenburg and Queen's Grant high schools but dropped out when she was 16, during the middle of her sophomore year. Initially, her parents weren't aware of her decision, she says, and when they found out, "they were pretty mad about it. They knew it was because of the friends that I chose to be around."
She said within a year, she realized she had made a mistake. "I was like, 'Aw, man, I don't really want to go down this road.'"
So she started distancing herself from her high school friends, and after she turned 18, she enrolled in a GED program at Central Piedmont Community College. By the fall of 2013, Puhar had earned her diploma.
From refugee to reality TV
Puhar was born in Sremska Mitrovica – a city of less than 40,000 people in the Vojvodina province of Serbia – and she spent the first few years of her life with parents who lived in constant fear, as the Kosovo War raged around them.
After the conflict ended, her family fled Serbia when she was about 5. She told the Observer that when they arrived in New York as refugees, "they didn't really have anything. My dad came with like $50." A few years later, Puhar's parents moved Mirjana and her younger brother to Charlotte, where her father now works as an electrician.
She started dabbling in modeling at age 12 but didn't get serious about it until she was 17. She signed up briefly with local branches of modeling schools Barbizon and John Casablancas to get an introduction to photo shoots and runways. She also was able to get some experience during Charlotte Fashion Week.
None of the work was significant. A big break didn't seem imminent. She earned spending money by working various part-time jobs: Guess, Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, McDonald's.
"I always told myself, 'If I don't make anything happen out of my modeling career, then I'm gonna go on 'America's Next Top Model' when I turn 18,'" Puhar said last summer.
So as soon as she turned 18 – on July 27, 2013 – she filled out an application for the show on The CW's website. She was asked to submit photographs, which led to her being invited to do an interview via Skype, which led to a flight to Los Angeles to meet with the casting department.
"The casting director loved me," Puhar said. "She was like, 'Yeah, you've got 'It.'"
She hid all of it from her parents, she said, until the last minute.
"They were like, 'You're doing what?' I was like, 'Yeah, I'm leaving in two days.'"
In the spotlight
When "America's Next Top Model's" 21st cycle premiered on Aug. 18, Puhar was introduced as the youngest of the show's 14 new contestants: She was still 18 during filming, which took place between February and April of 2014.
As the show unfolded, the main thing producers focused on when it came to Puhar was a tumultuous romance she developed with another contestant, Denzel Wells of Houston. This was depicted as scandalous because Puhar had a boyfriend back home; it was not made clear by the show what that boyfriend's name was.
She also was shown to have a quick temper. Her relationship with Wells was on and off, and arguments between the two often became heated. At one point during an intense disagreement with contestant Raelia Lewis of Philadephia, Puhar became so angry she threw a middle finger in Lewis' face.
Puhar made it to the halfway point of the season but finished eighth after being eliminated on an episode that aired Oct. 20.
On Thursday, Tyra Banks, a supermodel and the producer of "America's Next Top Model," tweeted: "The Top Model family is deeply saddened by the tragic news of Mirjana Puhar. We love you, Mirjana. Forever."
During her interview with the Observer, Puhar hinted that she was concerned what the media might uncover and publish about her during the show's run.
"I like attention … it's just gonna be a different type of attention now," she said. "Everybody's probably gonna try to dabble into my personal life, and that's one thing that I'm probably not gonna like."
Puhar did not elaborate on the types of things she was worried about. She doesn't have a criminal record.
In regards to Wells, she was nonchalant and noncommittal last August but seemed to be leaving a door open: "We still keep in touch. … It's just very long distance, so I don't think we want to partake in that. But if I move to LA and he moves to LA, we're definitely gonna make something happen; if I move to New York and he moves to New York, then we're definitely gonna make something happen."
'Ready to get up out of here'
On Thursday morning, Puhar's family had gathered at her parents' home off Sharon Amity Road in east Charlotte to mourn.
A woman who answered the door and identified herself as a family member declined to comment, saying only: "We're not ready."
On Wednesday afternoon, Puhar's friend Belle Sansone told the Observer that the last time she had seen Puhar was about a month ago.
"She was happy," recalls Sansone, who had done styling work for Puhar and had put together outfits for her for "Top Model." "She seemed really happy. She seemed good. I guess that's why it's all the more shocking."
Sansone didn't know whether her friend had gotten close to leaving Charlotte.
She was sitting next to Puhar last August during the interview, when the young model swore she would be leaving the city as soon as possible.
"Not to sound very cocky, but I feel like I'm a big fish in a little pond," she said. "I mean, I'm ready to get up out of here. It's nice, it's fun, it's a family city, that's a great thing about it. But as for I want to do with my career, it's definitely gonna have to be LA or New York.
"I'm kind of just going with the flow right now," she continued. "I met with a couple of agencies before I went on the show, and they're definitely trying to sign me more now."
She said she wasn't worried about the past. That the worst was behind her. That she had no regrets about what she'd done or the way she lived.
"I think everything happens for a reason," Puhar said. "Everything is meant to happen the way it's been happening."