Questions swirl around death of Florida native in the Galapagos

Valerie de la Valdene seemed larger than life. She was a heiress to a fortune and and a world-class underwater photographer. When her body was found in her home on the Galapagos islands, authorities ruled it a suicide. But friends and family say there’s more to the story.
Valerie de la Valdene seemed larger than life. She was a heiress to a fortune and and a world-class underwater photographer. When her body was found in her home on the Galapagos islands, authorities ruled it a suicide. But friends and family say there’s more to the story.

Valerie de la Valdene seemed driven to find — and defy — danger. As an underwater filmmaker and world traveler, she stuck her hand in sharks’ mouths, ran with the bulls in Spain and was the first to rush toward predatory wildlife during African safaris.

In 2004, television viewers got to witness her ability first hand during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. In a segment called “Primal Scream,” the Palm Beach native kept her camera rolling as she bobbed alone in the ocean amid a flurry of Galapagos sharks. The animals circled and rammed her repeatedly breaking a rib, but they never bit.

In interviews about the experience, she said she knew she was going to die and that the only thing she could do was film her demise. But the natural world seemed unwilling to kill her.

“She seemed like a person who had an angel on her shoulder that would get her out of what would have been certain doom for anyone else,” said Douglas Seifert, her ex-husband and an underwater photographer. “She always danced through it with a big smile on her face.”

That dance came to an abrupt end five months ago. On July 5, Police found de la Valdene’s body in the three-story home she rented in Puerto Ayora on the world-renowned Galapagos Islands. A small revolver and cell phone were by her side. There was a single .22-bullet hole in her temple.

It was a tragic end for someone who seemed to have it all. She was a globe-trotting heiress to a fortune, a world-class diver, and a conservationist living a naturalist’s dream inside the marine reserve that inspired Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection and evolution.

Ecuadorean authorities quickly ruled it a suicide and seemed anxious to move on. They painted a picture of an unstable 47-year-old taking her own life after heavy partying on July 4.

But now the case is being re-opened after her family and friends say there are compelling reasons to question the official story.

The crime scene seems to provide reason for doubt. According to police, the house appeared ransacked and de la Valdene’s safe was open and empty except for a few electronics. A broken string of pearls lay by her body.

Crime scene photographs show de la Valdene stretched on her back as if she was gazing at the ceiling. A single bullet entered her left temple, but a paraffin test found no gunshot residue on her dominant left hand. Her right hand had trace amounts of gunpowder.

For Guy de la Valdene, Valerie’s father and a Florida-based writer, hunter and documentary filmmaker, the evidence is damning.

“She would have to be a contortionist to reach over her head and shoot herself with her right hand,” he said. “What I do know is that she was killed that night. What we do know for a fact is that this was not a suicide.”

There also seemed to be motive. De la Valdene had been robbed repeatedly on the island and, in at least one instance, had been physically assaulted. She had filed charges against two men and also complained to authorities when she spotted one of them walking around the community. On the day of her death, she had been scheduled to re-testify to keep one of her assailants in jail. But that deposition was canceled at the last minute.

Eduardo Donoso, a close friend on the island, said de la Valdene told him two days before her death that she was being threatened and that she had shared her concerns with the police.

“There are many people here who simply can’t believe it was a suicide,” he said. “There are many reasons to suspect it might have been something else.”

But authorities on the Galapagos see it differently.

Eduardo Sanchez, the chief investigator on the case, said suicides are extremely rare on the island and homicides are almost unheard of. By some accounts there have only been two murders in the past 80 years. But he said there was no reason to suspect foul play in de la Valdene’s case.

“All the evidence shows that she was the one holding the gun,” he said. “This is, apparently, a case of suicide on Ms. Valerie’s part.”

He also disputes claims that she was robbed. The police report states that “furniture, appliances, clothes and household goods were in total disorder,” but Sanchez said it had not been ransacked. Instead, he contends, it looked like a party had been thrown.

“I was there at the scene,” he said. “There was no evidence of a robbery and nothing was missing. What I did see was a lot of alcohol, a lot of bottles.”

Asked about the gunpowder residue on her right hand, but not on her left, Sanchez said he could provide “no information” that wasn’t in the police report.

Although Sanchez said he believes the case is clear, he welcomed efforts to re-examine the evidence.

“The family still has doubts,” he said. “We don’t want to leave things in the air.”

