By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE mysterious hanging of a 25-year-old South African woman at the Atlantis resort last year was a homicide, a jury found yesterday.
The five-member jury, two men and three women, delivered a 3-2 verdict in favour of Carla Van Eeden being murdered in her room in May 2018.
The matter will now be forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General, which will make the call on whether it will be investigated as a murder.
Yesterday’s verdict meant those three jurors believe an unknown assailant used a cellphone lanyard to hang Ms Van Eeden from a garment hook on the bathroom door, and did so with the intention to kill her.
The jury had three possible verdicts: homicide, suicide, or accidental death. And in the event of the former, they were admonished by Her Majesty’s Coroner Jeanine Weech-Gomez that it had to be shown that someone actually used the lanyard to kill her.
Their verdict also affirms the suggestion of the only witness out of 27 to actually suggest that Ms Van Eeden was murdered: South African forensic pathologist Dr Linda Leibenberg.
That, despite evidence that no one was seen - via CCTV or otherwise, entering the young woman’s room. The only two Atlantis employees who did enter her room did so for one minute and six seconds collectively - a mini-bar maid for 16 seconds and a housekeeper for 40 seconds.
Nonetheless, Ms Van Eeden’s older brother Johann Van Eeden, who represented his family during the inquest and had adamantly lobbied for the jury to find that his sister was murdered, was elated at the outcome.
“Oh my gosh, thank you!” he exclaimed to the jurors via Skype. “I couldn’t believe I heard correct!”
According to the evidence, on May 17, 2018, Ms Van Eeden 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.
According to local pathologist Dr Kiko Bridgewater, the lanyard was “double-looped” loosely around her neck.
Ms Van Eeden, formerly a stewardess on a private yacht, checked into the Atlantis resort days prior on May 14. Tanackia Tinker, a front desk employee, checked her in. She stayed in room 3583 at the Royal Towers.
Dr Liebenberg, who conducted the second of two autopsies on Ms Van Eeden on June 29, 2018, previously asserted Ms Van Eeden’s death was actually the result of ligature strangulation and a “subsequent staging of the body” to “create the impression” she was hanged.
Dr Liebenberg 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”.
In total, Dr Leibenberg cited Ms Van Eeden’s body as having sustained 62 injuries, 58 of which were “unequivocally” found to have occurred either prior to or at the time of her demise.
Dr Liebenberg also said Ms Van Eeden 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. She 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.
Dr Liebenberg ultimately posited that Ms Van Eeden’s assailant had knocked her out, and once she was limp, utilised a “conveniently available” cellphone lanyard to stage the hanging with minimal difficulty.
Ultimately, Dr Liebenberg 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 Dr Bridgewater.
However, Dr Bridgewater subsequently said he was “dumfounded” at the suggestion from his South African counterpart, and said her assertions were “quite fantastic” because the body he saw days after the incident in question bore no evidence of such a claim.
Instead, Dr Bridgewater said Ms Van Eeden’s body was in “excellent condition” when he conducted the first of two autopsies on the young woman, adding to his “surprise” when he read Dr Liebenberg’s report.
He maintained that Ms Van Eeden died from asphyxia due to hanging, and asserted that whatever Dr Liebenberg observed was likely the result of ‘postmortem artifact’ that “mimics” bruising, which he surmised tricked his colleague into believing Ms Van Eeden was assaulted.
He also shot down Dr Liebenberg’s suggestion of there being some sort of scuffle between Ms Van Eeden and some unknown assailant, as he said he saw no evidence of Ms Van Eeden scraping her neck in a bid to get the ligature off, or even her nails breaking in the process.
American homicide detective John Buhrmaster, a 42-year veteran who was retained by Atlantis to investigate Ms Van Eeden’s death, also disagreed with the suggestion that Ms Van Eeden was involved in some sort of struggle prior to her death.
His conclusions were based mostly, but not entirely, on the surveillance video he examined. He said on May 15, Ms Van Eeden left her room at 10.11am. At 10.30am, 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 5.11pm. 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 5.11pm, 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 noon, Rhonda Ranger-Curtis, 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.
Mr Buhrmaster added that 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.
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.
“I don’t see that there was any violent fight,” he said at the time. “…I don’t see - especially because you would be fighting as an individual for defence - I just don’t see it”.
Nonetheless, Mr Van Eeden, in making his closing submissions to the jury, relied heavily on Dr Leibenberg’s extensive report and testimony, which he asserted was more than enough proof that his sister’s death was “not at her own hands”.
Mr Van Eeden further asserted that it would not have made sense for his younger sister to have taken her own life, because this was contrary to the sole reason she came to the Bahamas in the first place: to fulfill her childhood dream to swim with the dolphins.
“Consider why my sister would take her own life, just before without realising the dream she has had for so many years to actually swim with and touch dolphins,” Mr Van Eeden said at the time. “As simple and childlike as it is, that’s what it was. She really wanted to swim with the dolphins.”
He added: “Why would she take her own life before realising her dream since she was a little girl? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Attorney Giselle Pyfrom represented Atlantis during the inquest.