John Meredith Hodges had a new wife, four kids, a timber business and a comfortable life that allowed him to jet to South America to visit friends and vacation.

So why would he go halfway across the country to kill a woman revered for her kind works and gentle nature?

That is the question Overland Park (Kan.) police are trying to answer as they pursue a murder case against the 44-year-old Ladson man in the September slaying of Myrtle Beach pediatrician Franchesca Brown.

Hodges, 44, is being held in a Kansas jail after federal agents hauled him back from Colombia. It’s unclear if he is talking with investigators, who have said nothing about how Brown was killed or what a possible motive might be.

The case has puzzled Brown’s grief-stricken friends, who had never heard of Hodges. Likewise for Hodges’ family, who has no clue how he met Brown or why he supposedly followed her out to a medical conference in a Midwestern suburb 1,000 miles from his home, according to a former wife.

“There are just so many unanswered questions,” Jeanna Cheek, a close friend of Brown’s, said. “It’s just mortifying, a total loss of an absolutely fabulous person.”

Brown, 39, was a high-achieving young woman who graduated as valedictorian of her class at Myrtle Beach High School, served nine years in the Air Force and earned a medical degree at Duke University. Friends said she had a keen interest in helping underprivileged kids and fighting childhood obesity.

For years, she worked as a pediatrician at the Brunswick County (N.C.) Health Department by day and made house calls at night to Myrtle Beach hotels to tend to sick children in need of care. She had traveled to Haiti to help after the 2010 earthquake and most recently had settled into a job caring for children at Community Health Partners in Conway, friends said.

“She was very interested in trying to work with children who may have been neglected and had fallen through the cracks,” said Fred Michael, the health department’s assistant director. “She was just excellent at relating to their needs. She was very dedicated.”

Missing in action

Cheek worked with Brown at the health department and the pair became close friends. They stayed in touch after Brown left and the doctor attended Cheek’s wedding in July. They texted often, most recently on Sept. 2, when Brown mentioned she was in Kansas for a medical conference. Everything seemed fine, Cheek said.

The following day, Brown attended a meet-and-greet session for the conference at Hawthorn Suites, a hotel not far from the city’s regional medical center. She showed up in the company of a man. Then, she simply disappeared, Overland Park police said.

Her mother reported her missing after Brown failed to return home, as planned, to Myrtle Beach on Sept. 8. Overland Park police said they checked the hotel, but no one there had seen Brown since the Sept. 3 reception.

Three days later, on Sept. 12, detectives discovered Brown’s body in woods near the hotel.

The investigation soon turned to Hodges, a man whom detectives said had an on-again, off-again relationship with Brown, said Gary Mason, Overland Park police public information officer. Investigators also determined that Brown might have invited Hodges to meet her at the conference, he said.

Back home, however, Brown’s friends had no idea who Hodges was. Brown had always been private about her love life, but no one at the funeral seemed to have any inkling who this guy was, Cheek said.

Hodges’ family had a similar reaction, according to his ex-wife, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used. “We’d never heard her name before,” she said.

A clean record

Hodges grew up in Virginia and worked in the timber business most of his life, negotiating sales of woodlands. He fathered four children and opened his own business, Tuckahoe Timber, but the company went belly-up in the mid-2000s, according to court records.

Hodges declared bankruptcy in 2005, saddled with $1.5 million in debt and only $367,000 in assets to pay them off, records show. He shuttered his business, got divorced and moved to the Lowcountry, where he started a new timber company, said his former wife, who is the mother of one of his children.

Hodges lived for a time at a waterfront apartment in a gated complex off Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. Then, in December, he married a 40-year-old native of South America, according to county records. When arrested, he listed his address as a home in the Tranquil Hills subdivision of Ladson, in Dorchester County.

He and his new wife reportedly had separated by the time of his arrest, but she won’t say why. She said he had moved to Colombia, a country where he had friends and connections, but she has been told by authorities not to say more about his activities there.

Police would only say that Hodges had interests in the South American country, and it was not uncommon for him to travel to Colombia.

That’s where investigators found him after Brown’s murder. He had flown there from Kansas City. The FBI and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration helped secure a federal fugitive warrant for Hodges, and Colombian authorities took him into custody, authorities announced at a Sept. 17 press conference.

Hodges, who has no prior criminal record, was brought back to Kansas and made his first court appearance on Sept. 20. He remains locked up in the Johnson County (Kan.) jail on a charge of first-degree murder.

He’s also charged with eight counts of identity theft, one charge of a computer crime and two counts of credit-card fraud. Authorities told the Kansas City Star those charges are related to the use of Brown’s identity.

The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office refused last week to answer additional questions about the crimes, and Hodges’ public defender did not return a call from The Post and Courier seeking comment.

Hodges’ wife insists she still loves him and that he is “a great man” who seems incapable of such a crime. His ex-wife expressed similar sentiments and said Hodges’ family is at a loss to explain the disturbing series of events.

“He is not a violent person,” she said. “We feel horrible for the family of Dr. Brown. But I don’t know what happened. No one does.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.