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Archive for Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Student slain in Costa Rica

May 15, 2001

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Shannon Martin, 23, was found dead about 3 a.m. Sunday in the small Pacific port town of Golfito. She had been stabbed several times, officials said.

According to Costa Rican newspaper reports, Martin went Saturday night with acquaintances to a discotheque called the Jurassic Park. The bar is in a neighborhood near the Golfito airport. Martin later left the club alone to return to the home of the host family with whom she was staying. But she never made it.

About 2 a.m. Sunday, a young female hotel worker found Martin, clad in a black blouse and a flowered skirt, in a pool of blood in a street near the nightclub. The young woman ran to notify police.

Martin suffered slashing stab wounds to her neck, back and abdomen, said a spokeswoman with the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. She said the FBI had offered its forensic expertise in the investigation. But an FBI spokeswoman in Miami said Monday that agency hasn't yet dispatched agents to Costa Rica.

From January to June 2000, Martin had participated in KU's Study Abroad program, which this year sent 1,553 students to 75 countries. During her trip, she conducted biology research and collected samples of a little-studied fern family -- Vittariaceae -- that grows in trees in Costa Rica.

She returned last Thursday to Costa Rica, planning to spend a week finishing the research she began more than a year ago.

No history of violence

Martin had planned to return this Thursday in time for KU commencement. She was to walk down the hill Sunday with her sister, Sheri Martin, who will graduate with a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing, KU officials said.

Susan Gronbeck-Tedesco, interim director of KU Study Abroad, said this was the first time a KU student had been murdered while in a foreign country. Two KU students have died in accidents -- one drowned in 1976 in Ireland, and another died in a bus accident in 1999 in Spain.

"There is no history of violence in Golfito," Gronbeck-Tedesco said, pointing to a 43-year history of cooperation between KU and Costa Rica. "Up to this point, it had been considered one of the safest places to be. We're assuming it was just a random act of violence and that this young woman just happened to be there in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Golfito is about 210 miles south of Costa Rica's capital, San Jose.

KU began sending students to San Jose in 1958 and to Golfito in 1992. In six years, 280 students have participated in the Golfito program. This past semester, 15 KU students attended the University of Costa Rica in Golfito. Another 14 are scheduled to go later this summer. Gronbeck-Tedesco said she isn't ready to alter those plans, despite the killing.

"Right now, we're just waiting for the official word from (Costa Rican) authorities," she said. "We don't have enough information to make a decision about the future of that program."

Though she was staying with the host family from her visit last year, Martin wasn't traveling to Costa Rica under the auspices of the Study Abroad program, KU officials said.

Unknown dangers

According to the U.S. State Department's consular information sheet on Costa Rica: "Criminals have shown a greater tendency in recent years to use violence. U.S. citizens are encouraged to use the same level of caution that they would exercise in major cities or tourist areas throughout the world. Local law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities and are not up to U.S. standards, especially in remote rural areas."

In March 2000, two college-age U.S. women were murdered near the town of Cahuita, on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Investigation of that crime continues. In October 1999, two elderly U.S. citizens were murdered in a remote area of Guanacaste during an apparent robbery attempt. No suspects have been apprehended.

U.S. Embassy officials in Costa Rica told the Journal-World they consider Golfito a "remote area" of the country.

Golfito, population about 15,000, is a Pacific Ocean port city on the southern coast of Costa Rica. Most residents work in the duty-free shops, or the sport fishing and palm oil manufacture industries.

Official details about Martin's death were sketchy, but according to local news reports, police were ruling out robbery as a motive because her personal items were left behind by her assailant. Costa Rican newspapers also reported without attribution that there was no apparent evidence of sexual assault, though police were awaiting autopsy results before completely ruling out that possibility.

The U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said only that local police and the Organization for Judicial Investigation, the Costa Rican version of the FBI, were looking into the homicide. An autopsy is scheduled, she said.

Smart and joyful

Martin was pursuing degrees in biodiversity, ecology and evolutionary biology and had plans to go in June to the University of Minnesota, where she had been offered a research internship.

She was a member of KU Environs, an environmental group, and had been involved in the effort to create bicycle paths in Lawrence. She also taught gymnastics at the university and was employed at Sunrise Garden Center, a plant nursery in Lawrence.

"She was a great person, always in a good mood, and a hard worker," said Greg McDonald, a managing partner at the business, 15th and New York streets.

McDonald told how Martin once helped a Peruvian woman who came into the store. Because the woman didn't speak English, Martin, who spoke Spanish, translated for her.

"Shannon turned a situation that could have been difficult into something that was a pleasant experience for both," McDonald said.

And though her focus was biology, Martin also had an artistic side. She was enrolled in beginner's dance, classmates said.

"She wasn't a dance major, but it was surprising because she was so good at it," said Kate Livgren, a KU freshman. "It was a large class, but there was a lot of camaraderie there. She seemed really, really joyful to be there every day."

-- Staff writer Kevin Bates can be reached at 832-7187.

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