When Carla Stefaniak went online to check the availability of vacation apartments in Costa Rica, the South Florida resident was looking forward to some time away from the daily routine of her life. She found the perfect apartment in San Jose and couldn’t wait to board that flight and start her vacation.
The vacation was twofold as it was also Stefaniak’s birthday. She and her sister-in-law April Burton were planning to party hard in Costa Rica, but when Stefaniak missed her flight back to the US, her family launched an aggressive social media campaign to locate her.
The way the flights worked out, April left Costa Rica the day before Carla and flew back home to Florida. On the night before Stefaniak’s flight, she took an Uber downtown and was dropped off at her AirBnB apartment in San Jose. As soon as she got back, she FaceTimed a friend and told him she was thirsty.
Bottle of Water
She told the friend during the call that she needed some water as soon as possible. “‘I’m just gonna go ask the guards to buy me a bottle of water,” she said. At that point, the phone went dead, and that was the last time anyone heard from Stefaniak. No one heard from her from that point on.
When Stefaniak’s phone went silent for the next few hours, her parents contacted the place where she was staying and spoke to the security guard there. He informed them that Stefaniak had checked out at around 5 am, but family members knew this didn’t make any sense. Her flight was much later in the day and there’s no way she’d have taken a cab to the airport so early.
Having not received satisfactory answers from the security guard and the owner of the AirBnB, Stefaniak’s family took to Facebook to express their concern. According to a Fox News report, the family posted a message with the caption: “Carla Stefaniak’s life is in imminent danger,” adding, “The local officials and U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica will not pursue the matter because they feel she was rational at the time of her disappearance and got into a taxi of her own free will.”
Just one day later and Stefaniak’s brother flew to Costa Rica to try and find his sister. The family had already introduced the hashtag #FindingCarla on social media, but there was still no comment from the US Embassy in Costa Rica. But then, authorities found a woman’s body just 200 yards from the AirBnB where Stefaniak had been staying.
According to ABC, a woman’s body was found near to the Airbnb, and that body turned out to be Stefaniak’s. Walter Espinoza, the director general of the Judicial Investigation Agency, the law enforcement agency tasked with investigating her disappearance, told reporters, “The body was in a state of decomposition, but the preliminary observation does verify the body is a woman.”
Cause of Death
Having identified the body as that of Carla Stefaniak, authorities in Costa Rica also confirmed that the cause of death was head trauma. Espinoza confirmed that the security guard from the complex had been taken into custody, having been implicated in the death of the American tourist. However, she still hadn’t been identified by her family.
Meanwhile, the Stefaniak family released a statement via the AP, saying: “Words cannot express the devastation within her family and friends. We want the world to know that we will never forget Carla,” they wrote. “We will never forget the joy she brought into our lives, how much she made us laugh. We will always be with her, and we know she will always be with us. May God bless her soul.”
According to the police, the crime was sexually motivated and was allegedly carried out by the security guard but possibly by other people too. The guard, Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, lived in the apartment next door to Stefaniak and became a person of interest to the police after he gave conflicting accounts about when he last saw Stefaniak.
While Stefaniak was found partially naked and wrapped in plastic bags, she was also found to have additional injuries on her body. She showed signs of trauma to her head, neck, and limbs, and was in a pretty bad state when police dogs located her. “The person detained for the homicide was near her, had chances to commit the act and became a suspect through all our investigation,” said Espinoza.
The murder is made even worse by the fact that the victim was in Costa Rica celebrating her 36th birthday. “You can’t imagine what we are feeling,” said Carlos Caicedo, Stefaniak’s father. “Her mom is absolutely devastated. She can’t speak.” The victim’s brother, Mario, also spoke to reporters about the family’s shock, saying they were devastated by the incident.
According to the family, the authorities handling the investigation in Costa Rica are less than competent. Even identifying the body was an issue initially. “It’s like a roller coaster. Why don’t you let the father and the brother that are there to confirm if it’s her or not?” said family friend Delia Andronache. “You cannot just blast on the news the fact that it’s her, the fact that you think it’s her if you don’t have confirmation from the family. This is heartbreaking for us. Is it really her or is it not her?”
It wasn’t her fault it was just the way the flights worked out, but April Burton was left feeling guilty about leaving Carla in Costa Rica. “I do feel guilty because I left earlier,” said Burton. “Six o’clock, still haven’t heard from her,” she said. “Even if she was in immigration, she would have made it to the tarmac; she would have service. She would have texted somebody; she would have done something. She checked in for the flight, but she never got on the plane.” Even before the body was officially identified the family had a feeling it was Carla.
Investigators were able to point the finger of blame at Martinez as Stefaniak’s blood was found in her room, and his. The fact he told authorities that he had seen her entering an Uber in the early hours was soon revealed to be a lie, and Uber had no record of such a call from that location at that time.
The victim realized she was staying in a sketchy part of town and even confirmed as much to Burton when she texted her the night before she died. There had been heavy rain on that night, and a power outage also hit and lasted for a while. However, the security team and the owner of the apartment seemed to be decent people, and that made the explanation of the events that night even harder to determine.
According to the victim’s father, according to the pictures he saw that were taken by detectives at the scene of the murder, his daughter “fought” her killer or killers hard. He also surmised that the struggle was a long one and that Carla had put up a good fight to save her own life, even if she was tragically murdered in the end.
As so few answers have been forthcoming to date, the family took once again to Facebook to inform the public that Carla was most likely killed by more than just one man. “The results of the forensic examinations lead investigators to believe that more people are involved in the murder,” they posted. They also added that they “Believed since day one that this was organized by more than one person, as soon as Carla booked the place.”
Whether Martinez acted alone or with others, it’s clear that he tried to cover up the murder. The victim’s belongings were found not far from the apartment, as family friend Greg Zwolinski said. The items were found “A good distance away, through mountainous and thick terrain,” he said. “And then the crime scene was cleaned up before the next guard came on shift.”
Neither Zwolinski nor Stefaniak’s brother knew that the guard they had met and shaken hands with in Costa Rica was none other than the man who is accused of murdering Carla. “We went to the Airbnb, and we met the owner, and we met her killer,” Zwolinski explained. “We shook his hand and looked him in the eye, and did a tour of the property, and looked at her room, which later we found out was the crime scene.”
It took just 48 until that guard was in custody as the prime suspect in the murder of Carla Stefaniak. Zwolinski even said they had no inkling that the guard was guilty when they met him. “We did not get that vibe. We talked about it many times, but we did not get a creepy vibe from him,” he said. “He shook our hand, he seemed to be cooperative at the time, he was very nice.” For now, Martinez is in custody pending prosecution for the brutal murder of Stefaniak.