Family heartbroken after Tampa man vanishes on vacation in Costa Rica

Local News

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s a mystery that remains unsolved after a Tampa man recently vanished on vacation in Costa Rica. No one has seen or heard from Charlie Hughes in nearly a month.

The 62-year-old retiree left Tampa International Airport in late July, excited about his trip to Central America. Sadly, he would never board the return flight home. He never even made it back to the airport to return his rental car.

Charlie disappeared.

No one knows where he is.

Charlie’s sister, Nancy Steffens, along with several family members, spoke with 8 on your Side during an exclusive interview Thursday night in Clearwater, hoping to shed light on this now-international missing persons case.

They shared with us the gripping details of the case, including their day-to-day struggles, as they face every family’s worst nightmare. What would it be like to knowing one of your flesh and blood is missing in a foreign county, and you can’t find them?

Terrifying, says Charlie’s little sister. Absolutely terrifying.

Relatives in Clearwater told us that the FBI is on the case, actively investigating those mysterious final moments in Costa Rica where Charlie was last seen alive. Building a timeline is considered an arduous, painstaking process, according to investigators. They examine every move that person made, prior to disappearing, down to the second.

In fact, federal agents say they’re currently working with authorities in Costa Rica on this high profile missing persons case, searching for this Tampa man.

Charlie’s family back in Clearwater remains in shock. They say they’re stunned and “filled with grief,” as they try to find Charlie. It’s clear they are anxious for answers.

They hope Charlie is still alive.

His sister shared with us just how painful this is, as the family faces this daunting mystery each morning.

Amidst the uncertainly, they somehow remain undeterred, their resolve unwavering.

This is their brother, their flesh and blood, their own.

The family says there’s no way they’ll give up, even when faced with this unimaginable task. They tell us it’s all about staying focused, which starts at dawn each day when they open their eyes. To find their brother, they have to remain determined.

No matter what.

Nancy says she tries to maintain a positive attitude,relying on faith. She does admit it’s not easy, and she “falls apart from time to time, but not often. And, I don’t let anyone see it.”

For these family members, there is one mission in mind.

Bring their brother back to Tampa Bay.

In fact, when the sun rises each morning, they embark, once again, on an endless search for clues, praying that the details they uncover will yield answers and lead them to Charlie. That’s how the day begins.

Then, the night comes.

They are drained. They are tired.

And, most of all, they are hurting.

Their eyes ache from staring intently at computers for hours on end, scouring every website, every Facebook post. They devour every detail. Then, the day ends, and Charlie remains missing.

At bedtime, it seems to be the hardest. This is when thoughts run wild and worry grows out of control as each minute passes. It is in this intimate, private moment when those who love Charlie the most close their eyes, hoping and praying he’ll be found.

There are five siblings in all, spread across the country from Clearwater to Seattle.

The cities and time zones may differ, but their grief remains the same. This family feels it across the miles. That empty feeling as they desperately await good news, knowing that it, most likely, will come in small doses.

If it comes at all.

The sadness of knowing a member of your family is missing, that the person vanished without a trace and may have endured suffering as a result, is a punch to the gut. It is almost unbearable, says Nancy.

Each night, those thoughts stir and simmer, seemingly unavoidable. It is within these exhaustive moments, those who are searching for Charlie, think about him while strategizing their next move.

Then, as the day comes to a close, their thoughts slowly fade, and they finally drift off to sleep.

Or, at least they try.

Nancy and her family tells 8 on your Side this has been extremely difficult, especially regarding who the family should trust. She says the family is grateful for any new information, but ultimately, they say they feel mislead, and they’re painfully frustrated with local authorities in Costa Rica.

They say they want the real story, not something “that protects tourism” in a country known for it’s influx of visitors.

What happens in Costa Rica shouldn’t stay there, the family maintains. The truth needs to come out now, in official documents, relatives say. They want to know what really happened to their brother. They want details.

Those who love Charlie most say, it’s simple.

His siblings want honesty.

These five siblings tell us it feels empty without their brother as he remains missing in a foreign country. The family says it’s difficult to know what to believe. In their heart of hearts, they feel certain about one thing.

