Miami woman ‘vanished’ during Costa Rica trip
Even the babysitter couldn’t contain the 8-year-old girl’s fiery spirit.
Taking orders from an elder wasn’t exactly how Carla Stefaniak operated, so, when she was told to do a chore, the self-proclaimed rebel was quick to state her case.
“You’re not my mom, so you can’t tell me what to do. I’m leaving,” Stefaniak declared as she corralled her baby brothers, ages 6 and 2. Although the sitter managed to hold onto the boys, Stefaniak sprinted out the door, sparking a neighborhood search and chase.
“You can imagine the headaches she gave our parents. But can you believe she memorized the car ride to our aunt’s house and ran all the way to it? That day she made it safely across Maracay, Venezuela, past busy streets and avenues, past streetlights, and rang the doorbell,” her younger brother, Mario Caicedo, who lives in Orlando, told the Miami Herald this week.
“That’s who my sister was as a child and as an adult — powerful, independent. She never changed.”
That same determination carried Stefaniak, a South Florida insurance agent, into adulthood and in recent years, around the world in her quest to become a social media influencer. Her Instagram gallery shows Stefaniak walking the icy wonders of Greenland, riding luxurious yachts in the Caribbean and passionately posing beside glittered skylines.
That mission, however, was cut short at what would be her last stop, San Jose, Costa Rica, where Stefaniak was found stabbed to death just days after her 36th birthday on Nov. 28.
“She was a free spirit that made other people feel free,” Caicedo said. “That’s why she won so many hearts, but now ours are broken.”
According to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department, Stefaniak’s brutal killing may have been sexually motivated. The suspect in her disappearance, a security guard stationed at Stefaniak’s Airbnb rental, may soon face a murder charge.
Stefaniak had arrived in the Central American country on Nov. 22. She was last heard from on the night of Nov. 27, and did not board a scheduled flight to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport the following day.
After a worldwide search that spread through social media with the hashtag #FindingCarla, Stefaniak’s partially nude body was found Dec. 3 with a broken neck and stab wounds; her throat had been sliced and her head suffered blunt force trauma, Costa Rican authorities said. Investigators said she had been partially buried in dirt and wrapped in plastic about 1,000 feet from where she was staying.
The advanced decomposition of her body indicated her death took place several days before, Costa Rican authorities said. On Friday authorities announced they found Stefaniak’s cellphone, clothes and iPad. They have not yet specified what “sexually motivated” means.
“I wouldn’t doubt it was sexually motivated. Just look at her, she was bombastic,” said Laura Jaime, her best friend and former housemate in Miami Beach and Hallandale Beach, her most recent residence. “Doesn’t give somebody the right to murder her. She means more than whatever happened to her in those few hours. It’s just a reflection of those people who have rotten, dark souls. Not a reflection of Carla. It’s a reflection of the bad guys.”
Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant who arrived in Costa Rica in June, is being detained on a three-month preventive custody sentence after authorities said he provided “contradictory” accounts to police. According to OIJ, Martinez was living next door to the unit Stefaniak was renting. It’s unknown if or when he will face official charges.
“It’s clear that someone was evil enough to have done these unspoken things to Carla,” said Jaime, 32.
She paused to catch her breath.
“But what’s also clear is that she fought back. Carla fought to her death. There is no doubt about that. Our girl put up a fight like the fighter that she is.”
To her friend Jaime, Carla was a “bombshell.”
“Carla was so much of a diva, that her birthday wasn’t just her birth date, it was celebrated the entire month. And trust me, she made sure of that,” Jaime said, flipping through photos of previous parties.
Stefaniak’s birthday celebration was planned with “much intention and months in advance,” Jaime said. “She knew where she was staying, and she knew just where she would take a zillion photos, and she knew she would bombard all of our phones with them.”
Four days before her disappearance, Stefaniak began to document her adventures though her online travel blog, dubbed “Carla Margarita.” In one photo, the long-haired blonde woman sits atop a picnic table in an airy pink dress, legs long and crossed. She gazed at the clear skies and mountain terrain behind her.
“I can only imagine how many takes it took for Carla to get that shot. That’s who she was. It had to be perfect,” Jaime said. “In the process of reaching that perfection, she would steal your phone and make you take photos of her because she had already taken up all of her own phone storage. She was a babe.”
Originally, Stefaniak was slated to go with another close girlfriend, but when the girlfriend got a new job, Stefaniank had to change plans. That’s when Stefaniak’s sister-in-law, April Burton, joined her at the last moment.
After five days of touring Costa Rica, Burton had to take her scheduled flight back to Florida. Stefaniak was slated to fly back the following day.
For the final night in paradise, Stefaniak stayed in the Escazu suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, after dropping off Burton at the airport and returning the rental car. She Ubered back to her place.
