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Family confirms body found in Costa Rica is missing Florida woman Carla Stefaniak

Authorities say they have found the remains of Carla Stefaniak, 36, who went missing in Costa Rica on Nov. 27, 2018. [GoFundMe]
Authorities say they have found the remains of Carla Stefaniak, 36, who went missing in Costa Rica on Nov. 27, 2018. [GoFundMe]
Published Dec. 5, 2018

A body found partially buried in the backyard of an AirBnB in Costa Rica has been identified as missing Miami Beach woman Carla Stefaniak, that nation's authorities announced Tuesday.

Costa Rican officials also said they arrested a security guard at the resort, 32-year-old Bismark Espinosa Martinez, in connection with Stefaniak's death. He was a guard at the Villa Buena Vista, located in a suburb of San Jose called Escazu. That's where the missing woman and her sister-in-law April Antonieta were staying on a trip celebrating Stefaniak's 36th birthday.

According to a post on the "Finding Carla" Facebook page, Costa Rican authorities allowed the family of Stefaniak to view the body on Wednesday around 12:30 a.m. Stefaniak's father confirmed the grim news.

"Words cannot express the devastation within her family and friends," according to the Facebook post. "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."

According to Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation Department, search dogs found the partially decomposed body of a woman on Monday — nearly a week after Stefaniak's family reported her missing on Nov. 28. The body was wrapped in plastic bags and half-buried in a mountainous, wooded corner of the resort's property.

An autopsy conducted Tuesday found stab wounds on the arms and neck. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head, investigators said.

In a news conference later that day, Judicial Investigation Department General Director Walter Espinoza said his team was still working to match the body's fingerprints to Stefaniak's, but said "everything indicates that it is the victim."

Stefaniak's family traveled from Riverview to Costa Rica on Tuesday to help authorities identify the body. Family friend Laura Jaime posted a message on the "Finding Carla" Facebook page at about 5 p.m. that the family was still waiting to view her remains. They were also concerned that Stefaniak's identity had not been independently confirmed.

"The family has yet to see the body and they were in the process of securing dental records for the examiners," Jaime wrote. "We don't know why the media is announcing the identity of the body or what Costa Rica officials are trying to do by not allowing the family to view the remains before announcing anything. The family has not confirmed the identity by viewing or providing DNA samples."

Costa Rican authorities also revealed more about events leading up to Stefaniak's disappearance. Espinoza told Spanish-speaking media that Martinez, of Nicaragua, was arrested at about 11 p.m. Monday after authorities raided his apartment, which was adjacent to the room Stefaniak and Burton rented through AirBnB. Test results f from evidence taken from both rooms revealed trace amounts of blood, he said.

"After verification, the version of one of the security guards was incompatible and presented many contradictions," Espinoza said in Spanish. "That means that this person acquired a suspicious tone ... 300 meters away was the body of a young girl who corresponds in principle to Carla Stefaniak."

The AirBnB, called Villa Buena Vista, was listed as a mountainous resort of multiple villas. It was once called Villa Le Mas and was an "aftercare facility" for tourists who traveled to Costa Rica for medical procedures, according to its TripAdvisor.com profile. In recent years, reviews have been mainly negative.

Stefaniak was last seen Nov. 27 dropping her sister-in-law off at the airport in San José. The two had been in the Central American country driving around and taking in the sights as part of a birthday celebration for Stefaniak. But they couldn't get flights out on the same day, Jaime said. So Stefaniak dropped off the rental car and Antonieta at the airport, then ordered an Uber to take her to her AirBnB where she planned to stay until her flight the next day. Jaime gave this account of the missing woman's last hours: Stefaniak made a phone call the night of Nov. 27. In what is believed to be the last conversation she had, she told a friend the property was too secluded to leave in the dark, but she was thirsty and was going to the guard shack to ask for water. When that final phone call to a friend abruptly ended Nov. 27, friends and family initially chalked it up to bad weather or a broken phone, but Jaime said Stefaniak always traveled with her iPhone, iPad and computer.

"Carla is very communicative. She's not a person who doesn't talk to people," Jaime said. "Carla is the person that wakes up and opens her eyes and looks at her phone and literally looks at Instagram and whatsapp."

Then Stefaniak missed her flight home the next day on her birthday, Nov. 28. The next day, after Stefaniak failed to show up at the airport, Jaime said her family took action. Her brothers flew to Costa Rica to begin the search and a Go Fund Me page was started to help with the costs.

Family also contacted the AirBnB host, who said a guard told them Stefaniak got into an Uber and left with her bags around 5 a.m. on Nov. 28. However, an Uber driver she scheduled to pick her up still showed up at 8:30 a.m. Jaime said. Stefaniak had also checked into the flight, Jaime said, which she always did.

"Every time we travel, she always used that resource," Jaime said. "Carla wouldn't wake up at 5 a.m. for nothing."

Jaime said they knew something was off about the guard's story, so they checked her work computer for Uber receipts there were two from Nov. 27, the trip from the airport and the trip around downtown. Nothing showed a trip at 5 a.m.

Then the guard told a different story: It wasn't an Uber. Stefaniak had called a taxi.

So, the family contacted T-Mobile. The only activity they saw outside of known calls was a small spike in data around 12 a.m. A spike, Jaime said, similar to someone shutting off a phone.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or 813-546-6611. Follow @adawsonwrites. Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at dfigueroa@tampabay.com. Follow @danuscripts.

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