A Long Island public defender’s death last week while on a resort vacation is being investigated as a murder, authorities said.
Marie Kuhnla, 62, of Wantagh, was reported missing in Turks and Caicos on Oct. 15, the local police department said on its Facebook page Monday night. Her body was found in bushes near the Club Med resort just after 7 a.m. the following day, police said, and she was pronounced dead a short time later.
“We are all in disbelief and shock and stunned,” said her brother Peter John Chetuck, 57, of Mount Sinai.
“She was a terrific wife, a terrific mother, a terrific family member,” Chetuck said. “She did everything correctly, the pristine home, the proverbial great neighbor and community member.”
Kuhnla worked for the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society as a Family Court attorney.
The ocean resort, called Turkoise, sits by Grace Bay in Providenciales, an island in the northwest part of the country. In January, the State Department warned travelers to “exercise increased caution” in Turks and Caicos. The islands’ location, about 600 miles southeast of Miami, has helped its tourism sector develop, experts said.
Kuhnla was traveling with a co-worker and one or two others, Chetuck said. Her friends tried to report her as a missing person on Sunday, but the local police told them they would have to wait 24 hours to file a report, he said.
“By that time, it sounds like her friends and people from Club Med were doing their own thing, helping with the search,” Chetuck said. And since then, he said, the authorities have been “very, very tight-lipped.”
Another tourist, Gina Stevens of Thomasville, Pennsylvania, said she met Kuhnla at the pool the day before she was reported missing. Kuhnla had mentioned she was a repeat visitor to Turks and Caicos because of the water and the relaxation, Stevens said.
That night, Kuhnla was not at the resort’s dinner hall with her friends, Stevens said. The next day, Kuhnla’s friends asked Stevens and others if they had seen her.
“They said the last they had seen her was at the dinner time hour the day before and that she was going back to her room…that she wasn’t feeling well,” Stevens said.
A day later, Stevens said, she could see from her first-floor room the police tape cordoning off the resort’s nearby soccer field.
“It just really seemed unnerving to us,” she said. “She wasn’t off the resort. That’s the whole thing that really struck a nerve.”
A spokeswoman for the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force could not be reached Tuesday night. A police statement said no further details would be provided.
On the agency’s Facebook page, officials said they had launched a murder investigation.
Kuhnla’s son, Rick Kuhnla Jr., in a statement, said his mother earned her law degree later in life and worked more than 15 years as a public defender, helping families who otherwise could not afford a private lawyer.
“She was a loving, caring, compassionate woman who I was lucky to have for a mom,” he said. “If she saw someone who needed help she would help them.”
Kuhnla, her son said, “enjoyed reading, being at the beach, seeing new places, and dining out.” She would often take her mother to dinner and spend time with her, he said.
“She was a wonderful woman who brightened the day of everyone who knew her and many who didn’t,” her son said. “She may be gone but the impact she had on the world and inspiration she provided most certainly is not.”
Suffolk County Legal Aid Society trial director Bryan Browns said Kuhnla “had a great, great reputation” helping families.
The State Department confirmed the death of an American citizen in Turks and Caicos and said it was monitoring local authorities’ investigation into the cause.
The State Department’s January statement said: “Violent crime, such as armed robbery, shootings, and home invasions, is common. Police presence and emergency response are extremely limited.”
Club Med, a major international tourism company, said in its statement that “the local authorities have not given any indication that there is an ongoing threat to our guests or staff.”
“The entire Club Med family is saddened by the death of this guest and sends its deepest condolences to the guest’s friends and family,” the statement said. “The safety, security and well-being of all of our guests remains our highest priority.”
Police asked anyone overseas with information to contact the Serious Crime Unit or call Crime Stoppers Turks & Caicos at 649-232-9151.
“I would also ask that the circumstances of the death of Marie are not subject to speculation, but any information is passed to my officers,” said Trevor Botting, the acting commissioner of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force, in a statement on the agency’s Facebook page.
Chetuck said he came from a family of five children, three brothers and two sisters.
“I will always have two sisters,” he said.
With Ellen Yan