murder mystery

Long Island Mom Found Dead At Club Med May Have Been Sexually Assaulted, Lab Report Finds

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New bombshell evidence has surfaced indicating that a Long Island tourist strangled at a Club Med in Turks and Caicos in 2018 may have been sexually assaulted.

For the first time Thursday, the family of Marie Kuhlna saw the lab report revealing that seminal fluid was found on her underwear, more than three and a half years after the 62-year-old mother's bruised body was discovered in a desolate section of the island paradise in October 2018.

"The autopsy was shocking but this was beyond anything we could have imagined," said Rick Kuhnla Jr., Marie's son.

The government’s own medical examiner ruled her death manual strangulation and a homicide. But in a highly unusual coroner’s inquest that began last week, 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 a jury is 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 government is re-examining the death of a Long Island woman who was strangled and found dead near the Club Med resort — but her family wants to know why. The I-Team's Sarah Wallace reports.

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 — a man who also was from Long Island, Frank Yacullo, a former Club Med employee. 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 back 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.

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.

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 than 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.

Kuhnla 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.

On the day Kuhnla's body was found, Hermans immediately told police that she suspected a fellow guest, 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.

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.

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.

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 we have been denied remote access to testimony. Club Med says it can’t talk about pending litigation, but in court papers has denied any wrongdoing. A decision could come early next week. 

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