Death on the Serpent River: How the Lost Girls of Panama Disappeared
The mysterious deaths of two young tourists in Panama puzzled examiners and shocked nations on both sides of the Atlantic; now secretly leaked documents could reveal what happened.
This is the first in a three-part investigation into what may have been a savage crime or a tragic accident. In addition to a trove of documents and photographs revealing hitherto unexamined aspects of the case, The Daily Beast has consulted several top sleuths in fields as varied as wilderness survival and photographic analysis, with the expert opinion as well of forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Kathy Reichs.
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BOQUETE, Panama — Welcome to the jungle: specifically, the cloud forests of the Talamanca highlands.
It’s a rainy Saturday in early June, at the height of the wet season here in northern Panama, and we are—quite literally—on the trail of a deadly international mystery.
This mud-slick, root-choked footpath is called the Pianista, or Piano Player, because it climbs—in a series of ladder-like steps reminiscent of a keyboard—up from the tourist town of Boquete to the Continental Divide, at about 6,660 feet.
Bright-tailed quetzals flit through dwarf species of cedar, oak, and wild avocado along the trail. At this elevation the trees are stunted and wind-warped, their twisted limbs draped with moss and epiphytes.
The rain is falling in surprisingly cold gusts by the time our small party reaches the Mirador, the overlook at the top of the Divide, about three hours after leaving the trailhead. On a clear day you can see all the way to Boquete. Today, however, the only thing visible from here is the white sea of mist atop the canopy below.
But the Pianista is known for more than just its pretty birds and haunting vistas.
Back in April 2014, two Dutch tourists—Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22—disappeared after setting out on this same three-mile stretch of trail.
The women, who had come to Boquete to study Spanish and work with children, were never seen alive again. Searchers found no trace of them but, a few months later, a member of the indigenous Ngobe tribe turned up in Boquete with Lisanne’s backpack and some of the girls’ belongings.
A few scattered remains and articles of clothing were eventually recovered near the area where the pack was found. The evidence was sufficient to make a positive DNA match to the victims, but there were not enough remains for examiners to render a conclusive verdict as to cause of death.
Boquete’s best guide resists buying into any of the gossip and still searches for some hard proof to tell him what happened.
“Most tourists go up to the Mirador and snap a few selfies. Then they come straight back down the same path to town,” says Plinio Montenegro, who grew up in Boquete, and led several search parties for Kris and Lisanne in the days after they disappeared.
“We don’t know why las holandesas [the Dutch girls] didn’t come back down,” Plinio tells me, back in Boquete after hiking the Pianista. Above us, the heavy rain hisses on my hotel’s A-shaped, Swiss-chalet-inspired roofing.
“When something like this happens in a small town, the people of that pueblo feel responsible,” says Plinio.
“We want this to be a safe place for tourists—no matter where they come from. That’s why we need to know what really happened to them,” says Plinio.
“All we want is to know the truth,” he says, staring out at the falling rain, “so we know who—or what—to blame for their deaths.”
This investigation was undertaken after The Daily Beast received secretly leaked copies of the official case files used by investigators. Those archives contained autopsy reports, data recovered from the electronic devices the women had with them when they went missing (a camera and two phones), as well as DNA analysis, maps used in the search, and more, including Kris Kremer’s diary.
Since no independent media have had access to complete case files before, and in the hopes of telling the victims’ story as accurately as possible, The Daily Beast called on a team of experts—including authorities on photography, wilderness medicine, and globally famous forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Dr. Kathy Reichs—to provide opinions and analysis on this case.
By combining their appraisal of the evidence with on-site reporting we can now make some confident assertions regarding the victim’s whereabouts and activities during at least part of the time they were missing—and, as a result, we can also offer new insights into the accident-vs-foul-play controversy.
“We need to set the record straight for the sake of the victims themselves,” as local guide Plinio Montenegro put it.
“The holandesas deserve to have their story told the right way at last.”
At the time of their disappearance, Kris and Lisanne were on break from their studies back in the Netherlands. Both were outstanding students. They’d first met while working part-time gigs at the same café in the southern city of Amersfoort, before deciding to share a flat.
They must have made a good team. Kris was the outgoing one, with striking, strawberry-blond hair and cool blue eyes. She was also an amateur actress, and planned to go on to graduate school in art history after her stint in Panama.
Lisanne’s ash-blond hair was just a few shades darker than her best friend’s. And, at six feet tall, she was the more athletic of the two. She’d been a volleyball star in college, and had tried her hand at more extreme sports, like sky diving and mountaineering. Froon had an introspective side, too, and had majored in applied psychology back in Amsfoort; she was also a budding amateur photographer.
Kris and Lisanne arrived in Panama to serve as volunteer social workers—and to learn fluent Spanish—but someone had miscalculated.
Apparently, they arrived in Boquete a week early; the program administrators weren’t ready for them, and the assistant instructor had been “very rude and not at all friendly” about it, as Kris wrote in her diary.
