World

Florida woman who failed to return home after her Costa Rican birthday trip is confirmed dead

One of the last photographs taken of Carla Stefaniak in Costa
Rica shows the 36-year-old Florida woman wearing a white spa
robe and dark sunglasses, her hair loose and slightly wavy.
Sitting on an open balcony surrounded by a lush rain forest,
she holds up a mug of coffee. It could be an advertisement for
a relaxing tropical vacation – except that on Nov. 28, the day
that Stefaniak was supposed to fly back to the United States,
she never showed up at the airport. Early Wednesday morning,
she was confirmed dead.

“Words cannot express the devastation within her family and
friends,” said the announcement on “Finding Carla,” a Facebook
page where relatives have shared updates since her
disappearance.

The trip to Costa Rica was intended to be a weeklong
celebration of Stefaniak’s birthday. She and her sister in-law,
April Burton, had spent five days surfing, riding motorcycles,
soaking in hot springs and buying fresh fruit at roadside
stands. But Burton had needed to leave a day early, and
Stefaniak had spent her last night in Costa Rica alone.

Burton told CBS News that Stefaniak had dropped her off at the
airport on Nov. 27, then returned their rental car and taken an
Uber to a gated villa that she had found on Airbnb. At around 8
p.m. that night, Burton got a text message from her
sister-in-law, she said. “It’s pretty sketchy here,” Stefaniak
had written, saying that it was raining heavily and the power
had gone out. It was the last time that her family would hear
from her.

Costa Rican authorities announced on Tuesday that police dogs
had discovered a body buried 200 feet toward the back of the
property where Stefaniak had been staying, in a hilly and
wooded suburb of San Jose. The slain woman, whose body had been
partially covered with plastic bags, appeared to have died of a
blunt force wound to the head. Walter Espinoza, director of
Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department, told reporters
that police had also found stains resembling blood inside
Stefaniak’s rental, and had arrested a security guard at the
property who had given contradictory statements about her
disappearance. The man, Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, 32, had
been staying in the apartment next door to hers.

Late Tuesday night, Stefaniak’s father was allowed to enter the
morgue and view the body, the announcement posted to the
“Finding Carla” Facebook page said. He confirmed that it was
his daughter.

A native of Venezuela who immigrated to the United States in
2000, Stefaniak spent 12 years living in Tampa before moving to
the Miami area, where she worked at an insurance agency,
according to the Miami Herald. She loved to travel,
enthusiastically documenting trips to Cuba, Mexico, Iceland and
Switzerland on Instagram. Her last post, tagged from Quepos,
Costa Rica, on Nov. 25, showed her sprawled next to an
aquamarine-colored infinity pool. “I’m going to miss this
place,” she wrote.

When Stefaniak failed to respond to text messages or post on
social media on Nov. 28 – her birthday – her friends and family
started to worry. “Carla is the person that wakes up and opens
her eyes and looks at her phone and literally looks at
Instagram and WhatsApp,” Laura Jaime, her close friend and
former roommate, said in an interview the Tampa Bay Times.

Jaime had planned to pick up Stefaniak after her flight and
take her out for a birthday dinner, she told the South Florida
Sun Sentinel. But even before she got to the airport, something
seemed off – why hadn’t she heard from her friend all day? Her
worst fears were confirmed when a gate agent told her that
Stefaniak hadn’t boarded the plane. Panicked, she contacted
Stefaniak’s relatives in Tampa. They, too, had heard nothing.
The following day, Stefaniak’s family launched an all-out
search, blanketing social media with missing person fliers, as
her brother flew to San Jose to meet with investigators.

Immediately, something didn’t add up: Stefaniak’s family
contacted the owner of the Airbnb property where she had been
staying and were told that a security guard had seen her
leaving in an Uber at around 5 a.m. But her flight was
scheduled for 1 p.m., and she was only 20 or 30 minutes from
the airport. “None of us really believe this 5 a.m. story
because it really doesn’t make sense,” Burton told WTVT in a
Sunday interview.

Using her work computer, Stefaniak’s friends were able to log
into her Uber account, Jaime told the Tampa Bay Times. There
were no records of her taking a car to the airport on the
morning of Nov. 28. Confronted with the inconsistency, the
guard changed his story: Stefaniak had taken a taxi, not an
Uber, he claimed.

Far from providing a resolution, getting confirmation of
Stefaniak’s death now raises questions for her family, who had
previously held on to hope that she was still alive and had
speculated that she might have been kidnapped.

“In the following days, we will release critical digital leads
of the investigation, continue asking questions about the
involvement of others in Carla’s murder,” said the statement
posted to Facebook.

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