USA Updates Turks and Caicos jury affirms homicide ruling in death of Long Island lawyer
A jury in Turks and Caicos has affirmed that a Long Island lawyer who was found strangled died of a homicide – after police closed the case amid claims she died by accident.
The jury convened over two weeks to re-examine the authorities’ original theory that Marie Kuhlna, 61, was responsible for her own death at a Club Med resort in fall 2018.
“The Kuhnla family thanks the wise jurors of Turks and Caicos who spent 2 weeks conscientiously weighing all the evidence in this matter,” Abe George, the attorney for Marie Kuhnla’s family, told The Post on Wednesday.
“The jury’s verdict clearly rebukes the Royal Turks Caicos Police Department and Club Med’s Joint theory that Ms. Kuhnla accidently killed herself,” he said in an email.
“The family prays the Commissioner reopens this matter and arrests the responsible party,” George added, though it was not immediately clear if local authorities plan to reopen the case.
The woman’s son Rick Kuhnla Jr. told TOU after the jury reached its decision that “it’s a small step, but it is a victory for us.”
He added: “We’re hoping this puts pressure on the police department to make an arrest, as their own court system rejected their claim that her death was accidental.”
The latest development comes after George cited new evidence suggesting that Kuhnla, who was an attorney with the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society, may have been sexually assaulted.
The Wantagh woman had seminal fluid on her underwear when her bruised body was discovered in the bushes at a Club Med resort in fall 2018, according to a new lab report that was turned over to her family’s legal team.
“It’s a bombshell because Royal Turks and Caicos police and Club Med had been arguing that this incident was a result of Marie’s death — that she essentially caused her own death,” George told WNBC on Tuesday.
“They’ve been hiding this proof that this was an intentional assault that led to her death,” he said, adding that “they suggested essentially that Marie Kuhnla tripped and fell into the sand, and killed herself.”
The family, which suspects a cover-up, filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit in 2020 after hiring private investigator Eddie Dowd, who said it did not appear Kuhnla had walked away from the resort to where her body was found.
As part of a new inquest after the lawsuit, the judge turned over the autopsy to her family. It revealed that she had suffered broken ribs, bruises on her inner thighs and had been partially disrobed, Dowd told TOU,
The wrongful death suit, filed in Nassau County, also accuses Frank Yacullo — a former Club Med employee who Kuhnla’s friends have said was last seen with her — of killing her, and the resort of covering up the crime.
Authorities found a woman’s DNA in the Long Island man’s room, but it was not a match for Kuhnla, according to TOU.
Yacullo was initially detained for allegedly groping one of her friends, Helma Hermans, but later made bail and returned to the US, WNBC reported.
“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, according to the outlet.
When reached for comment by WNBC, Yacullo denied any involvement.
Dr. Michael Steckbauer, the medical examiner, told the outlet that he stood by his ruling of homicide by manual strangulation.
On Tuesday, Turks and Caicos police commissioner Trevor Botting accused the media of sensationalizing the case, claimed such inquests were routine and that it was inaccurate to describe the inquest as a “review” of a previous finding, TOU reported.
“In the Turks and Caicos Islands, as in the United Kingdom, it is customary and best practice for an inquest to be held either at the conclusion of a murder investigation, or where an investigation has exhausted all the avenues of inquiry or any related criminal court proceedings have concluded,” Botting said in a statement.
“Otherwise, any police investigation or a fair criminal trial is in danger of being compromised by a premature inquest, thereby potentially denying justice for the deceased and their loved ones,” he added.
But George called the top cop’s statement “crazy.”
“Nothing routine about this proceeding,” he told TOU.
A set for Club Med told WNBC: “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.”