Not So Cold Case

Did a Serial Killer Stalk the Lost Girls of Panama?

A series of unsolved murders and disappearances in Panama have baffled authorities, claiming the lives of two young Dutch women, an American, and others. A fresh look.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Since The Daily Beast’s original “Lost Girls” investigation last summer, additional evidence and archives have been unearthed in the case. More than two dozen other victims were also reported in the same region of Panama, including a young woman from the United States found murdered earlier this year. Now a return trip to the scene of events—as well as renewed sleuthing by best-selling author Dr. Kathy Reichs and other forensic specialists—provide a fresh take on this cold case.

BOQUETE, Panama—We just hit the Great Divide, at about 4,000 feet, and anywhere we go from here it’s downhill all the way.

This bosky crest marks the spot where the country’s watersheds break for the Pacific Ocean in one direction, or the Caribbean in the other. From here the trail we’re following drops into a series of steep step-downs, a rugged mix of stony riverbeds and cattle traces that are off limits to tourists without a licensed guide. The far-flung, rainforest track is used chiefly by local ranchers and the region’s population of shy indigenous people known as the Ngobe.

Our team started climbing before first light this morning, summiting at about 8:30 a.m. to see Boquete laid out in the densely wooded, cup-shaped valley below like some fairy tale village straight out of Grimm’s.

And now the downhill fun begins. Using staves of fresh-cut cigua for alpenstocks, and projecting roots and boulders for hand- and footholds, our six-person party (consisting of two gringo reporteros and four local guides) slides and scrambles down through the cloud forest on the far side of the Divide.

The stretch of trail running from Boquete up to the peak is known as the Pianista, and it’s at least nominally maintained by Panama’s national park service. The Ngobe-cut pass we’re on now, however, is nameless and unmarked. Howler monkeys, or cuangos to the locals, scream from the dense canopy above. Swarms of horse flies occasionally buzz the trail, forcing us to double-time it to escape their assault.

The last time I was in this part of Panama, during the summer of 2016, in the midst of the local wet season, this footpath was almost impassable—a quagmire of mud and slick boulders that not even the Ngobe care to attempt when the big rains come.

But now it’s early April, the tail end of dry season, and almost three years to the day since Dutch tourists Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22, hiked up from the resort town of Boquete into this same stretch of the Talamanca Cordillera, never to be seen alive again.

We’re here to find out what caused their deaths, ideally without becoming statistics ourselves.

Since The Daily Beast’s original investigation, new evidence and eyewitnesses have come to light in this case. Other victims have also turned up dead or missing in the same region of Panama, including a young woman from the United States earlier this year.

Now leaked law-enforcement reports, previously unknown maps and photos, and additional forensic sleuthing—including expert testimony that cartel-style dismemberment tactics may have been used to dispose of the victims—allow us to piece together a much more precise picture of events.

All of which finally culminates in our Divide-crossing, Serpent River expedition—the first time independent investigators have ever made the trek out to the women’s last known whereabouts, as identified by images found on their camera.

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Finally, we can now place the case of the Holandesas, the Dutch girls, within the context of more than two dozen other unsolved killings and disappearances in this same, mostly rural region of Panama over the last eight years—with more than two-thirds coming since 2014, when Kris and Lisanne went missing.

All told, victims include visitors from at least three European countries, as well as local women and children, and most recently American citizen Catherine Johannet, 23, who was murdered in February of 2017.

And those are just the cases we can confirm. Other sources indicate the true body count might be far greater.

Panama Jacked?

About two months after the pair of Amsfoort, Netherlands, natives went missing, the Ngobe began to find haunting clues in the cloud forest. First came Lisanne Froon’s backpack, which contained personal items such as the women’s two cell phones, a camera, and other personal belongings. That discovery touched off a new search, near the Ngobe village of Alto Romero, on the banks of the Rio Culebra, or Serpent River. Eventually some of the womens’ clothes were found, along with a total of five bone fragments later identified by DNA testing.

