San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
The killing of Stephen Rutkiewicz

U.S. tourist bleeds to death from gunshot wounds while waiting for ambulance in Costa Rica

On Sunday at approximately 3:30 a.m., U.S. tourist Stephen Rutkiewicz was shot at least twice in his car in front of Kokomo Bar in the beachside village of Brasilito. He then drove to a nearby bar before bleeding to death while waiting for an ambulance.

Those are the few facts that have emerged as rumor and speculation swirl in the sleepy beach town located in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Conflicting police reports were issued, erroneous news reports were released and many locals who knew Rutkiewicz refused to comment, citing potential danger. Night guards at Kokomo Bar and another nearby business, however, were willing to recount what they saw.

Kokomo Bar’s Heiner López was resting on a barstool when he heard two gunshots at about 3:30 a.m., he said. Ten or 15 seconds later, he saw a car peel out from across the street towards him, take a sharp right onto the bridge and speed off toward the beach.

brasilito place

Satellite photo by Google

After being shot at least twice, police said, Rutkiewicz managed to drive the car about 400 meters along the curved road to Don Brasilitos. There, another night guard who asked to remain anonymous tried to assist the injured Rutkiewicz.

“It started when I heard two gunshots from what sounded like a 9 millimeter pistol,” he said. The car, a Nissan Tilda rental, soon stopped in front of Don Brasilitos bar just meters from the beach. “The car was missing a big chunk, like it had already crashed into something,” he said.

According to the guard, a Costa Rican woman in her early 30s got out of the front seat and started screaming for help. Then a man jumped out of the back seat and sprinted off into the darkness, the guard said, and then he ran over to help. It was the guard who called 911.

“When I saw the wounded man, he was definitely alive,” the guard said. “He was moving and blinking his eyes, as if trying to ask for help.” He saw Rutkiewicz had wounds on his sternum.

“Every time he breathed, you could see blood bubbling in his wounds,” he said. “It took the ambulance almost an hour to get there. If only they could have arrived sooner.”

Recalling how long the ambulance took, the guard became upset. “The guy died about 10 minutes before anyone got here. When I saw the lights of the police coming down the road, he had already passed away. By the time they got here there was nothing to be done. The ambulance didn’t do anything but take his pulse and leave,” he said.

The woman in the car was shaken up, the guard said, and she told him that Rutkiewicz was a stranger giving her a ride home. She also told the guard that the car was parked in front of Kokomo when three or four armed men attacked them. She curled herself into a ball and tried to hide beneath the dashboard, she said.

The guard had seen Rutkiewicz in Don Brasilitos before, but said he was always “tranquilo” and never caused problems. “I’d seen him maybe once or twice that month, but he always seemed calm. He came alone, never with lots of people.”

Sources say Rutkiewicz was 52 years old, from New York and a fairly frequent tourist to the Guanacaste area. Police reports from the Tourist Police, the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ) and the Public Security Ministry differed in their accounts of time of the incident, along with the correct spelling of Rutkiewicz’s name and his age. A report from the OIJ stated that Rutkiewicz was shot twice in the face, but the guard who was with Rutkiewicz when he died only noticed blood coming from his chest. Diario Extra misidentified Rutkiewicz as “Ruth Kiewigcz” and reported that the victim had been shot twice in the head.

According to C.A. Santos, a friend of Rutkiewicz and a local dentist, Rutkiewicz was a U.S. tourist who visited Potrero two to three times a year for periods of two to four weeks each time. Santos said Rutkiewicz’s uncle owns a house on Mango Street in Surfside, Potrero – just 10 minutes away from Brasilito – which Rutkiewicz would check on several times a year. He also said that the uncle lives in the U.S. and is frequently hospitalized. “Stephen loved his uncle very much and would always be offended when people didn’t inquire about his uncle’s health.”

Rutkiewicz was introverted and had very few friends, Santos said, “but he was a close friend of mine. I am a recovering alcoholic and so is he, so when he was in town we hung out a lot and talked about Alcoholics Anonymous. We always went to church together on Saturdays.”

Santos speculated that Rutkiewicz might have relapsed when he declined to go to church with him on Dec. 21 – the day before his murder.

“He didn’t want to go to church that day, so I thought something might be up,” Santos said. “That maybe he’d fallen off the wagon. He asked me to go alone and to please pray for him and his uncle.”

According to Santos, Rutkiewicz was supposed to fly out Dec. 18, but postponed his trip because he had to tie up some loose ends with the house. He died in Brasilito around 4:30 a.m. He was scheduled to fly out that morning at 7.

“He was a good guy,” Santos said, fighting tears. “He was my neighbor. I knew him for a year. To me it was a nice friendship.”

If you have any information on the shooting, please contact the author of this report at

Correction: A previous version of the story had a wrong spelling for Stephen Rutkiewicz’s last name.

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