The Last Man to See the Lost Girls of Panama Alive
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 second of three articles investigating 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, including forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Kathy Reichs.
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BOQUETE, Panama — Another day, another deluge.
When the big rains come each afternoon this town battens down like a ship in heavy seas. The safari outfitters and souvenir stalls close early, since there are no clients anyway, while street vendors race to pack their trinkets in the downpour.
It’s the middle of June—the height of the rainy season here in the Talamanca mountains—and I’ve already spent a very wet week in this town, searching for clues in the unsolved deaths of Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, who was 22.
The two young tourists disappeared under strange circumstances in April of 2014.
A few bone fragments from both women were eventually recovered and genetically matched to the victims, but forensics experts said the pulverized remains weren’t sufficient to determine the cause of death.
Prosecutor’s in Panama officially ruled the deaths accidental, although no detailed explanation or hypothesis was ever released. Murder allegations surfaced, but authorities denied requests for a criminal investigation.
The lack of transparency, evidence, and proper police work—coupled with the victims’ unexplained disappearance—raise disturbing, still unanswered questions.
Did the women die in a tragic hiking accident? Or were they victims of a brutal murder?
When the torrential rain slackens, and cell-phone service resumes in Boquete, I call on a source I’ve been trying to track down for days.
The man is a local rancher and part-time guide, who has asked not to be identified in this story for security reasons. He’s also one of the last people to see the women alive.
He doesn’t answer his phone at first, so I keep trying, hoping to get through before the next squall. This guide already stood me up several times this week, promising to meet me at various points around Boquete, then failing to show up on time.
I understand why he might be shy. The rumor mill in Boquete keeps churning out scenarios that suggest he orchestrated the Dutch women’s abduction—allegedly to commit a sex crime deep in the forest. Although he was questioned by police officers, shortly after the women went missing, no legal charges were ever brought against him.
I’m not after a confession, just a little clarity. But, as I’m founding out, clarity can be hard to come by in Boquete.
“No puedo hablar ahora,” says the guide, when he finally answers my call. “I can’t talk now. There’s someone here with me and they’re listening.”
Maybe he’ll be around later, he tells me, or maybe not. Then he hangs up.
Witnesses say this same guide met with Kris and Lisanne less than 24 hours before they disappeared, on the campus of an all-inclusive language school called Spanish by the River, where the women were staying in Boquete.
During that meeting, he offered them a full-package tour, including a guided hike up to the nearby Continental Divide, and an overnight stop at his ranch, deep in the jungle on the far side of the mountains.
For unknown reasons, the women declined.
Early the next morning, Kris and Lisanne set out to climb up to the Continental Divide on their own. They were never seen alive again.
A few scattered remains and personal articles were eventually found several miles away, on the other side of the Divide—and just a couple of hours by foot from the guide’s ranch property.
When I get him on the phone again, I mention the victims’ families back in Holland, who are still desperate for answers.
“Talk to the attorney general if you want information. Or talk to SINAPROC,” he says, referring to Panama’s FEMA-like National Service for Civil Protection.
I give him my full name again, so he can look me up online, and offer to show him my press pass when we meet.
“I already told the police everything I know,” he says, but adds a final thought, just before hanging up on me again:
“Those girls could’ve been saved,” he says, “if the SINAPROC people knew how to do their jobs.”
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, local and international media portrayed official search efforts in Panama as both prompt and efficient.
But when I start asking around Boquete—a town where I’ve spent time before—other participants in the search disagree.
“We were out looking for the girls three or four days before SINAPROC even got involved,” says John Tornblom, 32, a guide with more than 10 years of experience in the surrounding cloud forests.
“The first 24 hours are key for a search and rescue operation,” but the authorities hesitated because they “thought the girls were out on a party somewhere, instead of really missing,” Tornblom tells me, when we meet at his outfitter shop downtown.
Inside, climbing and rafting gear cover the walls. A few off-season tourists sit on a couch wrapped in their slickers, waiting for the next jeep ride up to the sierra.
