A jury investigating the 2018 death of a 62-year-old Long Island mother whose battered body was found in a desolate section of Turks and Caicos days after she went on a Club Med vacation there with two colleagues has affirmed a medical examiner's homicide ruling, but it's not yet clear if island police will reopen the case they closed.
No arrests have been made in the case, more than three and a half years after Marie Kuhnla's body was found. Police in Turks and Caicos had previously declared the case closed, having essentially claimed for years there was some sort of accident despite findings by the government's own medical examiner that Kuhnla was killed by manual strangulation.
In this fairly atypical case, the jury was convened only to consider the question of how Kuhnla died — whether she was killed by manual strangulation, a homicide, as the medical examiner found or whether she died by some other means.
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It wasn't immediately clear if island police planned to reopen the case. Kuhnla's family has also filed a wrongful death case against Club Med, which is ongoing and precludes Club Med's comment, the global travel and tourism operator says.
But why has the family wanted their loved one's death ruled a homicide? Because it means someone is accountable — and Kuhnla's family was concerned that police were trying to make a crime disappear.
"What’s happening here is just horrible and it’s just egregious, and anybody who looks at the facts can see clearly this is a perversion of justice," said Rick Kunhla Jr., Marie's son.
Marie Kuhnla's husband said they were stonewalled by island police from the start. The lead detective for Turks and Caicos went to Long Island in 2019, and in a meeting recorded by the family's legal team, seemed to be trying to convince them that the wife and mother wasn't murdered.
"I have reason to believe that it's not a homicide," the law enforcement official can be heard saying in the recording.
For Kuhnla's loved ones, solace remains elusive, with the 62-year-old woman's killer still on the loose.
Frank Yacullo, a former Long Island resident and Club Med worker who was staying at the resort when Kuhnla made her doomed trip with two Suffolk County Legal Aid colleagues in October 2018, was initially accused of groping one of Kuhnla's friends. Prosecutors declined to move forward with the complaint.
Kuhnla's family has accused Yacullo of involvement in her death, but he has said he never did anything improper to her, the colleague or anyone else. He has also declined to cooperate with the FBI in the United States, officials have said.
The developments come after bombshell evidence surfaced last week at trial indicating that Kuhnla may have been sexually assaulted as well as strangled. It was the first time her family had seen the lab report stating seminal fluid was found on her underwear.
"The autopsy was shocking but this was beyond anything we could have imagined," Kuhnla Jr. said of the testimony and evidence shared Thursday.
The government’s own medical examiner ruled her death manual strangulation and a homicide. But in a highly unusual coroner’s inquest that began in late May, attorneys for Club Med and island police challenged the medical examiner on his finding.
When asked by NBC New York if he stood by his ruling of strangulation and homicide, Dr. Michael Steckbauer said without hesitation, "of course."
As part of the inquest, the judge had to turn over documents to the Kuhnla family's lawyers, and the lab report that sheds more light on what happened to the wife and mother suddenly surfaced right before the jury was set to decide how they believe Marie died.
"It’s a bombshell because Royal Turks and Caicos police and Club Med had been arguing post-Marie’s death that this incident was a result of Marie herself — that she essentially caused her own death," said family attorney Abe George. "They’ve been hiding this proof that this was an intentional assault, an intentional sexual assault that led to her death.”
Kuhnla Jr. said that the family "had our suspicions for years about a rape, but knowing that they lied for years and years that this was an accident, is disgusting."
The autopsy, which the family couldn’t get for nearly three years, showed Kuhnla had abrasions, bruising to her lower extremities, a fractured rib, dirt and debris in her mouth and upper airway. It also showed that her underwear was on her, inside out.
The just-revealed report also details that bloody items were analyzed from the room of another hotel guest: Yacullo. Even though he was initially detained for allegedly groping one of Kuhnla's traveling friends, Helma Hermans, there are no reports indicating DNA was taken from him.
He declined to cooperate with FBI agents in the United States. The DNA found on Kuhnla's body was inconclusive. The medical examiner testified she was badly decomposed at the morgue.
"How do you degrade DNA? You put the body under exhaust, which is what happened," said 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."
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.
"When the body decomposes, the DNA decomposes," said Kuhnla family investigator Edward Dowd. "It's actually destroying forensic evidence."
The family says they will fight until there’s an arrest, and they want a criminal investigation into whether Kuhnla's body was deliberately mishandled to hide forensic evidence.
The inquest was launched in the middle of a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family, accusing Yacullo of killing Kuhnla and Club Med for covering it up. When reached by phone, Yacullo denied any involvement.
"They want to make this an accident. If this is an accident and Marie killed herself then Club Med is off the hook from this civil case that we have filed out here in New York," said George.
The attorney has previously said 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 George. "I was blown away by the fact that you have a corporate entity working in conjunction with the government entity, entity of the police department, and that they were actively on the same page trying to discredit a medical examiner that the government in Turks and Caicos hired.”
Kuhnla had gone on the getaway with her two friends. A few days into the trip, she left the pool to go to her room and vanished— 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.
On the day Kuhnla's body was found, Hermans immediately told police that she suspected Yacullo could be responsible. Hermans said Yacullo, who was seen in video overturning a float in the pool, had sexually groped her and she complained to resort staff.
"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 that sex assault allegation but prosecutors declined to pursue the complaint. Before it was dropped, Yacullo said when reached by phone after his arraignment that he’d been released on $10,000 bail posted by an unknown local resident. He also denied doing anything improper to anyone.
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 took the fifth in depositions from the family's lawsuit.
Island police and the court have refused repeated requests for comment and the I-Team has been denied remote access to testimony. Club Med says it can’t talk about pending litigation, but in court papers has denied any wrongdoing.
"The safety security and well being of all our guests remain our highest priority. We are continuing to cooperate and cannot comment any further on the litigation," a spokesperson for Club Med told NBC New York.