By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
AN American homicide detective yesterday counteracted suggestions by a South African forensic pathologist that the hanging death of a 25-year-old female guest at the Atlantis resort last year was likely a homicide staged to look like a suicide.
John Buhrmaster, a 42-year veteran Miami police detective retained by Atlantis to investigate Carla Van Eeden’s death, said based on his findings, nothing in the young woman’s room at the Royal Towers or any of the surveillance videos he scoured suggested any foul play in her death.
Conversely, Mr Buhrmaster suggested that based on the crime scene photographs he saw, Ms Van Eeden may have tried to strangle herself, and at some point decided to back out of it, but failed to appreciate just how quickly she would have slipped into unconsciousness.
Mr Buhrmaster, whose experiences have seen him appear on the American television series The First 48, said based on the crime scene photographs that captured Ms Van Eeden’s body in situ, the young woman could have possibly saved herself by simply standing up, but waited just a bit too long to do so.
Mr Buhrmaster also confirmed previous evidence that based on surveillance footage of two cameras that had Ms Van Eeden’s room door in their plain sights—the likes of which he said he studied “multiple times”, no one but two Atlantis employees entered and/or exited Ms Van Eeden’s room after she entered it on May 15, apparently intoxicated.
And as to whether the young woman’s alleged assailant could have been the person in the room next to her, Mr Buhrmaster said the surveillance videos only showed a guest who tried to get into Ms Van Eeden‘s room, but turned around and realized their room door was directly behind them.
Mr Buhrmaster’s evidence came after Dr Linda Liebenberg, who conducted the second of two autopsies on Ms Van Eeden, testified that Ms Van Eeden’s death was more likely a homicide as opposed to a suicide.
Previously, Dr Liebenberg testified Ms Van Eeden’s alleged suicide was actually the result of ligature strangulation and a “subsequent staging of the body” to “create the impression” she was hanged. The young woman was found hanging from a green and white cellphone lanyard around her neck, which was in turn hanging from a garment hook on the back of the bathroom door.
Dr Liebenberg said said the young woman also had “numerous” scratches, bruises and abrasions about her body, which were in keeping with a person who had been involved in a “violent struggle”.
Dr Liebenberg also said the deceased woman had “drag mark abrasions” on “large parts” of the rear of her body, as well as an area of bruising to the back of her neck.
Thus, she said she was “taken aback” and “puzzled” when she discovered that the various injuries she found on Ms Van Eeden’s body were not recorded in the first autopsy report compiled by local forensic pathologist Dr Kiko Bridgewater.
Yesterday, Dr Liebenberg surmised that the bruise at the back of Ms Van Eeden’s neck was not consistent with an injury inflicted by hanging, and posited that it could have been inflicted by a “rabbit chop”, a swift, sharp blow to the nape of her neck.
And Dr Liebenberg said she observed a patterned imprint on some of the injuries on Ms Van Eeden’s body and “photographed extensively”. She said it appeared as if those injuries were caused by a “woven” surface.
As for the scratch marks, Dr Liebenberg submitted that some of them may have been self-inflicted, but inadvertently. She said she strongly believes Ms Van Eeden’s “long acrylic nails” were used as “weapons” in self-defence, and in the process scratched herself about the body.
Thus, Dr Liebenberg ultimately posited that whomever Ms Van Eeden’s assailant was knocked her out, and once she was limp, utilized a “conveniently available” cellphone lanyard to stage the hanging with minimal difficulty.
Meanwhile, Giselle Pyfrom, the attorney for Atlantis, suggested the various bruises Ms Van Eeden sustained were likely due to her “very rough” activities on the water slides prior to her death.
Taking the witness stand however, Mr Buhrmaster firstly read off his findings based on the surveillance video he examined. He said on May 15, Ms Van Eeden left her room at 10:11am. At 10:30 she caught a taxi cab from in front of the hotel. At 11:37am she returned to her room. She exited her room alone at noon.
At 12:11pm Ms Van Eeden arrived at an unspecified pool alone. While there, Mr Buhrmaster said she was served several cocktails, met an unknown couple and had a conversation with them. The majority of the time Ms Van Eeden was at the pool she was on her cellphone, Mr Buhmaster said.
At 4:38pm she left the pool alone with a drink in her hand. She arrived at her room at 5:11. According to Mr Buhmaster, Ms Van Eeden appeared to be slightly impaired as she walked down the hall to her room. Nonetheless, he said from 5:11, no one was seen leaving or entering Ms Van Eeden’s room.
At 11:30am the following day, Mr Buhmaster said the mini-bar maid entered the room and exited 19 seconds later. At 12:00, Rhonda Ranger, a housekeeper, entered the room and left 40 seconds later. From that point on, Mr Buhrmaster said no one entered or exited Ms Van Eeden’s room until her body was discovered sometime between midnight and 4:41am on May 17.
Thus, when asked if he felt Ms Van Eeden was involved in some sort of struggle as suggested by Dr Liebenberg, Mr Buhrmaster said: “I would have to say that nothing occurred in that room just because of the (undisturbed) condition of the room”. He also said that what Ms Van Eeden was wearing at the time was not torn. He also said none of her nails were broken, but were instead in “pristine” condition.
Mr Buhrmaster added based on the crime scene pictures, Ms Van Eeden’s hair was in place. He said he further verified with the persons who were on the scene that no strands of the young woman’s hair were torn out and strewn on the bathroom floor or anywhere else in the bedroom.
“I don’t see that there was any violent fight,” he said. “…I don’t see - especially because you would be fighting as an individual for defence - I just don’t see it”.
Mr Buhrmaster said that in his expert opinion the scene was not staged. His opinion, he said, was based on the crime scene photographs of Ms Van Eeden’s body as it hung from the bathroom door he had the opportunity to examine. He said lividity, dark purple or red patches and/or spots caused by blood draining to the “lowest level” on the body, was evident in her hands and lower extremities due to her hanging.
Mr Buhrmaster said if the scene was staged, and she was laying on her back and/or her stomach, that’s where the lividity would be. However, he said that was not the case in any of the photographs.
He also ruled out the possibility of someone entering the room through the inner doors, as well as the balcony. Due to the fact that Ms Van Eeden’s room was on the third floor, it would have been impossible or near to impossible to scale the building, he said. There was no construction taking place at the time, meaning no commercial ladders or scaffoldings were available to be used nefariously.
Additionally, Mr Buhrmaster ruled out the possibility of someone entering Ms Van Eeden’s room from a balcony on the same floor, due to columns of “pretty smooth stone” that are situated in between the balconies, making it next to impossible for someone to scale across.
Thus, Mr Buhrmaster said while Ms Van Eeden’s death was not a natural death, he could not say it was a homicide. Conversely, he said he would classify it as either a suicide or accidental death.
The latter, Mr Buhrmaster explained, was based on his experiences on handling many cases in which people tried to strangle themselves to see how far they would get, but don’t realize just how fast they would go unconscious.
Mr Buhrmaster subsequently pointed to the way Ms Van Eeden’s legs were bent and her feet were on the floor in one of the crime scene photographs. He said, if in fact the incident in question was anything like the situations he previously dealt with, Ms Van Eeden “possibly could have saved herself” by standing up “at any time”.
However, he said Ms Van Eeden perhaps “waited just that little second too much” and was unable to do so. And he said such a likelihood was “very apparent” in the way her legs were bent.
The matter continues.