The case provoked an international outcry at the time; and speculation—some of it wild and even supernatural—about what really went down in the Panamanian selva persists to this day.

Best-selling author and world-famous forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Reichs believes part of this mystery’s enduring power comes from the archetypes inherent in a story about “two young women on an adventure in an exotic setting,” she says, in an email to The Daily Beast.

There’s also “the terrifying element of being lost in a hostile and isolated environment,” Reichs adds. “The cryptic clues provided by [Kris Kremers’] iPhone, the photos giving glimpses into the girls’ final days. And, of course, the bones, the physical evidence of death, the end of young hopes and dreams.”

Thanks to newly unearthed maps and interviews with the original search parties, we now know exactly where those hopes and dreams were snuffed out. The victims’ highest-placed remains were found at about 2,300 feet above sea level, near the headwaters of the Serpent. The spot is in the upper cloud forest, as opposed to lowland jungle, as was previously thought. At that elevation temperatures are cool, average decomposition rates relatively slow, and large carnivores uncommon.

According to multiple forensic experts interviewed by The Daily Beast, taken together these environmental factors could indicate the small-sized, scant, and scattered bone fragments found in the Kremers-Froon case are not the result of natural causes—but instead point to a crime.

Police Retort

The official version, according to Panama’s Public Ministry, the office of the state’s attorney, is that Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon were “dragged to death” in the Serpent River, and their bodies subsequently dismembered by scavengers.

This version of events has been publicly questioned by criminologists, journalists, and even the Panamanian forensics team who conducted the autopsies—but that’s the bureaucrats’ story, and they’re sticking to it.

One reason the party line was met with such skepticism from the start is that the national prosecutor’s office did such a “terrible job of handling the case,” according to Adela Coriat, a journalist with La Estrella, one of Panama’s largest newspapers.

“No chain of custody was established for the remains and belongings. No finger prints recorded. And no care was taken not to contaminate the forensic evidence,” Coriat said when I visited the Estrella offices shortly before taking a puddle-jumper flight up to Chiriquí state’s capital of David.

“It’s a sad fact, but serious investigation was never done [by the Public Ministry].” Coriat threw up her hands in disgust. “Everything had to be hushed up to protect tourism.” Revenue from foreign visitors forms a major pillar of Panama’s GDP, she reminded me.

“I want tourists to come to Panama, too—but the government must still do its job.” Coriat’s eyes welled with tears as she talked about the case. “The victims deserve justice,” she said. “And the families deserve to know what really happened.”

Coriat went on to tell me she’d never been able to swallow the Ministry’s accident scenario, but that for a long time she’d felt like a Central American Cassandra—warning of a covered-up crime in the Kremers-Froon case, following up on other victims going missing in the same slice of Panama—but always hampered by the lack of official recognition and government support.

The suits in Panama City might have been slacking off on the job, as per Coriat’s complaint. But it turns out not all law enforcement officers in the country were so soft on the case.

A copy of the Chiriquí state judicial report, leaked to The Daily Beast and based on an 18-month investigation by police detectives and prosecutors, clearly concludes the Kremers-Froon case to be “homicide” and a “crime against personal integrity.”

In fact, as the District Attorney for Chiriquí state, Idalgis Olmos, told me during a meeting in David, the case could be “re-opened at any time,” particularly if evidence were presented to implicate a suspect.

No one has yet been charged for the “illicit act” of the Holandesas’ murder, and the lack of a perpetrator has left the case in legal limbo. At least for now.

“I always said the facts didn’t add up,” Coriat had told me before I left her office for the airport. “I always said there was more to this story than the Public Ministry wanted to admit.”

Trail Betrayal

Back on that twisting mountain trail the forest opens up briefly on both sides, revealing close-cut pastureland and a tumbled-down shack in the distance. If you were lost, and looking for signs of civilization, you might be forgiven for thinking a small farm or even a village was right around the next bend in the trail. But you’d be wrong.

