Police in Costa Rica said Wednesday that the brutal killing and burial of a South Florida woman visiting the country may have been sexually motivated and that the suspect in her mysterious disappearance may soon face a murder charge.
In one of her last messages back home, Carla Stefaniak, a 36-year-old insurance agent from Hallandale Beach, commented on the “sketchy” atmosphere at her rented Airbnb apartment in a secluded suburb just outside San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.
It was stormy, the power went out and during a Facetime call between her and a friend, Stefaniak mentioned asking a security guard to buy her some water, according to a timeline of her final day in Costa Rica provided to NBC News.
After arriving in the country on Nov. 22, she was last heard from on the night of Nov. 27 and did not board a scheduled flight to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport the following day.
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Her partially nude body was found Monday with a broken neck and stab wounds, ABC News reported. She had been partially buried and wrapped in plastic about 1,000 feet from where she was staying. The advanced decomposition of her body indicated her death took place several days before, Costa Rican authorities said Wednesday.
Carlos Caicedo, Stefaniak’s father, told WFTS-TV in Tampa that he believes his daughter had been trying to defend herself and that her struggle was lengthy. He identified his daughter’s body in the Costa Rican morgue on Tuesday evening.
“I guess that Carla fought,” he said. “[They] cut the jugular and then [attacked] the head after.”
Autopsy results showed Stefaniak died from injuries to the “neck, head and extremities,” and also indicated she was injured by some type of weapon, said Walter Espinoza, director of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department, also known as OIJ. He noted the case still remains under investigation and that the FBI is also investigating.
Police on Monday night brought into custody Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, a 32-year-old security guard at the apartment complex where Stefaniak had stayed. He became a prime suspect after giving contradictory statements to police about when he last saw her.
“He presented many contradictions,” said Espinoza of the OIJ. “As of that moment, he became a suspect.”
Marco Peraza, a criminal analyst with the OIJ, said Wednesday that Martinez may soon face a murder charge. He has not been officially charged, but is being detained.
“He was detained as a suspect, and he was handed over to the Public Ministry with a report,” he said. “The Public Ministry will present charges to the tribunals.’’
The authorities will likely hold him up to three months, at which point he could be formally charged, Peraza said.
Investigators will conduct further tests to confirm their theory that the crime was sexually motivated, said Espinoza of Costa Rica’s justice department.
The body was found near her apartment rental, Villa Buena Vista, in a wooded area of San Jose’s remote Escazu suburb. Espinoza said the rural crime scene made the investigation more difficult. Police have yet to locate Stefaniak’s baggage or other belongings.
“We established that in the apartment she was living in there were trails of blood,” Espinoza said Wednesday, explaining how the search-and-rescue mission became a homicide investigation. “And that signified an act of violence. .. We have identified a suspect, who is [now] in preventative detention.”
Airbnb has removed the entire apartment complex, known as Villa Le Mas, from its listing, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Stefaniak, who worked in a Dania Beach insurance agency, was celebrating her birthday in Costa Rica with her sister-in-law, April Burton. She dropped Burton off at the airport in Costa Rica on Nov. 27 and planned to fly out the following day, her birthday.
But she never arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and her birthday text messages and Facebook posts went unanswered.
Since her disappearance, thousands of people gathered online to help find her; the hashtag #FindingCarla began to circulate.
“It’s now official,” began a Facebook post published Wednesday on the Finding Carla profile set up by her loved ones. “Words cannot express the devastation within her family and friends. We want the world to know that we will never forget Carla. 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.”
Her friends and family said they would remember her infectious sense of humor.
“As much as I want to cry, I just can’t help but laugh,” said longtime friend Greg Zwolinski in the WFTS-TV interview. “She just infected me with laughter always. It doesn’t matter how bad my day was.”
Stefaniak, who emigrated from Venezuela to Tampa in 2000, moved to South Florida in 2012.
She was a traveler who enjoyed posting photos of her excursions. She visited Iceland, Switzerland and Rock City Gardens in Georgia, but always made her way home. Stefaniak’s final post on Instagram — a photo of her posing poolside in a bikini — came on Nov. 25.
“I’m going to miss the place,” she wrote.