Facing Challenges by Gov't and Club Med, Turks & Caicos ME Defends Autopsy of LI Woman

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The government of Turks and Caicos appeared to challenge its own medical examiner in court on Wednesday over the death of a Long Island tourist more than three years ago that was ruled to be a homicide.

Attorneys for Club Med and Turks and Caicos Islands police left court together, after they peppered the government’s own medical examiner with questions about his ruling that Long Island wife and mother Marie Kuhnla died from strangulation while visiting the resort with friends.

When asked by NBC New York if he stood by his ruling of strangulation and homicide, Dr. Michael Steckbauer said without hesitation, "of course."

Kuhnla's son, Rick Kuhnla Jr., is in the islands monitoring what is known as a coroner’s inquest, as the government re-examines her death. Her family wants to know why they chose now to do the inquest — in the middle of the family's $10 million dollar wrongful death lawsuit against Club Med.

Island officials have not commented.

In front of a jury panel, Dr. Steckbauer detailed his autopsy findings that revealed abrasions and bruising, a fractured rib, dirt and debris her mouth and upper airway. Her underwear was also found to be inside out when her body was found.

The family attorney says it’s absurd for Club Med and police to question that this was anything other than murder.

"They suggested essentially that Marie Kuhnla tripped and fell into the sand, and killed herself. Which is the most ludicrous theory based upon the evidence we've seen," said attorney Abe George.

Dr. Steckbauer testified during a civil court deposition earlier in 2022, as part of the family's wrongful death lawsuit, claiming Marie’s body was badly decomposed—and blaming a morgue employee. 

According to Steckbauer, that worker "decided that she was going to place this specific decedent under a heated exhaust (fan), which no, I don’t think is appropriate. I do think in this case, it rises to the level of criminal liability...from what I have been told, her actions were intentional."

Why is a coroner in Tuks and Caicos suddenly holding an inquest into the death of a Long Island woman who was found strangled? The victim's family believes the government is trying to change the cause of death, to protect Club Med. The I-Team's Sarah Wallace reports.

When asked by the I-Team if he believed the decomposition was deliberate, Dr. Steckbauer said would not comment, refusing to discuss that part of the case. He had to return to Florida for work, but is set to testify again Thursday via Zoom.

"I want to remember the good times but these hearings are just pouring salt on the wound," Kuhnla Jr. said.

Testimony is set to continue into next week. It's not exactly clear when the seven-member jury will render its decision on whether or not to change how Kuhnla died.

After leaving the courthouse on Tuesday, Kuhnla Jr. was frustrated and angry that the government would take a second look at the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death.

"This is clear this was not accidental — it was a violent homicide — and anything else suggesting it wasn’t is a lie," he said.

A year ago, Maria Kuhnla was found strangled to death at Club Med in Turks and Caicos while on vacation with coworkers. Now, her family has filed a lawsuit against the resort. Sarah Wallace reports.

Kuhnla, a mother and wife, had gone on a getaway trip to Club Med in Turks and Caicos during the fall of 2018 with two fellow attorneys from Suffolk County Legal Aid. She left the pool to go to her room a few days into the trip and disappeared — and was found dead a day and a half later.

Her body was discovered in a sandy clump of bushes in a remote section of the resort. Island police initially released a statement that Kuhnla was found near the Club Med resort, not on it. And that was just the beginning of what her family believes is an ongoing cover-up.

"The authorities and the police just treat us like a nuisance, like 'Why are these people asking, like why are they emailing us again and again and again," Kuhnla Jr. said.

On the day Kuhnla's body was found, Helma Hermans — one of the friends on the trip — immediately told police that she suspected a fellow guest, also from Long Island and a former Club Med employee, could be responsible. Hermans said Frank Yacullo Jr., who was seen in video overturning a float in the pool, had sexually groped her and she complained to resort staff.

New details have emerged about the murder of a Long Island wife and mother at Club Med in Turks and Caicos. The I-Team's Sarah Wallace reports.

"I wasn’t the first to complain and I wasn’t the last. There were multiple complaints about him and they did nothing," Hermans said.

Yacullo was arrested by island police on the sex assault allegation. He later told NBC New York by phone that he’d been released on $10,000 bail posted by an unknown local resident. He denied doing anything improper to anyone. Prosecutors declined to pursue Helmans’ complaint.

"I think they are covering for him," Hermans said.

As for Kuhnla's case, the I-Team obtained an island police statement that called Yacullo a "person of interest," but then he declined to cooperate. He is named along with Club Med in a $10 million dollar wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family and took the fifth in depositions. Club Med has denied all allegations.

"I think the authorities don’t want the truth to come out, tourism is a big industry here and Club Med is a powerful company," said Kuhnla Jr.

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