What Really Happened to Carla Stefaniak?

For her 36th birthday, Florida insurance agent Carla Stefaniak traveled to Costa Rica with her sister-in-law for a dream vacation. On her last night there, Carla checked into a villa alone – and disappeared.

Carla Stefaniak [Investigation Discovery]

Carla Stefaniak [Investigation Discovery]

By: Catherine Townsend

For her 36th birthday, Florida insurance agent Carla Stefaniak traveled to Costa Rica with her sister-in-law for a dream vacation. On her last night there, Carla checked into a villa alone – and disappeared. Now, her family and friends are desperate to find out the truth about what happened to her.

“Traveling was her passion. Her dream was to travel around the world,” Carla’s brother Mario told investigation Discovery. For her 36th birthday, Carla traveled to Costa Rica with her sister-in-law April. According to her family, Carla was addicted to social media, and their adventure unfolded on social media: Carla posted photos of herself during surfing classes and hanging out and traveling to the beach.

On November 27, Carla dropped April off at the airport, the day before she herself was scheduled to return home. Carla then spent the rest of her last day on a tour of downtown San Jose, employing an Uber driver who she had arranged to pick her up at 8:30 the next morning for her return flight to Fort Lauderdale.

At around 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, she checked into her room close to the airport – which, according to her family, was a gated apartment complex with several Airbnb rentals inside. Carla sent pictures of the villa and indicated to friends online that it was raining. At around 7:00 p.m. she texted April to say that the power went out – and sent pictures of the dark villa. Though the power came back on, she sent out another text, saying that the place seemed “sketchy.” Just before 9:00 p.m. she texted two other friends to let them know that she was going out to ask a guard for a bottle of water. That was the last that they heard from her.

The next morning, on Carla’s actual birthday, there was no trace of her on social media. Because this was so unusual her parents and friends started calling and texting her, and sent various messages via social media. One of her friends went to Instagram and saw that she had not been online since the previous evening – just before 9:00 p.m., the same time she said she was going out for water.

When she failed to show up at the airport her friends and family called the U.S. and Costa Rican police. Authorities had to wait 48 hours before they could call it a missing persons case. In the meantime her frantic friends and family spread the word on social media, hoping that someone had seen her. Within a few days Carla’s dad, her brother Carlos Caicedo and a friend were on the ground in Costa Rica. They visited the Airbnb where she stayed, and staff told them that a guard saw Carla leave very early on the morning of her birthday. The room Carla had stayed in was clean.

Police contacted the Uber driver, who told them that he never picked Carla up. Uber’s records backed him up – he waited at the appointed time, but told police that a guard at the compound told him that Carla had been picked up at 5:00 a.m. Costa Rican police have stated that they do not consider the Uber driver a suspect.

The family talked to Senator Marco Rubio and the FBI, with US law enforcement agencies coming in to help local authorities. The FBI checked Carla's iPhone movements and bank transactions, with all evidence pointing to Carla having never left the compound.

On December 3, 2018, investigators inspected the room more carefully with scent-detecting dogs. According to authorities, the dogs signalled an alert, indicating that they found traces of blood. Authorities also said that the room appeared to have been cleaned with bleach and vinegar. A few hours later, Costa Rican police discovered a half-naked body partially wrapped in plastic. Tests later confirmed that it was Carla. Forensic investigators determined that Carla had suffered blunt force trauma to her head, and had many knife cuts all over her body. The knife broke due to the force that was used, and her jaw was dislocated. Police believe that Carla was murdered in her room and sexually assaulted – and that the killer dumped her body in the woods.

Investigators arrested 32-year-old Bismarck Espinoza Martinez, who was the apartment complex security guard where Carla was staying, according to CNN. The man, who was allegedly an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua, lived next door and had been the person who claimed that Carla was picked up in the early morning hours. As reported by The Tampa Bay Times in December of 2018 the Judicial Investigation Department of Costa Rica is detaining Espinoza as the sole suspect in Stefaniak's murder, and have placed him in preventative custody for an indeterminate period of time. According to Investigation Department General Director Walter Espinoza the investigation is ongoing. It is still remains unclear as to what, if any, charges have been lodged against Espinoza Martinez and whether or not he has a lawyer or what plea he may have entered.

Carla’s family however, believes that her murder was the work of more than one person. They, and investigators, say they believe that a person working alone could not kill Carla, and then drag her 200-pound body to the woods and clean a very large room on their own. Investigators say that they are still waiting for the results of DNA testing on semen and hair found on Carla’s body. In the meantime, Carla’s family hopes that they will find the missing piece of the puzzle.

For more on the case of Carla Stefaniak watch Investigation Discovery's Still a Mystery on ID GO.

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