South Florida woman found dead after going missing during Costa Rica vacation

(WSVN) - Costa Rican authorities have identified a woman’s body as Carla Stefaniak, a South Florida resident who went missing while on vacation in the area.

Authorities said an autopsy showed Stefaniak died as a result of injuries to her head, neck and extremities. Her death is now being investigated as a homicide.

A security guard has been detained as part of the investigation into her murder, according to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department (OIJ).

OIJ General Director Walter Espinoza said the security guard, identified as 32-year-old Bismarck Espinosa Martinez of Nicaragua, contradicted his own account to police and became a person of interest in their investigation. He has been living in Costa Rica since June.

“The person detained for the homicide was near her, had chances to commit the act and became a suspect through all our investigation,” said Espinoza.

Espinosa Martinez is being held on what is called a preventive sentence in Costa Rica. He will spend at least the next three months behind bars.

Espinoza said all data gathered indicates the body is Stefaniak’s; however, investigators are waiting to compare fingerprints from the body with FBI records and noted dental and DNA records may be used to definitively identify the body as Stefaniak if fingerprints are not conclusive.

“All the data we’ve compiled points to this being her; however, we want a determination that is more precise, more technical and more scientific,” said Espinoza.

Meanwhile, Stefaniak’s family are now on their way to the Central American country.

They said she had traveled there to celebrate her 36th birthday.

“You can’t imagine what we are feeling,” said Carlos Caicedo, Stefaniak’s father. “Her mom is absolutely devastated. She can’t speak.”

Monday afternoon, police in Costa Rica said a K9 unit located a decomposing body near the Airbnb where Stefaniak was staying.

“We’re destroyed. We just hope that it is not my sister. That’s our biggest hope,” said Mario Caicedo, Stefaniak’s brother. “My dad and my brother and other friend, they are right now at the morgue in San Jose, Costa Rica. They are waiting to see the body, this body that they found near the Airbnb where my sister stayed that night, the last night that we knew from her.”

Officials said a separate task force with K9s searched Stefaniak’s room and found “biological fluids compatible with blood” that were sent for testing.

“We’re still waiting to see if it’s her or not,” said Leandro Hernandez, a friend of the family.

While officials work with the FBI to make a positive ID using fingerprints, dental records and DNA, family members and friends are demanding more from investigators in Costa Rica.

“It’s like a roller coaster. Why don’t you let the father and the brother that are there to confirm if it’s her or not?” said family friend Delia Andronache. “You cannot just blast on the news the fact that it’s her, the fact that you think it’s her if you don’t have confirmation from the family. This is heartbreaking for us. Is it really her or is it not her?”

Stefaniak left Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 22 to Costa Rica with her sister-in-law, April Burton, on a girls trip.

Burton returned to the U.S. after five days.

“I do feel guilty because I left earlier,” said Burton.

Relatives said Stefaniak was scheduled to come back to Florida the next morning, on Nov. 27, but no one had heard from her in five days, and her family feared the worst.

“Six o’clock, still haven’t heard from her,” Burton said. “Even if she was in immigration, she would have made it to the tarmac, she would have service. She would have texted somebody, she would have done something. She checked in for the flight, but she never got on the plane.”

The night prior to Stefaniak’s flight, she took an Uber downtown and was dropped off at an Airbnb in San Jose.

When she got there, she FaceTimed a friend. She told him she was thirsty and was going to get water.

“‘I’m just gonna go ask the guards to buy me a bottle of water.’ He says that her phone died, and that’s it,” Burton said. “That’s the last we heard from her.”

Her phone went completely dark since that phone call that was made at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. However, it came back on for a brief moment after midnight.

The guards at the Airbnb told Stefaniak’s family that she checked out at around 5 a.m.

Family members said this didn’t add up.

“Her flight wasn’t until 1:30. She’s only 20 or 30 minutes from the airport,” Burton said. “She has four [pieces of] luggage, so this story doesn’t make sense.”

Stefaniak’s father arrived in Costa Rica and was working with officials in the search.

“How am I? You can’t imagine, sir,” he said. “You can’t imagine how am I. Devastated.”

A social media campaign for Stefaniak also circulated online asking everyone to share the news using the hashtag #findingcarla in an attempt to get answers.

“We’re all destroyed,” said Stefaniak’s brother. “We are trying to be strong. We’re trying to keep the faith. It’s hard.”

Family members said Costa Rican officials were working closely with the U.S. to investigate the woman’s disappearance.

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