Once the government did get involved, Tornblom says, volunteers like himself were ordered to stand down while SINAPROC conducted its own searches.
“We’re the ones who know the area, but they cut us out,” says Tornblom, who describes SINAPROC as “top-heavy” and weighed down by bureaucracy.
“That rescue operation was a total clusterfuck.”
When I visit Boquete’s SINAPROC office, Security Director Lecia Espinoza admits that the first phase of the search was hindered because “nobody knew where to look” for the missing women.
“There are dozens of trails in the sierra,” says Espinoza, whose position was created in the wake of the Kremers-Froon tragedy. “At first, we had absolutely no idea what route the girls might have taken.”
Espinoza confirms that the government’s search began on April 6—four days after teachers from the language school reported the women missing to police.
“We were up hunting for those two on the Baru volcano those first few days,” Tornblom explains, since the still-active volcano is the most popular hiking attraction in the area.
“[The girls] didn’t tell anybody where they were going,” he says, “so we could never narrow the search down to a tight grid.”
Contradictory testimony from eyewitnesses also hampered rescue attempts. It would be months before investigators confirmed Kris and Lisanne had in fact set out on April 1, instead of the day before.
“If only they’d left a note saying where they were going,” Tornblom says. “If they’d just written one sentence or sent somebody a text—everything might have been different.”
After a 10-day search using dogs, helicopters, and ground teams failed to turn up any leads, SINAPROC curtailed its efforts. A Dutch team brought in its own trained dogs near the end of May, but efforts were stifled by heavy rains, and the team went home empty handed.
The jungle seemed to have won.
A couple of months after the searches had ended, in mid-June of 2014, a Ngobe woman from a village called Alto Romero walked into the local police station with Lisanne Froon’s backpack.
The woman claimed to have found the pack while tending to her rice paddy, about five miles from where the victims were last seen, on the banks of a powerful river locals call the Culebra, or Serpent.
The pack was wedged into a mess of flotsam on the bank, the Ngobe woman said, and she was sure it hadn’t been there the day before.
The discovery touched off a new wave of intense searches along the Culebra—all captained by the same vanishing guide who I’ve been chasing around Boquete all this time in the rain.
By the end of August, a total of 33 skeletal fragments had been linked to the missing women using DNA tests. Twenty-eight of the recovered bones were the small metatarsals of Lisanne’s left foot, still in its boot and sock, and reportedly found behind a tree near the river.
Unfortunately, the information about where any of the remains were found doesn’t get much more specific than that.
At this stage of the search, proper police procedures were largely ignored. No search grid was made at the time, no soil samples were taken to compare with evidence found in the necropsy.
And the poor policing wasn’t limited to the search area itself. For example, examiners from the Dutch Forensic Institute discovered more than 30 unidentified fingerprints on the contents of Lisanne’s backpack.
Panamanian investigators, however, had made no print records related to the case, so no screening could be done for suspicious prints.
Forensics faux-pas notwithstanding, the Dutch examiners stated that Kris and Lisanne probably were victims of a hiking accident.
“You can’t really exclude a crime, but I remain [of the opinion] it was an accident scenario,” Dr. Frank Van de Goot, the head of the Dutch team, tells The Daily Beast’s Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam.
Van de Goot cites the rugged, geographic features in the region as the most likely culprit:
“You can scream and shout what you will, the jungle absorbs everything. There is a constant off-land wind, dogs can’t smell you and there is no phone reception,” says Van de Goot, who led a second team of examiners to Panama, to hike the Pianista trail in January 2015. Despite a valiant effort the Dutch team was unable to reach the banks of the Culebra, where the remains were found, due to heavy rains.
The forensic anthropologist also says the lack of a ransom demand is in keeping with an accident.
“If they had been kidnapped, we’ve heard nothing to confirm that,” says Van de Goot. “Normally people get in touch and ask for money. I can’t completely exclude a crime, but I have nothing to prove that. With an accident, there are a few possibilities, but I can’t prove it.”