“There was not yet a place or work for us so we could not start… The school thought it odd as it was all planned since months ago,” Kris wrote, moments before leaving the room she shared with Lisanne to set out on the fatal hike that morning of April 1, 2014.
“Tomorrow they will try and get a hold of the [head teacher]… this was a real disappointment,” she wrote, but her final log entry hints that she was already looking forward to putting such cares behind her.
“Anyway,” she advises herself, in the diary’s last line, “Go with the Panamanian flow.”
The combination of steep terrain and heavy rainfall make for a complex network of swift-flowing river channels throughout the Talamanca cordillera. Moist air currents rising from the Pacific dump some 136 inches of rain each year in the region, and the runoff rockets downhill through the jagged, boulder-strewn ravines that dominate the landscape.
The Continental Divide, at the top of the Pianista trail, marks the point where the two regional watersheds change course. On the western side of the Divide the rushing mass of rivers fed by the upland rainforests flow downhill into the Pacific Ocean; those eastward eventually reach the Caribbean Sea.
Boquete sits cupped in a brook-laced valley that protects it from some of the worst storms that blow down from the cordillera. It’s about 40 minutes by car from the base of the still-active volcano called Baru, which is also the site of a national park.
The region is known as “Little Switzerland” for its resemblance to the steep meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and pine forests of the Alps. Local architects have done their part to make the town resemble a snowless version of Zermatt or Grindelwald, albeit with a higher percentage of mule traffic on the street.
The area is popular with gringo retirees and expats who’ve come for the weather and the easy pace of life. It’s also an eco-tourism hotspot for birdwatchers and outdoor adventurers of all stripes. The streets are lined with shops advertising cloud forest safaris, rock climbing, river rafting—and most of these tourist outfits are run both by and for the extranjeros, or foreigners.
“Sometimes the turistas get lost—but they usually turn up again, or are found by search parties,” says our expert on the trails, Plinio Montenegro. Such gringos come back hungry and embarrassed and humbled by the jungle. But at least they come back.
The fact that Kris and Lisanne didn’t come back is still seen as very strange in and around Boquete. Panama is infamous as an off-shore tax haven. And dictator Manuel Noriega, in a U.S. prison since 1989, may once have been at the center of both CIA and drug cartel intrigues. But today Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, and idyllic Boquete is thought to be even safer.
In the wake of the Kremers-Froon tragedy, some observers suggested a connection to the disappearance of British backpacker named Alex Humphrey, who went missing while staying at a hostel here back in 2009.
The Daily Beast could not identify any link between Humphrey’s disappearance and the Kremers-Froon tragedy. There were some reports that Humphrey, who was autistic, was last seen looking “disoriented” at a beach town hours south of Boquete.
On the other hand, what is worth noting is that in both cases Panamanian authorities came under heavy fire for mishandling the investigations.
Witnesses say Kris and Lisanne left the trailhead, just north of Boquete, at about 10 o’clock on that sunny Tuesday morning. They were dressed in light clothing, and with only Lisanne’s small backpack to share between them.
Thanks to photos recovered from a camera later found in that same backpack, we know the women made fairly good time up to the Mirador. They are smiling and seem to be enjoying themselves in these images, and there is no indication of a third party being along with them—though there are reports that a local dog named Blue followed them at least part way up the trail.
Geographical features visible in the last few pictures indicate that by mid-afternoon the women had left the Pianista, and, perhaps accidentally, crossed over to the other side of the Divide.
These last images suggest them wandering off onto a network of trails not maintained by rangers or guides affiliated with Baru National Park. Such unmarked traces aren’t meant for tourists, but are used almost exclusively by indigenous peoples living deep within the forests of the Talamanca.
Nine weeks later, in mid-June, Lisanne’s pack was brought to authorities by a Ngobe woman—who claimed to have found it on the riverbank near her village of Alto Romero, in the Boco del Toros region, about 12 hours by foot from the Continental Divide.
The contents would cause a firestorm of speculation on both sides of the Atlantic: two bras, two smart phones, and two pairs of cheap sunglasses. Also a water bottle, Lisanne’s camera and passport—and $83 in cash.
The discovery of the backpack prompted a renewed search, and by August the Ngobe had helped authorities locate about two handfuls of bone fragments, all found along the shores of the Rio Culebra, or the River of the Serpent.
DNA tests were positive—and also thickened the plot.
A total of five fragmented remains were identified as belonging to Kris and Lisanne—but the Ngobe had also submitted bone chips from as many as three other individuals.
Aside from the bras in the backpack and one of Lisanne’s boots—with her foot and ankle bones still inside it—very little other clothing was ever found. One of Kris’s (empty) boots was also recovered. As were her denim shorts, which were allegedly found zipped and folded on a rock high above the waterline near the headwaters of the Culebra—about a mile-and-a-half upstream from where the backpack and other remains were found.
The condition of the bone fragments and bits of flesh, and where they were said to have been discovered, prompted a fresh round of questions by investigators and the press.
