IN COLD BLOOD

Lisanne, Kris, Catherine—Will the Panama Cases Ever Be Solved?

Two young Dutch women are dead. So is an adventurous woman from Scarsdale. And there are many more. Why don’t we know more about who, why, how? There are reasons.

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.

In the first chapter of this series, we traveled to the last place Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, two young Dutch women killed three years ago, were known to have been alive and apparently signalling for help. In the second chapter, we looked at the usual and unusual suspects and witnesses in the "Lost Girls" case. In the third chapter, we visited the Serpent River, where key evidence was found—and where we discovered it had been universally misinterpreted. In the last article we visit a Panama morgue to speak with an expert in the investigation, and in this segment we will look at whether the case of American Catherine Johannet, strangled to death in February, may fit into a larger pattern of murder cover-ups.

BOQUETE, Panama—Long before she arrived in this part of the world, Catherine Johannet had learned how to handle herself while traveling abroad.

After graduating from Columbia University in 2015 with a degree in comparative literature, the 23-year-old New York native spent a year teaching in Vietnam. Before that she worked with mentally ill patients in Portugal. A globe-trotting passion had already taken her to six continents, and she’d chronicled those exploits on a popular Instagram account.

Then she came to Panama.

After a stopover here in Boquete, high in the northern mountains, Johannet journeyed to the Caribbean coast of Bocas del Toro, in early February of 2017.

Bocas Town, on the island of Colón, is crowded and rough; known for late-night fiestas and a no-questions-asked lifestyle. The studious Johannet might well have been looking for peace and tranquility when she left her hostel for Isla Bastimentos, just a short ferry ride away.

There are two ways to arrive at Bastimentos’ Red Frog Beach, where Johannet had planned to spend the day, according to witnesses from the hostel. The direct route, by water taxi, costs seven U.S. dollars. The slower option—which involves a ferry drop at Wizard Beach, followed by a long walk on a remote, heavily wooded trail—costs only three dollars. Ever the adventurer, Johannet took the long way to Red Frog, disembarking from the hired launch at about 10:30 in the morning on Thursday, February 2, this year.

The veteran traveler and volunteer worker was never again seen alive.

“The lesson, unfortunately, is that women still can’t walk safely alone in the campo in Latin America,” says a forensic anthropologist with Panama’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science (IMELCF). The high-ranking examiner agrees to be interviewed only under the condition of anonymity, saying he has received death threats after discussing sensitive investigations in the past.

“That [Bocas] area is swarming with sicarios,” the  IMELCF source says, referring to the cartel smuggling routes that link Panama’s porous eastern coastline with Colombia and Venezuela to the south, and Mexico to the north. “There ought to be a national red alert for foreigners, and especially women,” he says. “But of course that would be bad for tourism.”

When Johannet didn’t return to her hostel in Bocas town that Thursday, the owners alerted police, kicking off an intensive search of the area.

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Johannet was found the following Sunday. According to autopsy reports conducted by the IMELCF, she had suffered blunt-force trauma to the back of her head, and been strangled with her own beach wrap. Her body appeared to have been dragged a few hundred meters from the trail and left in heavy brush.

A few days before, Johannet wrote on social media that she’d “found paradise” in Panama.

The forensic anthropologist, however, says the search for “paradise” can also work as a touristic bait-and-switch—designed to keep foreign dollars rolling in at all costs, no matter the risks.

“Panama is a commercial port for the Sinaloa cartel and others,” he says, and goes on to mention both forced prostitution and organ trafficking as other threats posed by organized crime operating on the isthmus.

Part of the problem is that publicizing such dangers could weaken the crucial influx of tourist money, which makes up almost 20 percent of Panama’s GDP. But the problem goes beyond a lack of will, the forensic scientist says. It’s also a lack of skill.

“Without competent [law enforcement] officials,” he asks rhetorically, “how can you hope to control crime?”

Similar Cases in the Same Region?

Due to certain coincidences of circumstance and location, Johannet’s murder has been compared to another high-profile mystery in Panama involving the disappearance and eventual deaths of two Dutch hikers back in April, 2014.

Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon went missing from the resort town of Boquete, roughly 40 miles as the crow flies from where Johannet turned up on Bastimentos.  

