JAMAICA — She was an aspiring interior designer whose smile could light up a room.
The family of Marisha Cheong remembered her on Monday as a bright, beautiful 24-year-old brunette bubbling with energy and planning to follow in her mother's footsteps of owning her own business.
"She liked to smile. Even people she didn't know, she always smiled at them," Cheong's mother, Bibi Ali, 46, said at her Long Island house.
Cheong vanished on Dec. 19 after leaving her Jamaica, Queens, home for class at Long Island University. Her family spent two frantic months searching for her, opening a Facebook page pleading for the public's help, while the police offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts.
The hope of a happy reunion ended Saturday morning, when Cheong's body was discovered floating in marshland in Breezy Point. She was dressed in pajamas with her legs and hands bound, her family said.
While Cheong's death remains a mystery, her family pointed the blame at her boyfriend of five years — the only person she ever dated — claiming he was too possessive. Police sources said they consider the boyfriend, L.J. Balkaran, a person of interest in her disappearance, but he has not been charged and was released from their custody after another round of questioning on Monday.
When asked to respond to Ali's comments, Balkaran said, "That's her opinion. We're going to find the person."
The somber, tearful Balkaran told DNAinfo.com New York that he wasn't involved in her death and he was still coming to terms with the fact that she's gone.
"I'm just trying to be as strong as I can at this moment," he said. "I'm still thinking she's gonna come through that the door."
Cheong and Balkaran had lived together for four years in his family's two-story duplex on a residential block.
The couple struggled to pay their bills, relying on Ali, who owns a beauty store, for money, tuition and a car.
Ali said she bought her daughter a car to get to class, but Balkaran — an aspiring Bollywood filmmaker — started using it for his part-time job making inter-office deliveries. The mom decided to cut them off two years ago.
"I said, 'I'm going to keep paying for college — nothing else,'" Ali said.
Cheong continued to study business management and wanted to put her future degree to good use.
"She wanted to start her own company, interior design," Balkaran said.
He said he had plans to propose to Cheong around New Year's and even picked out the spot to pop the question — her favorite restaurant, Sammy's Fish Box in City Island.
"She knew I was going to do it. She didn't know when," Balkaran said. "We were planning to have two kids."
Shortly before Cheong disappeared, she and Balkaran had set up a white Christmas tree for the holidays. Covered with purple and silver ornaments, and crowned with an angel in a flowing white gown, the tree still stands in the corner of their living room.
"I don't think I'll ever take it down," Balkaran said.
Additional reporting by Ben Fractenberg