Why had so few remains been found? Why were there no marks on the bones? What did the presence of other human remains mean?
Answers were in short supply. Neither Dutch nor Panamanian forensic examiners could offer a definitive decision on the cause of death—the Dutch felt it “most likely” an accident, while admitting they couldn’t rule out foul play— while their colleagues in Panama publicly speculated about the possibility of a criminal act.
After the discovery of the identified remains, Panama’s attorney general had called the case “a crime against personal integrity,” but when forensic examiners reached an impasse, the Panamanian government simply declared the case closed.
By November, Attorney General Betzaida Pitti had publicly declared the women dead of a hiking accident, after having been “dragged to death” in a river system.
Some critics have taken issue with Pitti’s government-sanctioned hypothesis.
“The official version of the story makes no sense,” says Enrique Arrocha, the lawyer who represented the Kremers family in the case, when we meet at a popular restaurant named for the nearby volcano.
“The problem is that the government’s hypothesis is completely illogical,” says attorney Arrocha, who is short and energetic and wears a camouflage shirt to our interview at the restaurant, as if he were expecting an ambush. The day before, when we arranged this meeting over the phone, he’d hinted that his life has been threatened over the Kremers-Froon case. Perhaps for that reason, he’s accompanied to our table by a bouncer-sized bodyguard.
“If my client and Miss Froon had died of natural causes,” Arrocha says in a rapid whisper, so as not to be overheard by nearby tables, “grease from decomposition would impregnate the clothes and backpack.”
The bodyguard and I both lean in with interest, and Arrocha continues in the same hushed tone:
“It’s almost impossible for the bones to be in this condition,” he says, and points out that the lead forensic examiner had publicly speculated that lime might have been used to hasten decomposition.
“The evidence seems to have been manipulated in order to hide something,” says Arrocha, who at one point threatened to take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
“At the very least there should have been a criminal investigation,” he slaps his hand on the table. “Even the [Panamanian] forensic examiners wanted to do that. But the prosecutor threw out all our petitions.”
Some high-profile members of the Panamanian press were also skeptical about the official theory.
Adelita Coriat, who covered the story for La Estrella, one of the country’s largest papers, believes “the investigation would have been more robust if the authorities had found the complete skeletons of the girls.”
The first official search party didn’t get under way until April 6—almost a week after the women went missing, according to information The Daily Beast received from Panama’s National System for Civil Protection (SINAPROC). Even worse, as Coriat points out in an email to The Daily Beast, no chain of custody was established for the recovered evidence.
“I have many doubts,” she says, “about the government hypothesis.”
For instance, when the contents of the backpack were examined by experts at the Dutch Forensic Institute, they discovered more than 30 unidentified fingerprints—but Panama had failed to record prints from any of the indigenous people involved in the case.
One of the hardest details for Coriat to swallow, she says, is how the backpack was allegedly found washed up on the riverbank—and with bone fragments found both upstream and down from that spot—yet the electronics inside the pack were relatively undamaged.
“The intact conditions of the clothes and wallet seem to contradict the hypothesis of the prosecution,” says Coriat, citing verbatim a criminologist she interviewed in the course of her original investigation.
In the now-crowded Baru restaurant, Lawyer Arrocha tries to voice his concerns over the noise of a crowd of locals gathered to watch a soccer game on the satellite feed—a luxury in these remote mountains.
“No forensics examination was ever done at the crime scene!” Arrocha holds up his index finger, starting his count of the policing blunders.
“None of the dog teams ever got near the scene either—including the Dutch dog teams!” He’s half-shouting now, but nobody can hear him over the cheers and jeers for the futbol game.
“Then the indigenas just showed up with all these bones in a bag, and the prosecution accepted them.” He pulls down the last finger.
“But nothing was ever verified!”
According to critics like Arrocha and Coriat, the government has a clear-cut motive for insisting on an accident scenario, instead of at least looking into the possibility of a homicide:
“It’s the need to protect tourism,” Arrocha says, echoing those involved in the Humphrey case.
When I ask him why the Kremer family ultimately declined to take the case to the ICJ, Arrocha says that the family might have preferred psychological closure to learning any more unpleasant facts.
“You don’t see what you don’t want to see,” he says.
A few days later, when I meet again with top guide Plinio, I ask him about Arrocha’s suspicions.
“There are many ways to die up there in the mountains,” says Plinio, who continued to lead police search parties for some two weeks after Kris and Lisanne were reported missing. His list of hazards includes disorienting terrain, jumping vipers and jaguars, and treacherous river crossings.
“Any criminals [in the area] would face the same risks as the holandesas themselves,” Plinio muses aloud. The general lack of mobility would cut both ways, he says, and all the trails in the area were searched at the time.
“If a third party was involved,” Plinio asks himself, as if still haunted by the question, “how come we never found any sign of them?”
Then the guide crosses himself, and kisses his fingertips.
“There are a lot of ways to die up there,” he says again.
Next Saturday—The Search