They know the truth is in Central America.

Far away from Florida.

It’s there, they insist. The know it, and they’re convinced someone in that vacation spot where their brother was seeking peace, instead found pain and violence.

Perhaps the truth will come from the companion last seen in the company of their brother, Nancy theorizes. “There are people who know where my brother is. They know what happened to him,” she told us. “I know it.”

The family claims that investigators are not being straightforward with them which, in turn, leaves them more and more anxious by the day. “I think we’re getting a lot of different stories,” said Nancy.

She still can’t believe this is happening to her family, to the people she loves most. She told us the one word that comes to mind, “heartbreaking.”

“Honestly, it’s heartbreaking, I just don’t how else to describe it. Heartbreaking. We just want him home. I know I have to stay strong, and I won’t give up hope. I have a lot of faith, but some days,” she sighed, lowering her head. “I just have to stay strong.”

Charlie’s disappearance is a mystery that grows by the day, where the only answers are questions.

How could this happen?

How could such a seasoned, veteran traveler vanish without a trace? He’s there one day and gone the next. Sadly, this happened in a place Charlie considered paradise. Family, friends, local authorities and federal investigators want details, and they’re looking for them right now.

Where is Charlie?

What happened in Costa Rica?

Was Charlie killed? And, if so, who committed this crime? And, why?

Was this successful retiree targeted? Was this a pre-planned plot? The former accountant has money, charisma and a sense of adventure. He’s handsome and is known as the life of the party.

Who would want to harm this 62-year-old from Tampa?

The man with countless friends across the globe and stamps on his passport is now missing in paradise.

It still stings to admit it, says Nancy. As she talked openly and honestly about the heartache, describing the details of this stark situation, her eyes begin to well. It is agony, she says. On top of everything else, she says her heart is still healing after recently losing her mother.

“Now, my brother is missing,” she told us, her eyes filled with tears. “It’s so hard.”

The “not-knowing,” she told us, is a “nightmare.” 

What Nancy does want people to know is just how much her brother is loved and how much they miss him. He means the world to this close-knit family, one that moved around continuously as children. “We were Army brats. We moved all over. We’re close,” Nancy told us. “We just want to know where Charlie is.”

She added, “We want him home.”

Alive.

“It’s heartbreaking, it’s heartbreaking. I just want my brother to come back alive,” Nancy told 8 on your Side. “I just don’t know what’s going on. It’s hard.”

Charlie’s sister told us the family is hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. They’re terrified to know the truth, but won’t stop searching until they find it. 

Relatives just don’t understand what happened.

It just doesn’t add up, they say. They tell us their brother was an experienced traveler. He was savvy and smart when it came to visiting other countries. He had traveled the world many times over. He never had a problem.

Until now. 

So, what happened in Central America that led to Charlie’s disappearance?

The retired accountant from Tampa had visited Costa Rica just weeks before. When he left Tampa, he was actually returning to the tourist hot spot to spend time with a friend he met the previous month.

That friend, the family believes, played a part in Charlie’s disappearance.  They are convinced that this person, who sought their brother’s companionship, wanted to hurt him all along.

Nancy says the man in Costa Rica was last seen with her brother at a resort outside of San Jose. She pointed out one major detail, she says. There’s no way her brother would have ventured into a desolate rural area.

No way, she insists.

“He loved city life. That’s where he wanted to be. He hated the country. He never wanted to go anywhere rural, certainly not on vacation,” Nancy explained to 8 on your Side. “I’m telling you, he wouldn’t have traveled so far off the beaten path, in the middle of nowhere. That’s not him.”

Yet, that’s where his rental car was found, she says, submerged in a river, just off a dirt road. Even though that’s what she’s been told, Nancy remains a bit suspicious. “How am I supposed to know who is telling the truth,” she asked.

She added, “We just don’t know. We don’t know if he’s still alive. We’re praying every day he is. Like I said, we just want him home. We just want Charlie home. I’m going to give him a big hug. Then, I’ll probably yell at him for making us worry. Then, I’ll hug him again. I’m that annoying little sister.” 