The gated Airbnb is located in the neighborhood of Villa Le Mas, where there are only a few hotels separated by mountainous terrain, with no stores or restaurants. The lodging areas sit behind iron bars or full gates. The dirt roads are so steep that cars struggle to climb them. Thick brush and forests line the roadways.
Despite telling Jaime the area was “sketchy, Carla also said it was ‘super cute’ and modern inside,” Jaime said, recounting a FaceTime call where her friend displayed her newest find: a pair of green, crocheted earrings.
It was stormy, the power had been out since 9 a.m. and it was now evening.
Midnight came, and so did the birthday messages. No response.
That’s when Jaime knew something was wrong.
“Carla was the type that would wake up with the phone in her hand,” she said. “The moment her eyes would open, the phone screen was the first thing she looked at, especially on her birthday.”
In denial, Jaime headed to the airport.
“I knew that day. I felt it in my gut,” she said.
Jaime waited at the airport, hoping to see her friend of more than 15 years exit the plane. She approached a Southwest Airlines employee, begging to know if Stefaniak made it on board.
“They said they couldn’t disclose that information for privacy reasons,” Jaime said.
But when one employee saw Jaime’s distraught face, she broke the news in a whisper: “Carla Stefaniak wasn’t on the plane.”
Within minutes, Jaime called the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. Maybe her phone and passport were stolen? Maybe she was detained at the airport?
“I was making excuses for my feelings,” Jaime said. “But when the embassy told me she wasn’t with them, that’s when it all began.”
In less than 24 hours, more than two dozen of Stefaniak’s friends around the globe would drop their jobs and paused their daily lives to launch what would soon become a worldwide search for their beloved Carla.
On the digital search team were Stefaniak’s buddies from Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, New York, Germany, Australia, Brazil and her homeland, Venezuela.
The friends created a Facebook group, “Finding Carla,” and five administrators were assigned. Some were charged with producing fliers that would soon circulate the web, others created hashtags, wrote out communal messages and boosted posts to reach a wider audience.
Still others answered messages from readers, while another group dealt with the media and law enforcement. Another subset communicated with Stefaniak’s family in Tampa; Stefaniak’s father, Carlos, and her youngest brother, Carlos Jr., had flown to Costa Rica.
Friends and family pitched in from $50 to $100 to fund the campaign. They hired a PR firm to alert media outlets of the story.
“Carla was a go-getter, a tireless warrior, and in her honor, so were we,” Jaime said. “She loved social media, so that’s where we first attacked. We needed to put pressure on our justice system to pay attention.”
Thousands of people shared the posts. Authorities opened an investigation in Costa Rica. The FBI soon got involved.
“Our goal was to find her, and we did. It’s just not the way we had hoped to find her,” Jaime said.
Her work life
Curled up on a brown leather loveseat inside EZ Insurance in Dania Beach is Stefaniak’s Yorkie, Sasha.
The pup, who many say was like Stefaniak’s child, sported pink bows and hair ties.
“Our clients would say this place is like no other because you could buy insurance from someone as sweet as Carla and get free puppy therapy,” said Stefaniak’s boss of six years, Vanessa Hernandez.
Stefaniak wasn’t just an employee; she was like family. She took care of Hernandez’s children. She took over the business when Hernandez was out of town.
Stefaniak worked nine-hour days, six days a week. At lunch time, the duo would split and share their orders. Their appetizer? Avocado, always avocado. For the first half hour of their break they ate; the other half, they napped.
“We felt like it was a recharge,” Hernandez said. “Sasha got to pick who she wanted to sleep with.”
But it was Carla’s spunky sense of humor and rebellious outlook that grasped people’s hearts. When she was late to work, her excuse was she was ironing her hair and perfecting her makeup to better succeed at selling insurance.
“She would then bribe me for forgiveness with a coffee and pastry,” Hernandez said, chuckling. Other times, Stefaniak would bring her mini-makeup studio to work and give her boss random makeovers.
Carla’s brother Mario says only stories can sum up his slain sister.
“When she was a kid in elementary school she would get up in the middle of class and stand next to the teacher. She told the teacher she didn’t feel like being a student and that she’ll be a teacher instead,” Caicedo said.
Silence filled the phone line.
“She was also the type to give you her bed when you stay over while she slept on the couch,” Caicedo said, before sobbing. “That was her.”
Sifting through her best friend’s Instagram, Jaime tries to find peace. She points to the last photo Stefaniak posted.
“I’m going to miss this place,” she wrote from Quepos, Costa Rica. Above the caption is a photo of Stefaniak in a turquoise one-piece bathing suit. She lay on her back on the ledge of an elevated pool, treetops nearby.
“The photo creeps me out,” Jaime said. “She’s lying down, looking up. The skies are clear.”
“It’s like she knew.”