Costa Rican authorities said Wednesday that the suspected murder of a 36-year-old American tourist was sexually motivated, and announced they had a suspect in custody.
The search for Florida resident Carla Stefaniak came to an end Monday when police announced they found a body in the backyard of the Airbnb where she had stayed with her sister-in-law for a birthday vacation in San Antonio de Escazú, just outside the capital city of San Jose. Stefaniak was last heard from on the evening of Nov. 27 — the day before her scheduled flight home — but then disappeared, according to a GoFundMe set up by family members.
Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department’s General Director Walter Espinoza confirmed the arrest of 32-year-old Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, according to ABC-7 in Tampa and other outlets. Authorities said Espinosa Martinez worked as a security guard at the complex where Stefaniak was staying, and lived in the apartment next to Stefaniak’s. Authorities also said Stefaniak was killed inside her apartment before her partially nude body was dumped 1,000 feet from the Airbnb, according to the Orlando Sentinel and other outlets.
The official cause of death was a stab wound to the neck, authorities said. Stefaniak was also reportedly stabbed in the arms and suffered blunt trauma to the head. Police added that the crime was “sexually” motivated.
Authorities said Espinosa Martinez originally told police he helped Stefaniak pack her luggage into a taxi at around 5 a.m. on Nov. 28 but then changed his story, leading police to follow up. They added that Espinosa Martinez, a Nicaraguan native living in Costa Rica since June, is still considered a suspect and that the investigation is ongoing.
“The person detained for the homicide was near her, had chances to commit the act and became a suspect through all our investigation.” Espinoza said.
Stefaniak’s family confirmed her death on Facebook. According to the page “Finding Carla”, set up when Stefaniak was still considered missing, her father identified her body on Wednesday night shortly before midnight.
“It’s now official,” the post said. “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. May God bless her soul.”
The family said they will continue to post updates on the investigation and “continue asking questions about the involvement of others in Carla’s murder.”
“We will make sure this case is not closed like many others in Costa Rica.” the family posted.
Federico Jenkin, the attorney representing the owner of the Airbnb, released a statement to ABC Action News announcing they were cooperating with authorities and closing the villa as police continue their investigation. According to Jenkin, Villa Le Mas has been in operation since 2013 and received thousands of guests.
“We are deeply saddened and devastated by the tragic events that occurred last week,” the statement said. “The owners are fully cooperating with the authorities in the investigation and we hope that once the facts are determined, the perpetrator is brought to justice. While the investigation is ongoing, and since the focus of the owners is the comfort of our guests, the facility has been temporarily closed.”
The villa, still available to view on Trip Advisor, has mostly favorable reviews, but some called their stay a “nightmare” and “terrible.”
The murder rate in the country of 4.9 million has been on the rise, with a record-high of 603 people killed in 2017, Bloomberg reported. That’s a 63% increase compared to 10 years ago.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Travel & Tourism Office, Costa Rica ranked 15th among international destinations for Americans, with more than 1 million visiting in 2017. However, tourism dipped in 2017 as the number of American visitors declined for the first time since 2009.
“Crime is increasing in Costa Rica and U.S. citizens are frequent victims,” the U.S Embassy in Costa Rica said. “U.S. citizens are encouraged to exercise a high level of caution and vigilance due to increasing levels of violent crime.”