A security guard at a Costa Rican resort was found guilty Monday of killing Carla Stefaniak, a 36-year-old Florida woman who went missing during a birthday trip to the Central American country in November 2018.
Bismarck Espinoza Martínez, of Nicaragua, was then sentenced to 16 years in prison by a panel of local judges, Eduardo Rojas, Simón Guillén and José Alberto Vargas.
The verdict marked the end of an emotionally charged trial for the family of Stefniak, who was born in Venezuela, moved to Tampa in 2000 and then to Miami in 2012. Much of her family still lives in the Tampa Bay area.
Her Carlos Caicedo traveled from his native Venezuela to testify in the trial, according to a report from Costa Rican news website CRhoy.com. Caicedo had to fight back tears during the trial, according to video footage, and at one point he addressed Martínez directly, telling him to confess if he still considered himself a man. At one point Rojas intervened, asking the father to calm down.
Stefaniak was visiting Costa Rica for her 36th birthday with her sister-in-law April Antonieta. The pair traveled together, but Antonieta was scheduled to leave the day before Stefaniak. They took an Uber to the airport together, then Stefaniak went back to her Airbnb apartment and arranged for the same driver to return at 8:30 a.m. the next day and take her to the airport.
Stefaniak was staying at Villa Buena Vista resort in the San Jose suburb of Escazu, where Martínez worked as a guard.
During her stay she communicated with family via Facetime calls and WhatsApp messages. Stefaniak said the place seemed “sketchy.” Her last message was received at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 27, when she said she was going to ask a guard, possibly Martínez, for water.
Stefaniak didn’t board her flight or arrive in Miami the next day, so authorities launched a search for the missing woman. They traveled from Riverview to Costa Rica to help. Nearly a week later, on Dec. 3, search dogs found her partially buried body in a mountainous wooded area behind the resort property.
A Costa Rican medical examiner said Stefaniak was stabbed seven times, including once in the palm of her hand, indicating she was trying to defend herself from what prosecutors described as a sexually motivated attack.
Days later, Martínez was arrested in her murder and formally charged in July 2019. After Monday’s verdict, lawyers for Stefaniak’s family asked that he be sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Defense attorney Guido Núñez argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict his client. The medical examiner said Stefaniak’s body was too decomposed when it was found, Núñez said, and DNA under her nails could not be connected to Martínez.
But the state had a witness who said Martinez’s mother told her he had confessed to the crime. Carla González, a maid at the resort, told the judges she knew the defendant’s family well and got him the security job at the resort.
Martínez’s mother told González that he confessed to the crime, González told the court.
In December of 2018, members of Stefaniak’s family sured AirBnB in federal court. The case is currently in arbitration.
Stefaniak’s family could not be reached for comment.