Unusual Suspects

Murderous Vacations: Serial Killers Stalking the Panama Highlands

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

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—Everyone knows everyone in a town this small. And that should make it hard to keep a secret for long. Or so you'd think.

From the quaint two-story courthouse to the outlying villages on the slopes of the Baru Volcano, the Boquete rumor mill runs all day, every day. The local buzz can make it difficult to separate genuine fact from tropical fiction, although the town boasts just a single paved street and fewer than 10,000 residents.

On my last trip here, as part of an earlier investigation into the unsolved deaths of two young Dutch women, Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, I tried to track down a local guide—a well-known and controversial figure in Boquete with close ties to the case. It’s been almost a full year now, yet this source remains a gossip-clouded enigma.

Some call him the “best guide in town,” while others suggest he might be Panama’s most-wanted serial killer. I’d like to sit down with him, give him the benefit of every doubt, and get his side of the story. But it seems he doesn’t want to talk; or at least not to me, as I’ve been trying to contact him since last summer.

According to a police report leaked to The Daily Beast, this tour leader told authorities he had met with Dutch tourists Kris and Lisanne the same day they disappeared from Boquete, on April 1, 2014. He claimed to have scheduled a hike with them for the following day, and that he went looking when they never showed up.

As for the women, their fragmented remains were found about two months later, near a trail called the Pianista—victims of what the same report refers to as “homicidio.”

In a strange twist, one of the last people to see the women alive, was also the man who led the search party that found their fragmented bones. That alone makes him one of the most important sources in this case.

A contact close to the victims’ families in Holland has indicated they’re still searching for answers or new clues. The uncovered police record gives some fresh insights, such as the assertion that the cause of death was considered a “crime,” as opposed to an accident. But a palaver with the guide could help break new ground in this investigation, and perhaps give some measure of closure to grieving loved ones.

Since my return to town I’ve been hunting him again, but his phone keeps rolling straight to voicemail. I’m told he hasn’t been seen for days in any of the tour shops or hotels where guides often hang around, hoping to drum up clients.

Multiple media outlets have linked this guide to the case, although the exact role he played remains unclear. What we do know, based on the leaked police report and the guide’s own account therein, is that he was scheduled to take the Holandesas—as they’ve come to be known throughout Panama—to visit a nearby farm on April 2, the day after they vanished.

He’s also been accused by Panamanian prosecutors of entering the room where the women stayed ahead of authorities, and possibly tampering with evidence. Based on the original maps made by the searchers, and interviews with team members, we now know the victims’ fragmented remains were discovered just a few miles from this same guide’s ranch house.

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Conflicting reports in the Dutch and Panamanian press offer wildly different perspectives on these events. Some accounts name him as complicit in a crime against the women—but other sources describe his own attempts to find the lost tourists and assist authorities in the search. So who’s to be believed?

Guide Espied

Since The Daily Beast profiled this enigmatic guide, in Part Two of our first series, other former clients have come forward to say they were threatened by him.

“He is a mountain guide who speaks a little English, and even a little German,” says Nina von Rönne, who lives in Paris and recently rented a vacation property from that Boquete native.

“We always saw him with women,” von Rönne says, after initially contacting me over social media. She’s also sent a picture of herself with the man in question, her former landlord. And I’ve spoken with another traveler who was with the Sorbonne grad in Panama, and who independently corroborates the details of her story.

“He works only with female tourists … from Europe and a little bit from Canada,” von Rönne says. “He has a preference for German, Dutch, and all people coming from northern and eastern Europe,” but he “doesn’t like Americans.”

Ms. von Rönne, a photographer is in her mid-twenties, describes the suspect as about 65, although she “never dared ask him” how old he was.

“He is physically very strong for his age,” she says. “I saw him carry super heavy bags of coffee beans and fruit from his garden, as if it were absolutely nothing. He is a true force of nature.

He is able to walk quickly and for long distances in the mountains and without getting tired.”

After renting a small cottage on his isolated farm for several weeks, she began to feel trapped, as if “he was spying on me.”

When von Rönne spurned his romantic advances, she claims, he became “like a panther. He literally jumped on my neck . . . He even tried to lift me up as if to see how much I weighed. It really bothered me because although we had been living there for two months, [yet] I still had so many difficulties with his physical relationship being too close.”

Asking around Boquete turns up other, similar accounts.

“[This guide] is not allowed on our property,” says a receptionist at one of the largest hostels in town. “The owner doesn’t let us book tours with him anymore,” the receptionist says, because of his “impertinent” habits with female clients.

It’s widely known in town, and self-published on sites like Trip Advisor, that the guide specializes in taking hikers on long, three-day treks from Boquete out to the Bocas coast via the Pianista trailthe same route taken by Kremers and Froon just before their disappearance.

The Bocas region is also where U.S. citizen Catherine Johannet and others have turned up dead or gone missing.—including at least six victims in the last two years, according to reports in the national press.

Corinna Epp, a German citizen who lives half the year in Panama, and who works as a tour organizer, says the aforementioned guide is “hated” for “sexually harassing” clients.

“I’ve never seen our owner react to any of the other guides like that,” Epp adds.

None of these allegations makes him a murderer, however.

The guiding community itself seems split on his reputation. In the past I’ve heard from some guides that he was AWOL when the other outfitters went up into the high country above Boquete to hunt for Kremers and Froon—yet another local trailmaster I speak to describes him as “a hero” who has “inspired many of us.”

