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A jury in the Turks and Caicos Islands has rejected an effort to reclassify the cause and manner of death in the 2018 strangling of a New York lawyer staying at the Club Med Turkoise resort with friends.
The inquest was a court proceeding to re-examine the medical examiner’s original finding that Kuhnla had been choked to death by hand. Her family’s New York lawyer, Abe George, warned that the government and resort were colluding to have her death deemed an accident to avoid responsibility.
“It’s a small step, but it is a victory for us,” Rick Kuhnla Jr., Kuhnla’s son, told Fox News Digital after the jury rendered its decision. “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.”
Kuhnla Jr., his father and their supporters had warned that they suspected an attempt at a cover-up by Turks and Caicos police and Club Med, who they said teamed up to dispute the designation and cross-examine witnesses during the inquest.
Dr. Michael Steckbauer, the medical examiner, labeled her death a homicide by manual strangulation shortly after her remains were discovered in a bush at a remote part of the resort on Oct. 16, 2018. He defended his findings during the inquest against scrutiny from lawyers for both the government and resort.
A Turks and Caicos investigator visited Kuhnla’s widower, Rick Kuhnla Sr., in 2019 and floated the possibility that his wife’s death had been an accident, according to George, the attorney. The family rejected that theory – citing Steckbauer’s findings and other evidence that Ed Dowd, a private investigator, had uncovered.
Trevor Botting, the islands’ police commissioner, accused the media of sensationalizing the case in a statement Tuesday evening and claimed such inquests were routine. He said it was inaccurate to describe the inquest as a “review” of a previous finding.
“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,” he said. “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.”
But George disputed that characterization.
He has maintained that such inquests are actually rare and told Fox News Digital last week that the next most recent case happened after a family died in a mysterious yacht fire years ago.
“Crazy,” he said. “Nothing routine about this proceeding.”
The proceedings also revealed previously undisclosed evidence in the case, including the results of DNA testing that found seminal fluid on Kuhnla’s underwear and described blood found on her clothing and body.
The DNA test results, dated Dec. 7, 2018, were not made public until Friday, according to George, who is representing the family in a wrongful death lawsuit in the U.S. They were based on samples collected between the discovery of her remains on Oct. 16 of that year and Oct. 20, when police took evidence from a male guest’s room at the resort.
That guest, Frank Yacullo Jr., was with Kuhnla when she was last seen and has been named alongside Club Med in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Nassau County, New York. But the DNA findings did not link him to her death, and police have not named him a suspect.
The DNA analysis found semen on Kuhnla’s underwear and male DNA on her room’s door but not enough for a match, court documents show.
“Whilst no one has been charged in connection with the death of Mrs. Kuhnla, no investigation is ever closed, and if any further lines of enquiry are identified, then they will be followed up vigorously,” Botting wrote Tuesday evening. “As a matter of course, we will consider if any new information has come about as result of the inquest.”