INSIDE STORY: Jasmine Fiore's Life and Tragic End

08/25/2009 at 08:30 AM EDT

INSIDE STORY: Jasmine Fiore's Life and Tragic End
Jasmine Fiore and Ryan Jenkins
Paul Hawthorne/Getty; AP
She was known for her looks and various modeling gigs, but to close friends and family Jasmine Fiore was a small town girl with a love for nature and animals, a strong work ethic and a warm personality.

The bikini model's dreams of stepping away from the spotlight and working in real estate and as a personal trainer ended abruptly after her mutilated body was found stuffed in a suitcase in a trash bin in Buena Park, Calif., on Aug. 15. Her husband, Ryan Jenkins, was charged with her murder on Aug. 20 and killed himself days later while police mounted an international manhunt.

But before the photo shoots and Playboy party appearances, Fiore, 28, was a girl from Bonny Doon, Calif., where she rode horses and bagged groceries at the local market. "People would always say how kind and friendly she was," family friend Gwendolyn Beauregard tells PEOPLE. "She had a quality that a lot of people don't have ... a sincerity."

Others remembered Fiore as the tomboy in school with wild, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail who liked to rub charcoal under her eyes when she played football with the boys.

Heads to the Big City

Raised by a single mother (her parents divorced when she was 8), Fiore's decision to leave her hometown – where she enjoyed sailing boats and riding motorcycles – for a modeling career came with some trepidation. "She started out nervous and wary of the big city," says pal Lawrence Azzaro, whom Fiore called "Uncle Larry."

But Fiore went on to book jobs in Las Vegas, where she modeled for restaurant ads and worked as a swimsuit model. It was at a Hawaiian Tropic party last March that she met Jenkins, 32, a Calgary native who ran a construction company and had been a contestant on two VH1 reality shows, Megan Wants a Millionaire and I Love Money 3.

A Volatile Marriage

The two soon wed, forming a five-month union that friends say was volatile and tumultuous. According to Beauregard, Fiore told her mom she had married Jenkins, a Canadian citizen, so he could obtain a green card. "[Jasmine] said he was very controlling and [the relationship] didn't work out," recalls Beauregard.

On one occasion, Fiore's former fiancé, Travis Heinrich, told PEOPLE he saw Jenkins – who had a history of domestic violence and attended court-ordered counseling – "punch her in the arm with enough force to push her into a pool." Jenkins was charged with a misdemeanor for the attack and had an upcoming court date in December.

Fiore's mother, Lisa Lepore, a ceramic artist, believes Jenkins was attracted to the rewards of Jasmine's hard work. "He was desperate to glom onto my daughter because everything my daughter had was for real: She earned her car, she earned her penthouse apartment," says Lepore, who lives in Maui. "Everybody loved this girl, whether they were movie stars or producers or the garbage collectors at the apartment complex."

Fiore had doubts about the relationship from the start, but Heinrich said she just didn't know how to tell Jenkins that "they were done." "She said, 'I'm in over my head' and 'I don't know how I can get out,' " he added.

Now family and friends try to move on without their beloved tomboy and without the answers they had hoped to get from Jenkins.

"In my opinion, we have lessened our time of suffering," Beauregard tells PEOPLE. "Ryan did us a favor by taking his life. I am saddened and relieved at the same time."

Reporting by HOWARD BREUER and MARK GRAY

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