Von Rönne isn’t surprised by the competing narratives:

“He has a double face,” says his former client, who says she finally left Boquete out of fear for her own safety. “There is one aspect of his personality that can be very nice, but another that’s a real demon.”

The Unusual Suspects

An escaped convict, Frank Pardo, who broke out of a Panamanian prison in March of 2013, is another possible perp with a past in the vicinity. A former sicario, or assassin, with the Mexican cartels, Pardo was convicted of the “Satanic” murder of a woman in 1996, who showed signs of torture. Pardo has been known to frequent the northern Chiriqui area around Boquete, and remains at large as of this writing.

One more conceivable culprit is the so-called “Hannibal Lecter of Bugaba,” who was arrested back in March of 2017 for hacking up a 27-year-old woman he’d met on Facebook, then bon-firing her body in his own backyard, not 20 minutes from Boquete proper.

When police caught up with him he was carrying unidentified raw meat around in a suitcase, thus leading to his cannibalistic sobriquet. Press reports indicate he’s still under investigation for possible links to other missing persons in the area.

Then there’s the taxi driver who brought Kris and Lisanne to the Pianista trailhead on the morning they went missing. He turned up dead almost exactly a year later, under officially “unexplained” circumstances. Gossip in Boquete paints Leo Gonzalez’s death as a “drowning,” but eye witnesses say questions remain.

“It’s a strange thing,” says César Castillo, a rock-climbing instructor who was teaching clients nearby when Gonzalez’s body was pulled from the water in a shallow stretch of the mini-canyon the locals call Gualaca.

“It’s easy to swim there, with no strong current,” says Castillo, who frequently takes his climbing students for a dip in the same spot. “And we never heard any cries for help, or splashing around like he was in trouble. We know he didn’t hit his head on a rock, because there was no blood or bruising,” says Castillo, who helped pull Gonzalez from the water and tried to perform CPR.

Castillo also reports the presence of other cars parked near the mini-canyon that day, although he admits he can’t be sure the death was not an accident.

“Leo was a good kid,” says a fellow taxi driver in town, when I ask about Gonzalez. “Always responsible. Always on time. If he got killed over the Holandesas, it could’ve been because he saw something he shouldn’t have near the Pianista,” the driver says, referring to the trail where the young women disappeared. “Not because he did anything wrong himself.”

Organ Players

Back in the fall of 2012, a young woman was found dead and partly burned near a highway just north of Boquete, near the Costa Rican border. At first it was thought to be a case of domestic violence, and her boyfriend was promptly arrested.

But soon widely circulated reports claimed that 18-year-old college student Aira Guerra was missing all of her vital organs. These were said to have been removed in a surgical manner via a Y-shaped incision from her shoulders to the pubic bone.

Because two other victims supposedly were found in a similar condition in the Chiriquí region, organ trafficking has also been hypothesized as a motive in the Kremers-Froon case.

At least four people were arrested for Aira’s murder. Links to a proven organ-trafficking ring operating just across the border in Costa Rica were touted in local news accounts.

It’s hard to say whether or not there is a definite connection to the Holandesas’ case, in part because the Panamanian prosecutors “suspiciously” allowed some of those arrested for Aira’s death to walk before thorough questioning could take place. (The trial is apparently still pending.)

My own hunch, however, is that this is just the regional rumor factory at work. Although the evidence in the Aira Guerra case does seem to have gone missing under shady circumstances, the accounts of organ removal are disputed.

And, in any case, the extremely remote area where Kris and Lisanne went missing would hardly be conducive to the harvesting of delicate human tissues.

"Organ theft is one of the oldest urban legends in the books,” says Dr. Kathy Reichs, when I ask her about the topic. “I would be very skeptical of this. How could their organs have been properly removed, preserved, or transported? Sold how? Implanted where?”

Another US-based forensics consultant, Carl Weil, concurs with Reichs. “If it was a crime it was more likely one of opportunity,” as opposed to a black-market operation conducted “out there in the wilderness,” says the former Marine and police officer who’s served as an advisor in over 300 U.S. court cases.

“In the mountains of the Pianista.”

The owner of the Spanish-language school in Boquete where Kris and Lisanne were enrolled appears to have been the first witness to alert authorities that the Holandesas were missing. At that time, she also reported the women had booked a trip to a “ranch in Alto Quiel” with the previously indicated guide.

There’s another mention of that guide in the leaked police archive, which again puts him at the center of the action. The reference makes clear the criminal investigation was initiated because of “information,” he provided “about the disappearance [of Kremers and Froon] in the mountains of the Pianista.”

On one hand, this could mean he was telling the truth, and providing help in the case. On the other hand, Panamanian prosecutors state he’d entered the women’s rented room prior to questioning, and without a police escort—a fact cited in relation to potential evidence having gone missing as well.

Other questions remain. For example, since the Holandesas’ scheduled tour with him was for Alto Quiel, which is in the opposite direction, how did the guide know the Dutch women were missing in the Pianista region when officials first questioned him?

It would be two more months before the victims’ remains and clothes and personal belongings would be found near the Pianista trail. Yet he described the precise location immediately following the disappearance, says the leaked report—although none of the first-strike rescue parties were able to find the two hikers alive in the early days of the search.

Of course there could be a purely coincidental reason for all such lingering doubts. And Carl Weil, who heads up Colorado’s Wilderness Medicine School, offers a simple solution for clearing them up:

“[They] ought to re-open this case,” says Weil, who also suggests the Dutch and U.S. embassies might need to get involved to help penetrate the cloud of myth and hearsay.

“Whoever did this should be brought to justice,” he says. “And that’s a fact.”