Crazy Jungle Love: Who Stole 16 Million Dollars of Ann Benders Jewels in Costa Rica

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On January 8, 2010, the Red Cross received an emergency call for a dead American in Florida de Baru. The ambulance driver who was first on the scene described walking into John Bender’s bedroom and seeing “a blanket of jewels”, both cut and uncut, strewn about the bedroom and stuffed loosely into backpacks – over 3,000 jewels in total. What has happened to them all?

When the police arrived at the Bender home that night, they decided to pack up the jewels and take them for safe-keeping to the vaults of Banco Central de Costa Rica (BCCR) in San Jose. At first they tried to weigh them on the Bender kitchen scale, but then gave up and packed them into Bender extra travel luggage, over 100 kilos of jewels, that were then flown by police helicopter to San Jose. No one knew if the jewels were illegally purchased and smuggled into Costa Rica, or even if they were stolen. Ann Bender was taken to the police station and booked under suspicion of murder. She was inconsolable.

Ann Bender went through three trials, accused of killing her husband that night, but the courts could never make the murder accusation stick. She served nine months in prison. She is now back in the United States, but Costa Rica continues to want her to return for a fourth murder trial, something she refuses to do, despite her leaving a nature reserve, a home, and all those jewels behind. Finally after ten years, Bender and her legal team were able to reach an agreement with the Tribunal Aduanero Nacional de Ministerio de Hacienda to get the jewels returned, after paying Costa Rica 1.3 million dollars in taxes.

Ann’s lawyers were at last able to prove that she was the legal owner of the jewels, and that they were purchased legally to augment her personal gem collection, with no administrative nor immigration irregularities. It was ten-year court battle. The jewels were originally valued at $20 million dollars, but what was returned to her in February of 2020, was valued at only $4.060 million dollars, less the $1.3 million dollar fine to Costa Rica for back taxes on the jewels.

Ann has a pending legal case of her own against the lawyer she and her husband John hired to help them find properties to combine to create their nature reserve, and gain permanent legal residency. They arrived in Costa Rica in 1998, and had become legal residents as Rentistas by 2009. They bought 306 hectares of land, 14 private fincas and properties, and created their own National Park, called Boracayan del Sur. Their lawyer was made Adminstrator of the trust in which all their assets were held, but after John’s death it was discovered that rather than being designated as belonging to Ann, the assets were in the lawyer’s name, and he had moved to Nicaragua with most of their money. Ann is still charging their lawyer with the theft of $39 million dollars, and the case continues to wend its way through the Costa Rica court system.

Ann is now 48 years old, and continues to maintain her innocence in the death of John Felix Bender. Her case has been dubbed the number one crime case in recent Costa Rican history. The 50,000 sqft Boracayan house stands lonely in the jungles of Southern Costa Rica, awaiting someone who will love and care for it as much as John and Ann Bender did for twelve challenging years

About the Author :

Carol Blair Vaughn has written for Inside Costa Rica and The Costa Rica Star, as well as El
Residente magazine. She grew up in Latin America, traveling with her father Jack Vaughn,
former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, and US Ambassador to Panama
and Colombia. The Star published her book Crazy Jungle Love: Murder, Madness, Money & Monkeys
in 2017, and it is now available for purchase on Amazon as both a paperback and an
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