Son of New York woman found dead in Turks and Caicos questions ‘legitimacy’ of government’s probe

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The son of a woman who died while vacationing at the Club Med Turkoise resort on the Turks and Caicos Islands says he’s concerned with the legitimacy of a new government inquest into her death, initially ruled murder. The inquest, which ends Thursday is meant to review the official cause of death, and Marie Kuhnla’s son alleges island officials are hoping the court will reconsider the original findings. 

The 62-year-old public defender from Long Island, New York, vanished on Oct. 14, 2018 while vacationing with two colleagues from the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society. Her body was found on Oct. 16 in the bushes of a remote area of the resort.

Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo. From left to right: Rick Kuhnla Jr., Rick Kuhnla Sr. and Marie Kuhnla.

Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo. From left to right: Rick Kuhnla Jr., Rick Kuhnla Sr. and Marie Kuhnla.
(Courtesy: Kuhnla family)

The death certificate issued by Turks and Caicos states that Kuhnla’s death was a result of manual strangulation, and while police initially described the death as a murder, their tone shifted as time passed, according to Marie Kuhnla’s son, Rick Kuhnla Jr.

Abe George, a lawyer for the family says these types of hearings are rare and added that the police department is “trying to cast doubt” on the initial cause of death.

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George said that there’s evidence suggesting after being found, her remains were put in front of a refrigerator exhaust fan blowing hot air rather than inside the refrigerator, with a possible intent to accelerate decomposition of the body prior to the medical examiner’s arrival on the islands.

Despite the decomposition of Marie Kuhnla’s body, which her son said there was “incessant larvae on and around,” the medical examiner, Dr. Michael Steckbauer, was still able to determine that she died of strangulation by homicide. Steckbauer told NBC New York that he stands by the ruling.

During a civil hearing on the matter as part of a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit, Steckbauer said that a morgue employee had put the body under the heated exhaust fan, and called the action “intentional.”

The 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,” Steckbauer said during the hearing, according to the report.

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Marie Kuhnla on a zip-line.

Marie Kuhnla on a zip-line.
(Kuhnla family)

Additionally, Ed Dowd, a private investigator for the family said that Marie Kuhnla had suffered broken ribs, bruising on the inner thighs, and said that her body was partially disrobed, suggesting that she could have been sexually assaulted before the death.

According to Rick Kuhnla Jr., the lead investigating police officer from the islands over his mother’s murder case traveled to Long Island in 2019 and met with his father, Rick Kuhnla Sr., and began expressing that he did not think that Marie Kuhnla’s death was the result of a homicide.

Instead, according to Rick Kuhnla Jr., the police officer believed that the death was the result of positional asphyxia, which is where a person’s position causes improper breathing, which can lead to death.

“I think that they have the interest that tourism is their number one industry and it’s a lot smoother for them to say that she died by accident in some bushes.”

“He thinks that she just got herself into a position in the bushes where she couldn’t breathe, which didn’t happen. It’s not possible. We’ve talked to, you know, through our lawyer, we’ve gotten in touch with retired NYPD officers who run a private investigation firm and said that that’s just absurd,” Kuhnla Jr. said.

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Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo.

Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo.
(Kuhnla family)

Kuhnla Jr. said if the hearings were legitimate, only forensic pathologists who examined the body would be allowed to speak at the hearing. That isn’t the case in these hearings, which Kuhnla Jr. has attended in-person and virtually.

Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo.

Marie Kuhnla and her family in an undated photo.
(Kuhnla family)

When Marie Kuhnla was found dead, she was barefoot and her feet were clean, signaling that she didn’t walk through the gravel at the resort. Marie Kuhnla’s sandals were found hundreds of feet away from her body, according to Kuhnla Jr.

The police officer who was over the investigation, however, claimed during the inquest hearings that Marie Kuhnla had “crawled” to the bush. The son calls this claim “outrageous.”

“Which is a pretty outrageous statement that he’s basically saying that he thinks my mom crawled into this obscure area on the Club Med property, planted herself in the bushes, and then somehow passed away,” Kuhnla Jr. said.

Kuhnla Jr. alleges that the Turks and Caicos has a reason for covering the death up: Tourism.

“I think that they have the interest that tourism is their number one industry and it’s a lot smoother for them to say that she died by accident in some bushes,” Kuhnla Jr. said.

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Marie Kuhnla

Marie Kuhnla
(Marie Kuhnla)

Kuhnla Jr. said that he remembers his mother as a “wonderful and selfless person.”

“She made a lot of sacrifices for me growing up, and I can really see, you know, what a huge difference that this made in my life. But she was always kind to everybody. She always helped anybody out if she saw somebody in need. And it’s really something I try to remember and really try to emulate in my own life,” Kuhnla Jr. said.

Club Med said in a statement that it is cooperating with the inquest.

“The entire Club Med family is enormously saddened by the death of Ms. Kuhnla,” a Club Med spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “The safety, security and well-being of all of our guests remain our highest priority.  At this time, we are continuing to cooperate with the public inquiry and cannot comment any further on the active litigation.” 

Fox News’ Michael Ruiz contributed to this report.



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