It has been three years since Valerie de la Valdene, a 47-year-old Palm Beach native and underwater film-maker, met an ugly death on one of the world’s most beautiful islands: the Galapagos.
In the ensuing years, her father, Tallahassee-based author and naturalist Guy de la Valdene, has been trying to solve the riddle of her demise. He’s convinced his daughter was murdered, even as local officials initially ruled her death a suicide.
But as the case has dragged on with little progress, Guy says he’s found himself focused on a more heartbreaking task: recovering his daughter’s head.
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As part of the ongoing investigation, Valerie was exhumed from the Galapagos cemetery in 2015 and her skull was sent to the nation’s criminal investigation lab in Quito. And although the forensic analysis is thought to have been complete for some time, the evidence has been stuck in limbo.
As he marked the third anniversary of Valerie’s death this week, Guy Valdene, 73, said recovering her skull has slowly taken precedence over solving her murder.
“Her full body is in the Galapagos at a very pretty site,” he said. “And right now I’m focused on moving her head back there.... I’m not giving up on Valerie’s case, but right now I don’t think there’s anything more I can do.”
The investigation into Valerie’s death has been contentious from the start.
On July 5, 2014, local police found her body in the three-story home she rented in Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ buzzing port town. There was a small revolver and cell phone by her side, and a single .22 -bullet hole in her temple.
The death of the longtime resident who was known to be battling bipolar disorder was quickly ruled a suicide. The chief investigator at the time, Eduardo Sanchez, said he found no signs of foul play.
“I was there at the scene,” he told the Miami Herald in 2014. “There was no evidence of a robbery and nothing was missing. What I did see was a lot of alcohol, a lot of bottles.”
But the police report also found that Valerie’s safe was open and empty except for a few electronics. There was also a broken string of pearls by her body, as if there had been a struggle.
The most damning evidence, her family believes, was that a single bullet entered the left side of her head, but a paraffin test found no gunshot residue on her dominant left hand. Her right hand had trace amounts of gunpowder.
At the time, her father said she would have had to have been a “contortionist to reach over her head and shoot herself with her right hand.”
Since then, a private investigator has filled in pieces of the puzzle. Valerie had been repeatedly robbed on the island and had filed charges against two men. There were also indications that Valerie, who rubbed elbows with the island’s hard-partying jet-set, might have had evidence linking local officials to drug dealing.
Paulette Ocampos, one of Guy de la Valdene’s attorneys, said there are multiple reasons to keep the case open. There’s the issue of Valerie’s dominant hand and the gunshot trajectory, as well as several witnesses who are willing to testify that she was being threatened in the days leading up to her death.
“There is some compelling evidence that has not been considered” by the courts, she said.
Asked why Valerie’s death was so quickly ruled a suicide, she said the case is politically sensitive on an island that depends on its reputation as a nature-lover’s paradise to keep tourists flowing.
“There were a lot of important people — congressmen, mayors — who wanted this case closed quickly,” she said.
Ocampos and her law firm have also been trying to help recover Valerie’s head. She said that when her team had all the paperwork together for the transfer of the evidence, it came to light that Valerie was married to a Galapagos local who was almost 30 years her senior. That marriage, according to her family, was one of convenience: a way for her to travel to and from the sparsely populated islands without being hassled by immigration officials.
And it’s her husband who has been refusing to allow Valerie’s skull to be released from police custody. The Miami Herald attempted to reach him through his caretakers, but he declined to be interviewed.
Patrick Smith, a Tallahassee-based author, is working on Valerie’s biography. Although the book will touch on her death, it’s mostly focused on the extraordinary life she led.
Along with her ex-husband, underwater photographer Douglas Seifert, Valerie traveled the globe documenting marine life and becoming a fierce advocate for shark conservation. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2007.
In the mid 2000s she settled in the Galapagos, a marine reserve that inspired Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection and evolution. There, she continued to dive and ran a culinary school for the island’s children.
“Her passion for the ocean, and for getting people involved in conservation efforts and raising awareness, was something she carried with her through her entire adult life, all over the world,” Smith said. “She experienced enough to fill two lives.”
Guy de la Valdene says he hasn’t given up hope that the case will be solved. His son will be traveling to the Galapagos in the coming weeks, hoping new leads might open up — or that he might get permission to recover Valerie’s skull.
“We just want to show that we are still interested and still doing something,” De la Valdene said. “Maybe something will break open.”
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