All three women set off for what they thought would be short hikes before their deaths on or near remote trails. And most personal effects and belongings were found left behind in their respective rooms afterward. All of them were in their early twenties at the time of death. And in pictures they even bear a certain physical resemblance, all tall and fair-skinned and slender.

Charges of a serial killer operating in the area have circulated in the Panamanian press since Johannet’s death was announced, including a controversial and unconfirmed report that the FBI has uncovered evidence linking the three deaths.

But there’s one big difference that separates these cases: Catherine Johannet was declared a victim of foul play right away, and an on-the-ground investigation involving international law enforcement immediately launched.

Not so with Kremers and Froon. In that event, only five small bone fragments of the women were ever found. And those discoveries came eight weeks after the victims went missing, when trail already was cold. Multiple forensic sources have expressed suspicion about the condition of the remains, especially documented signs of bone bleaching. An original police report leaked to The Daily Beast during this investigation also explicitly refers to the crime as homicide.

The report makes clear that case officers didn’t have enough physical evidence to make an arrest at the time—although prosecutors say the case could be reopened in the event of a breakthrough.

Controversial Evidence

Some officials in Panama allege Kremers and Froon perished in a hiking accident, and that no crime was committed. The bone fragments and other evidence might be suspicious, they say, but it’s also ambiguous, and open to interpretation.

A major pillar of the controversial mishap hypothesis is that a backpack belonging to the victims was found on the banks of a river in the high cloud forest around Boquete. The pack was turned in by members of the indigenous Ngobe tribe, who had heard about the “Holandesas,” as they’re called on the local news.

The items in it—including two cell phones and a camera, both in good condition—were covered with fingerprints that didn’t belong to the Dutch hikers; but no prints were ever taken in the case for comparison.

Despite these factors, proponents of the accident version—such as Bethsaida Pittí, the state prosecutor at the time—claim the pack is absolute “proof” of a twice-fatal accident, because the women’s phones and cameras were inside. If it was a crime, Pittí has said, why wouldn’t the suspect have stolen their electronics and other gear?

But when we speak on the phone from Panama, U.S.-based forensic consultant Carl Weil says such behavior is “not at all unusual.” If the motive is not robbery, but assault or rape, it’s fairly common “for the criminal to discard personal items and even valuables,” Weil says.

Some pattern killers have been known to “take a memento” of the victim, as a symbol or trophy, but even in such cases other belongings are often left behind.

In fact, victims’ valuables have also been found abandoned in the aftermath of other disappearances in the Boquete area.

Weil, a court-certified forensics expert who has given his analysis in more than 300 court cases, is also suspicious of how and where Kremers’ and Froon’s personal effects were found.

The accident hypothesis contends that the victims’ inexpensive nylon backpack spent six weeks awash in the nearby Serpent River—floating around in the same stretch of water that supposedly reduced the victims to tiny fragments, and with the phones and camera inside it all that time.

After reviewing a photo I send him of Lisanne Froon’s recovered pack, forensics consultant and wilderness instructor Weil says a lightly built, civilian pack of that kind would likely have become “saturated within minutes” of falling in the river, and the “electronics inside it fried.”

Could the rucksack have reached the site near the settlement of Alto Romero some other way, instead of taking a month and a half to winds through the Serpent’s rapids?

The Holandesas’ backpack was discovered by an Ngobe family on June 14, 2014—around the same time that the search for Kris and Lisanne was heating up, with the Costa Rican Red Cross and Dutch dog teams joining in the hunt.

“If the suspect was clever and crafty,” Weil said, “he might not have wanted related items found in his house during a search.”

“They probably weren’t out here alone.”

For the “accident theory” to be true, at least one of the victims must have still been alive as late as the afternoon of April 11—the day after the police reached the spot seen in the final images found on the camera, and 10 days since the hikers left Boquete.

That date marks the final time Kris’s iPhone was powered on, according to its call log, which was leaked to The Daily Beast along with other archives from the original investigation.

When I ask mountain lead guide David Miranda how many people use the rugged mountain path from Boquete to the Ngobe village of Alto Romero—and thus pass over the Serpent River bridgehead seen on the camera—he says, “Fifteen or 20 people a week. Sometimes more.”  

If the Holandesas were out on the trail “for more than a few days, then they probably weren’t out here alone,” says guide Miranda, who specializes in cloud forest safaris on the Pianista trail.