According to Charlie’s siblings, federal investigators told them the FBI on the case, but there’s not a lot they can do.

As for authorities in Costa Rica, Nancy claims they told the family that Charlie “wandered off,” and ended up in the depths of the Nuevo Rio River.

She shakes her head.

Charlie’s little sister isn’t buying it, not for a minute, she says.

The Cabinas Jimenez website features multiple images of the hotel and surrounding property in Costa Rica where family members say Charlie Hughes was staying with a companion. This hotel is where Charlie’s relatives say he was last seen alive nearly a month ago.

The family says they knew something was wrong, and they began to worry when their brother, staying at the Cabinas Jimenez hotel in Puerto Jimenez, did not call, email, text or post anything to social media.

They maintain that is completely out of character for him.

The Cabinas Jimenez website features multiple images of the hotel and surrounding property in Costa Rica where family members say Charlie Hughes was staying with a companion during the trip to Central America.

Day after day, Charlie’s siblings would call the cops in Costa Rica, requesting updates, wanting any information they could get. They just wanted to know someone was searching for their loved one.

Charlie’s Clearwater relatives needed to hear something positive. They were hoping their brother was a top priority for cops in Costa Rica. Good news had to be just around the corner, they told themselves.

This family in Florida had faith. They had to keep their hearts and minds steady. There was no room for doubt. No turning back.

That’s when the local authorities in San Jose and Puerto Jimenez broke the news that would ultimately break their hearts. 

The mental picture painted by investigators was bleak.

Nancy said it made her sick and made her feel hopeless when she recently heard new details in the case. She was told Charlie’s rental car was found submerged at the bottom of the Nuevo Rio River in Puerto Jimenez, a rural area, far from the capital city of San Jose where Charlie was staying.  

The family claims that local detectives told them that Charlie was in the company of a man, known locally as “trouble, a lowlife, a gigolo.” 

So, did he have something to do with Charlie’s sudden disappearance? Nancy says police in Costa Rica told her they questioned the man, then let him go. She also says she was told that man was in her brother’s hotel room when staff knocked loudly on the door, asking about Charlie.

He was there sleeping, Nancy says, after Charlie was reportedly driving in the direction of the Nuevo Rio River, for no apparent reason.

The stories from local authorities, according to Charlie’s sister, simply do not add up, not even remotely. She says they don’t make sense.

Once again, the search for answers reverted back to square one. Nancy was right back where she started.

She felt confused, frustrated and filled with anxiety.

The Cabinas Jimenez website features multiple images of the hotel and surrounding property in Costa Rica where family members say Charlie Hughes was staying with a companion during the trip to Central America.

Nancy also pointed out another hole in the theory of the locals. She said her brother would never be without his phone or wallet. Meanwhile, she maintains the authorities told her those items were found in the river. 

Nancy says she isn’t buying any of it. 

“This is not the truth about my brother. If anything did happen to him, let’s get out there and find him and bring him home,” she said. 

Right now, the FBI is investigating, along with Costa Rican authorities.

Also, a new development materialized in the case early Thursday morning. A shining light of sorts came from the Lone Star State.

It was exactly what Charlie’s family needed. In fact, this effort is exactly what Nancy says she’s prayed for all along. A massive team effort has joined in the tireless effort to find Charlie Hughes.

The family says when they heard that they were receiving help from a well-known, highly-skilled national organization, it bolstered their spirits.

The family says this is a sign of hope, one they’ve waited for. It’s also the team they’ve desperately needed in order to make progress in the search for Charlie.

Nancy told 8 On Your Side that the national missing persons organization, Texas Equusearch, join the search.

The group left for Central America on Thursday, en route to Costa Rica, to help look for Charlie.

“We are so grateful,” said Nancy. “Our goal is to bring him home. To bring my brother home. Alive.”

If you have any details about this case, or know anything about Charlie‘s disappearance, please call investigators in Costa Rica at +506-8868-9149. 

You can also call the FBI at their toll-free number, 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Or, contact Texas EquuSsearch at 281-309-9500. 

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