The Galapagos seemed tailor made for de la Valdene. It was a place where she could fulfill three of her great passions: scuba diving, working with children and cooking. On the island she volunteered at a local school and tried to open students’ eyes to alternatives to fishing and shark finning. Using what she had learned studying under celebrity chef Mario Batali, she also taught cooking lessons.

In a 2007 interview with Larry King, she talked about her awe of the marine world that surrounded her.

“To see 10,000 hammerheads schooling above you is like seeing the stars in the most beautiful night you’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s beyond imagination. It’s beyond beauty. It’s beyond sensuality. It’s beyond everything that you can imagine in your entire life.”

It was in that world, beneath the waves, where she seemed most fulfilled.

Along with her ex-husband, de la Valdene traveled the world filming marine life, including the 1998 documentary “Hammerheads: Nomads of the Sea.” She used her celebrity status to promote shark conservation and was interviewed by Montel Williams and CNN, among others.

In 2007, she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

Although she had traveled to the Galapagos many times, she settled on the islands almost nine years ago.

When she wasn’t working, she supported herself thanks to a trust fund, which paid her about $7,000 to $8,000 a month, her father said. Along with all her personal accomplishments, De la Valdene was an heiress to the fortune of Henry Phipps, who was the accountant for steel-magnate Andrew Carnegie. Phipps’ Bessemer Trust has $97.5 billion under management and, along with handling the wealth of private investors, supports more than 100 of Phipps’ descendants, according to Forbes magazine.

But de la Valdene’s life on land seemed less graceful than beneath the sea. Her father said she struggled with bipolar disorder and when she was off her medication “it wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world.”

Several locals who did not wish to be named described her as a hardcore partier whose late-night revelry often had her brushing elbows with some of the island’s seedier characters. There was drugs and drama, they said.

John de la Valdene, Vaerie’s brother, said the traits that made her so fearless beneath the water didn’t serve her as well on land.

“When she stopped getting in the water she had to keep some kind of danger around her at all times,” he said. “Valerie just had to have adrenaline. She had to have some kind of excitement around her.”

Seifert, her ex-husband, said her giving nature sometimes bordered on recklessness.

“She was a very generous person — always giving other people her time and financial support regardless of whether they were on the level or not,” he said. “She was a great collector of strays whether it was stray animals or stray people.”

Pedro Valverde is one of de la Valdene’s close friends and convinced that she was murdered. He admits that she “liked to party” but he said there was no indication that she was depressed or on a bender at the time of her death. De la Valdene had plans to visit him in the mainland port city of Guayaquil on July 7 and then travel to her parent’s home near Tallahassee.

Valverde said that she had been laying off alcohol in the days leading up to her deposition and that she was eager to get off the island.

“She was tense and ready to leave the Galapagos,” he said. She was being threatened for her insistence on standing up to her attackers, he said. “Even the criminal prosecutor told her that she needed to leave because they might kill her,” he said.

Valverde shared an email he says de la Valdene sent him at 5 p.m. on July 4 — hours before her death.

“Where are you I keep calling and nothing,” it reads. “I want to go to Guayaquil and Canoa [where Valverde lives] call me please.”

To Valverde, the email is another sign that de la Valdene felt threatened — not suicidal.

The reason the police rushed to judgment, he speculated, is to preserve the Galapagos reputation as global tourism hotspot. The islands saw more than 204,000 visitors in 2013 and the park is one of Ecuador’s main attractions.

“For authorities to admit that there was a murder in this center for tourism wouldn’t be convenient,” Valverde said. “But they shouldn’t be damaging the memory of a person simply for economic and political interests.”

Thanks to pressure from de la Valdene’s family and friends, on Nov. 24 the Galapagos Judicial Council said it would investigate the police’s work. Guy de la Valdene has offered a $10,000 reward for details leading to the arrest of his daughter’s killer.

In the Puerto Ayora cemetery, there’s a tombstone with de la Valdene’s name. Depending on who you talk to, the casket below either holds her remains or bags of grain — put there to hide the fact that her body was buried at sea, against local regulations.

In a sense, the mystery is fitting for someone who was always larger than life, said John, her brother.

“It was a terrible tragedy,” he said of her death. “ But knowing my sister she loves what’s happening right now. She loves that we’re talking about her, she would love the drama.”