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Kris and Lisanne’s disappearance is the question of just what the hell the women were doing on the eastern side of the Cordillera in the first place. The overlook we topped earlier, at the Continental Divide, also forms part of the boundary between the Panamanian states of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. The Bocas region is marked by heavy tree cover and distinct bio-geographic features, the peaks significantly more jagged and wild-looking than the rolling hills around Boquete. So why didn’t the Holandesas notice what they were getting into?

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” says our team leader, David Miranda, when we stop for rest about an hour-and-half below the Divide, on a ridge with an overview of the sierra stretching away, the Caribbean shimmering in the hazy distance.

“The trail only goes two ways.” Miranda gazes down at the mountainside below us and then turns back toward Boquete, as if he’s trying to imagine the landscape as it would appear to someone for the first time.

Kris and Lisanne, both recent college grads, had come to Boquete to learn Spanish and work as volunteers with local kids. They ventured out on the Pianista with just a single light pack between them, and carrying little or no extra clothing or food—indicating they were planning to report back to their live-in language school that same day. Only they never made it back at all.

“Once the Holandesas realized they were in unfamiliar territory,” muses Miranda, 26, a second-generation guide who’s lived his whole life here, “why didn’t they just turn around and go on back to town?”

Based on police searches of their computer, we know Kris and Lisanne had researched the Pianista trail prior to the hike. “But there wasn’t a lot of information about it on the Web back then,” says Miranda, when I ask him what’s his best guess as to why the women might have come this way.

“Maybe they thought it looped around, and this trail would take them back to town,” Miranda offers, as we slog through a bog of knee-deep mud.

Lisanne Froon was a gifted athlete, and known for her adventurous nature, including sky diving. Kris Kremers was less of a thrill seeker, who preferred to record pithy observations in her diary each morning, as opposed to jumping from planes. But both women were healthy and in reasonably good physical condition when they set out to hike the Pianista.

“They might have just kept going after the Divide, until they saw these fields and abandoned houses,” Miranda says.

“In their state of fatigue and disorientation,” signs of a human presence, no matter how scarce and delapidated, “might have given them false hope” that they were closing in on civilization.

Other tourists have gotten lost on the Pianista and surrounding trails in the recent past, and sometimes for days at a time; but most have been found alive eventually. Not Kris and Lisanne.

Even when a young girl drowned in a nearby river, similar in size to the Rio Culebra and also in Ngobe territory, she was found just a week later and her body intact and clothed—not broken into bits and scattered like the Holandesas.

“If I fall into a river while hiking,” says Miranda, “I fall in with everything on me. And that’s how they’re going to find me later. People’s clothes and backpacks don’t just wash off them like that in a few weeks’ time.”

When the trail drops again, leaving the sun-lit pastureland to plunge back into jungle shadows, we come to the last of the day-time images found on Lisanne Froon’s camera. The original photo shows Kris Kremers standing on a rock in the middle of a stream bed, squinting back toward Lisanne (and the camera) on the trail above her. While we’re posting one of our guides on the same mid-stream boulder to recreate the image for scale, I’m struck again by how far the women had come from the summit to get here—a solid hour through broken country. And all the while letting the trail lead them farther into the remote forests of Bocas.

Back in the States, before leaving for Panama, I called up wilderness forensic expert Carl Weil to ask about this very issue. Even if Kremers and Froon had thought the trail was circular, I asked him, why wouldn’t they turn back when they sensed they’d already gone farther on the back loop than they had on the way in?

“Once people choose a direction on a trail they tend to stick with it,” said Weil, a retired law enforcement officer who now trains police and military personnel in outdoor survival at Colorado’s Wilderness Medicine School (WMS).

I’d interviewed Weil before, for our first series—and at that time he felt the evidence we had access to in the case might indicate the cause of death to be an accident. But based on the new information it now “sounds like foul play,” the former cop said.

“Many times confused hikers, once they’ve started one way, invest so much in that psychological decision,” said Weil in his easeful Rocky Mountain drawl.

