One of the last photographs taken of Carla Stefaniak in Costa Rica shows the 36-year-old Florida woman wearing a white spa robe and dark sunglasses, her hair loose and slightly wavy. Sitting on an open balcony surrounded by a lush rain forest, she holds up a mug of coffee.
It could be an advertisement for a relaxing tropical vacation - except that on Nov. 28, the day that Stefaniak was supposed to fly back to the United States, she never showed up at the airport. Early Wednesday morning, she was confirmed dead.
"Words cannot express the devastation within her family and friends," said the announcement on "Finding Carla," a Facebook page where relatives have shared updates since her disappearance.
The trip to Costa Rica was intended to be a weeklong celebration of Stefaniak's birthday. She and her sister in-law, April Burton, had spent five days surfing, riding motorcycles, soaking in hot springs and buying fresh fruit at roadside stands. But Burton had needed to leave a day early, and Stefaniak had spent her last night in Costa Rica alone.
Burton told CBS News that Stefaniak had dropped her off at the airport on Nov. 27, then returned their rental car and taken an Uber to a gated villa that she had found on Airbnb. At around 8 p.m. that night, Burton got a text message from her sister-in-law, she said. "It's pretty sketchy here," Stefaniak had written, saying that it was raining heavily and the power had gone out. It was the last time that her family would hear from her.
Costa Rican authorities announced on Tuesday that police dogs had discovered a body buried 200 feet toward the back of the property where Stefaniak had been staying, in a hilly and wooded suburb of San Jose. The slain woman, whose body had been partially covered with plastic bags, appeared to have died of a blunt force wound to the head. Walter Espinoza, director of Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation Department, told reporters that police had also found stains resembling blood inside Stefaniak's rental, and had arrested a security guard at the property who had given contradictory statements about her disappearance. The man, Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, 32, had been staying in the apartment next door to hers.
Late Tuesday night, Stefaniak's father was allowed to enter the morgue and view the body, the announcement posted to the "Finding Carla" Facebook page said. He confirmed that it was his daughter.
A native of Venezuela who immigrated to the United States in 2000, Stefaniak spent 12 years living in Tampa before moving to the Miami area, where she worked at an insurance agency, according to the Miami Herald. She loved to travel, enthusiastically documenting trips to Cuba, Mexico, Iceland and Switzerland on Instagram. Her last post, tagged from Quepos, Costa Rica, on Nov. 25, showed her sprawled next to an aquamarine-colored infinity pool. "I'm going to miss this place," she wrote.
When Stefaniak failed to respond to text messages or post on social media on Nov. 28 - her birthday - her friends and family started to worry. "Carla is the person that wakes up and opens her eyes and looks at her phone and literally looks at Instagram and WhatsApp," Laura Jaime, her close friend and former roommate, said in an interview the Tampa Bay Times.
Jaime had planned to pick up Stefaniak after her flight and take her out for a birthday dinner, she told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. But even before she got to the airport, something seemed off - why hadn't she heard from her friend all day? Her worst fears were confirmed when a gate agent told her that Stefaniak hadn't boarded the plane. Panicked, she contacted Stefaniak's relatives in Tampa. They, too, had heard nothing. The following day, Stefaniak's family launched an all-out search, blanketing social media with missing person fliers, as her brother flew to San Jose to meet with investigators.
Immediately, something didn't add up: Stefaniak's family contacted the owner of the Airbnb property where she had been staying and were told that a security guard had seen her leaving in an Uber at around 5 a.m. But her flight was scheduled for 1 p.m., and she was only 20 or 30 minutes from the airport. "None of us really believe this 5 a.m. story because it really doesn't make sense," Burton told WTVT in a Sunday interview.
Using her work computer, Stefaniak's friends were able to log into her Uber account, Jaime told the Tampa Bay Times. There were no records of her taking a car to the airport on the morning of Nov. 28. Confronted with the inconsistency, the guard changed his story: Stefaniak had taken a taxi, not an Uber, he claimed.
Far from providing a resolution, getting confirmation of Stefaniak's death now raises questions for her family, who had previously held on to hope that she was still alive and had speculated that she might have been kidnapped.
"In the following days, we will release critical digital leads of the investigation, continue asking questions about the involvement of others in Carla's murder," said the statement posted to Facebook.