Alexis Cruz says he found his girlfriend dead in their Manassas home Aug. 25, hanging by a rope around her neck. A suicide note was found near her body. Case closed.

Now Prince William County police aren't so sure.

The next day, a medical examiner conducting an autopsy determined that Nerida Rosa Garcia, a 23-year-old Honduran hairstylist, appeared to have been strangled, according to search warrants filed in Prince William Circuit Court. And the handwriting in the note did not match Garcia's.

"Based on the information received from the Medical Examiner and inconsistencies of the letter, it is believed that Garcia was murdered," Prince William police Detective Neil L. Miller wrote in a search warrant filed this month.

Garcia's death is still being considered a suicide but the investigation remains active, police spokesman John Bogert said yesterday.

"It's a strange one. . . . It's not a run-of-the-mill kind of case," Bogert said. "This is extremely rare. I can't think of the last time we had a staged suicide that might come out to be a homicide."

Bogert said investigators are waiting for an in-depth review of Garcia's injuries and are sifting through evidence, including two computers seized from her home in the 7900 block of Deward Court, where she lived with Cruz.

"It was shocking. I couldn't believe it," said Cruz, a construction worker, who said he discovered her body. "I still don't get it. It makes me feel life is unfair because we wanted to be together. We loved each other."

Cruz said he found Garcia hanging by a rope when he came home from work and called police. He said that police let him read the suicide note once and that he could not recall what was written.

According to an affidavit for the search warrant, "Garcia sustained injuries that are not consistent with hanging, but that of manual strangulation and assault by force."

Bogert said police cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.

William Whildin, a medical examiner with Virginia's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said that, in general, staged hangings that turn out to be homicides can show telltale clues of strangulation: bruises around the neck and internal bruises.

"When you strangle someone, there's going to be some sort of fight, that's what you're looking for," he said. "How did he apply pressure and how did she fight back?"

Paul B. Ebert, Prince William's chief prosecutor, said he had not known about the case, but when shown the court records, he described the death as "extremely suspicious."

He said suicides that are later ruled homicides are rare but not unheard of. In fact, he said, he is acting as a special prosecutor assisting a grand jury investigating the death of a Greensville County, Va., man who was originally believed to have committed suicide five years ago after he was found fatally shot.

Cruz said his girlfriend had moved from Honduras a month ago to be with him. The couple met in the Central American country nearly two years ago because she lived next to his mother. "She was going to start working as a hairstylist," he said. "She was quiet. She was caring."

"I'm scared, actually. I can't talk much. The police are asking lots of questions," he said. "It is still shocking. I can't go to sleep at night."