Carla Stefaniak flew to Costa Rica planning to celebrate her 36th birthday in style. She booked the tropical Villa Le Mas resort via Airbnb for her final night before the flight back home to Miami—but she never made it to the airport.
In retrospect, perhaps the TripAdvisor reviews offered a clue. One review warned that the place was “scary” and another that it was like a prison. “This place is a nightmare,” one reviewer wrote in part. “I fled before the end of my stay and contacted the police... The gates were closed at night and I felt like a prisoner.”
On Monday, sniffer dogs uncovered Stefaniak’s decomposing body—one week after she disappeared on the vacation with her sister-in-law April Ontonieta Burton, who Stefaniak left at the San Jose airport on Nov. 27. Stefaniak planned to spend an extra day on her own before returning to Florida 24 hours later. Instead, she was found partially buried and covered with plastic bags in a mountainous area on the grounds of the resort. A security guard has been arrested in connection with her murder.
The last time her sister-in-law saw her alive was when she got into an Uber on her way to the resort she had booked via Airbnb after dropping her rental car at the San Jose airport. Stefaniak wrote her sister-in-law her own prophetic message when she reached the Airbnb resort. “It’s pretty sketchy here,” she wrote to Burton, according to her post on Facebook pleading for information about her sister-in-law’s disappearance. She also mentioned in her message that “it was pouring rain and that the power was out.”
She texted Burton that she was going to ask the groundskeeper for help finding some water around 8:20 p.m. A half an hour later, her phone was dead, Burton said in a post.
Once it was clear that Stefaniak did not make her flight home to Florida, her family alerted the FBI and the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica, and searched frantically for information about Stefaniak with scarce help from Costa Rican authorities. “Last time we heard from her was 11/27 around 8 pm. She was staying at a villa she found on airbnb. She had a flight the next day (11/28) at 1 pm, but she never showed up. She showed no sign of online presence since 11/27 at 8pm. US Embassy in Costa Rica and FBI is already alerted."
The family was convinced that Stefaniak was kidnapped and were waiting for ransom requests up until the moment her body was discovered. According to local press reports, a substance compatible with blood was found in the room Stefaniak rented, but there was no sign of her phone or luggage. Her family immediately contacted the Villa Le Mas, where a receptionist told her that she had checked out early.
“The guards told us that she left at 5 in the morning with all of her bags and got into an Uber, but she wouldn’t do that if her flight was at 1:30 p.m.,” Burton told ABC Action News in Tampa. “She’s never been early for anything in her life and she wouldn’t leave to go to the airport at 5:30 a.m.”
According to Uber account records found by her family, she had booked an Uber for later that day—but when the car arrived at the Airbnb mid-morning, she was nowhere to be found. She had checked in online within 24 hours of her scheduled flight on Nov. 28.
Walter Espinoza, head of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department, told Associated Press that the woman had died of “head trauma” and had lacerations made with what could be a knife or cut glass on her neck and arms. He gave no other details about potential sexual assault or other bodily harm tied to the killing.
Officials say Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan man who worked as a security guard at the Airbnb-rented villa, was arrested in connection with Stefaniak’s murder. Police say he was staying in the room next door to Stefaniak. “The person detained for the homicide was near her, had chances to commit the act, and became a suspect through all our investigation,” Det. Espinoza told a local ABC news affiliate in Tampa.
Stefaniak’s father, Carlos Caicedo, flew to Costa Rica on Tuesday and positively identified the body of his daughter. “Around 11:30pm on 12/05, Costa Rican Authorities finally allowed the family of Carla to see the body. Carla’s father confirmed that the body belongs to Carla. It’s now official,” the family wrote in a Facebook update post.
“Are we done here? We are not. 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. We will make sure this case is not closed like many others in Costa Rica. But for now, just know that Carla and her family is grateful for all you have done for her. We truly appreciate the support. Please pray for Carla and for her family.”
The Villa Le Mas resort issued a statement sent to local media outlets. “We are deeply saddened and devastated by the tragic events that occurred last week. 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,” the statement, which has been published in Florida news outlet, says. “Our deepest sympathies are with the family of the victim of this horrible crime. While the investigation is ongoing, and since the focus of the owners is the comfort of our guests, the facility has been temporarily closed.”