“They almost never go back—unless something makes them turn around.”

The Missing Picture

The last of the day-time pictures recovered from Lisanne’s camera were numbered 0507 and 0508 on the memory card. In these images we can see that Kris’s legs and shorts are splotched with mud, as if she’s already fallen or been struggling through the mire.

The next image on the camera is taken over a week later, if the time stamp is correct, on April 8, at about 1:30 a.m.—and it’s numbered 0510.

The only image missing from the camera, and from the leaked archives received by The Daily Beast—in other words, the only image deleted from the data chip found in Lisanne Froon’s Canon Powershot—is number 0509.

It’s also the one picture that would fall between the existing daytime and nighttime photos, and thus could give us a clue as to why they kept hiking, and what—or who—they might have encountered out there.

Would the women have scrubbed this crucial pic themselves while out on the trail? Probably not, says U.S.-court certified forensic photographer Keith Rosenthal by email.

“I do believe deleting an image is inconsistent with the general way the camera was used during the vacation-type photographs,” says Rosenthal, who reviewed all the images found on the camera.

“There were a number of poorly made photographs that were not deleted so it seems unusual that a photograph would be deleted because they didn’t like the picture,” says the Los Angeles-based photog.

Dutch investigators also noted the suspicious absence of the photo, which might unlock so much of this riddle—yet even with advanced retrieval software they were unable to salvage the image from the original card. This might also be a clue that the image was razed on a computer, instead of using Lisanne’s own camera.

“If the photograph was deleted in the camera, that image would most likely still be on the memory card,” Rosenthal writes. Yet no trace of the image has ever surfaced, leading to claims that it wasn’t deleted by accident, but because its content was somehow at odds with the controversial accident scenario.

A (Monkey) Bridge Too Far

After crossing several tributaries that form the headwaters of the Serpent River—and coming more than five grueling, trail-undulating hours from where images 507 and 508 were shot—we stagger down a steep embankment to a spot I recognize right away.

This is the bridgehead over the Rio Culebra, featuring a three-cable span, or “monkey” bridge, that stretches across the river about 25 feet above the rapids. This is also the last identifiable site—shot at night as part of a series of more than 90 consecutive images—depicted on the women’s camera. After so many months of studying the originals, as well as day-time recreations shot by guides, standing here now feels as if I just stumbled out of the woods and onto some place I’ve known in a dream.

The river shoots and boils through a natural dam of jumbled, moss-covered boulders below the cable bridge. Pushing through the bamboo at the water’s edge you come to a narrow spit of beach marked by an immense table rock, almost perfectly flat and big enough to park a car on top.

I’ve seen several photos of this same lozenge-shaped slab, both on the Holandesas’ camera and in images shown to me back in Boquete. It’s one of the most unique features of the trail-side terrain—a distinctive landmark carefully catalogued on the resurrected Canon, complete with the bridge cables showing in the background.

As I wrote in the first investigation, it was probably Lisanne Froon who made these 90-plus images—all of them taken within less than two hours, in the dark and rain. A few of the shots include locks of hair hanging into the frame that match her ash-blond color, while another carefully composed and well-lit image (the clearest of the whole series) seems to show red-haired Kris with what looks like a head wound—a possible indication that she was badly hurt or even already deceased when that picture was taken.

But wounded how? Or killed by what?

We don’t know for certain, because here’s where the trail goes cold. The last of the images was taken at about 3:22 a.m., and presents the identical patch of foliage, and from the same angle as in so many of the other photos taken near the bridge. As if the shooter had done everything she could to record this precise patch of ground—in case she, or someone else, needed to find it again.

“The accident only seems to be part of the story,” according to ex-detective Weil. The photos clearly show the women on the river bank; so although a fall might have occurred, it didn’t result in them being swept away downstream.

“One of them was still alive and able to take pictures” at least up to that time, he said. “But they would have been very vulnerable if somebody else had come along afterwards.”

Tomorrow: The Unusual Suspects