The Panamanian examiner agrees that any third party involved likely had extensive knowledge of the local terrain.

“If there is a criminal on the loose up around Boquete,” says the source within the national lab, “it must be someone who knows those mountains very well.”

“Serial Killer” Connection?

Because of the supposed similarities to the Kremers-Froon case, whose remains were also found in the Bocas region, the death of Catherine Johannet spurred claims of a serial killer preying on tourists. It also drew comparisons to the work of a prominent murderer, a gringo named William “Wild Bill” Holbert, who was arrested in the same region back in 2010.

Panamanian officials might have learned something from the all the flack they took for either bungling or covering up evidence in the Holandesas deaths. A hotline was established for tips in Johannet’s case, and a $50,000 reward is currently being offered for information leading to an arrest. Although DNA evidence reportedly was recovered from the crime scene on Bastimentos, no new developments have yet been made public.

Despite reports that a connection to Kremers and Froon was established, and speculation that the  killer could be linked to the tourism industry, the U.S. Embassy denies a positive link between Johannet and the Holandesas case has been confirmed—while also clearly referring to the Dutch women’s deaths as “murder.”

The Panama Death Count

The death of a foreign visitor in tourist-dependent Panama almost always leads to heavy press coverage, police attention, and rewards for information. Local victims cause less of a stir.

Including Kremers and Froon, there have been at least 25 unsolved murders and disappearances in this remote, rural stretch of Panama since 2009—with more than two thirds of those coming in the last three years. Victims include visitors from the U.S., U.K., Italy, and the Netherlands, as well as many locals, the majority of them women or children. And some sources suggest the real number of the “disappeared” could be much higher.

All of these incidents have occurred in the neighboring Chiriquí and Bocas sectors of the country, in about a 40-mile corridor between the Talamanca cordillera and the Caribbean coast.

In the majority of these cases, no bodies have been recovered, no rigorous investigations launched by authorities.

“When a tourist goes missing the Public Ministry does try to investigate,” says the IMELCF examiner. “But this is wrong! Proper policing shouldn’t depend on nationality.” But because of the economic importance of tourism, generally it’s only the headline-grabbing crimes that prove too big to ignore.

“Our government doesn’t want to admit we have a problem like this,” the National Lab source says. “Just like with the [human] trafficking in Darien,” he adds, referring to another recent scandal: “They always want to say, ‘It can’t happen here.’”

The Remaining Questions

After three years of on-and-off-again investigations into the Holandesas case, I wonder if there are certain facts that may never come to light.

Who erased data from Lisanne Froon’s camera—and why? Why won’t Panamanian national authorities release the Holandesas’ full autopsies? Why haven’t they followed up on the leads produced by their own forensic examiners, the Chiriquí police force, and local reporters? Or launched a thorough investigation into the other unsolved deaths and missing person cases in the area? We may never have satisfying answers to such questions.

At the end of our last series, we extrapolated a possible escape route for Lisanne Froon from the spot she marked in the last pictures on her camera. Had she kept going downhill, toward Alto Romero, the trail would’ve become progressively easier to navigate. And the first occupied habitation Lisanne would have come to on the path is none other than a ramshackle, two-story “ranch house” that locals say is owned by a guide we profiled in Part 2 of this series.

An interview with this guide could clear up many issues. Conflicting accounts of his role in events make it hard to discern what his involvement might have been. He may have been tarred by a toxic combination of small-town backbiting and macho prosecutors frustrated at their own lack of progress with a difficult case. He could help put an end to the confusion by going on the record. But despite repeated entreaties by The Daily Beast, he refuses to talk.

The indigenous Ngobe around Boquete speak of the Holandesas in hushed voices, and one sing-song version they tell is that Alguien les hizo malo en el camino. “Someone did evil to them on the trail.” On long nights when the big rains come, the tale often told is that the killer tried to hide their bones in the forest. Those are only campfire stories, of course; yet in some ways they also mirror the doubts of expert witnesses.

Until a new, concrete lead emerges—a confession is made, or a witness comes forward—Kris and Lisanne’s case will likely remain unsolved, like that of so many other victims in this part of Panama.

For those families who have lost loved ones, such an eternal lack of certainty might just be the saddest ending of all.