In Boquete, Van de Goot’s accident theory is often met with grim skepticism, in part because of a lack of specifics, such as GPS coordinates suggesting where the fall might have taken place.
“If it was really an accident why couldn’t they find more remains?” says guide Tornblom. “Where are all the big bones? Where are the skulls? There are no animals up there that would eat a skull.”
The same rancher and tour leader who pitched the women on going up to the Continental Divide ought to be thoroughly investigated, recommends Tornblom, who was also hired by a private detective to investigate the Kremers-Froon case back in 2014.
“He ought to at least be interrogated the right way,” Tornblom says. “If this happened in the States or in Europe the investigation would’ve been taken to a whole different level.”
Tornblom is just one of several tour operators whogo on record, during interviews, to say they’re concerned the rancher-cum-guide might be literally getting away with murder.
The Panamanian press picked up on those worries, too.
“If a crime was involved” Adelita Coriat, a reporter who covered the Kremers-Froon investigation for Panama City’s La Estrella newspaper, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview, he “would have to be the top suspect.”
“He has a son who lives up near there [Alto Romero], too,” Coriat says. “As I understand it they were both seen in the area when the holendesas disappeared—but I don’t think the police ever looked too closely into any of that.”
In order to help resolve the question of accident vs. foul play, it’s time to turn to a super sleuth.
Cue Carl Weil, a Master Fellow in Wilderness Medicine with decades of search-and-rescue, law enforcement, and forensics experience. Now 70, Weil serves as director of Colorado’s Wilderness Medical Program, and, in his spare time, teaches Search Evade and Rescue (SER) classes for Air Force and Marine pilots.
After reviewing data from the leaked case files we received (including the cell phone records and images taken from the camera found in the victims’ backpack)—Weil concludes that the “initial event” that prevented the women from returning to Boquete along the Pianista trail was almost certainly “not criminal.”
“I don’t see any evidence of foul play,” Weil says. “They’re continuing to take pictures and use their phones. I’d say that makes it look like some kind of accident, at least initially.”
No third party, Weil observes, would let the victims operate their phones and camera after abduction.
The log from Kris’s iPhone, also found in the backpack, shows the first call to 112 (the equivalent of 911 in Holland) came at 9:39 p.m. on April 1. And more calls to emergency numbers were made over the next few days.
The last attempted call comes on the third; but at least one of the women continued to power on Kris’s phone at the same time each day, perhaps to check for a signal, until April 6.
The Daily Beast received more than 100 images taken from Lisanne’s camera, with about 90 of them made outdoors in heavy jungle and at night. If the date included in the timestamp on the last photos is correct, it would mean they were made on April 8.
That means when the SINAPROC search efforts got underway on April 6, one or both of the women was still alive—stranded without food or shelter in very steep country, but alive.
“They must have been drinking river water, which could’ve contained giardia or amoebic dysentery,” Weil points out. “After one day diarrhea could have started, causing dehydration, weakness, and loss of mental and physical sharpness.”
Temperatures at night in the cloud forest would have been in the 50s and low 60s at that elevation, which means hypothermia would have been a risk, especially as they lacked jackets or ponchos.
After a week of constant hunger and exposure to the elements they would already be “psychologically and physically impaired,” says Weil, and experiencing a loss of “wit, quickness, strength, and agility.”
The recovered iPhone’s final powering event comes on April 11—three days after the photos were made and five days after the search began.
Dr. Van de Goot’s team of examiners declared they couldn’t be certain a “third party” didn’t activate the phone on that day.
At some later point, the same guide who first invited the women up to the Divide became involved in the search for the girls.
“He’s the last guy to see them alive—and then he’s the one who finds their bones,” says fellow guide Tornblom. “Something about that just feels wrong to me.”
When I finally got the guide in question back on the phone, several days later, he staunchly defends his innocence.
“I met the holandesas in town but never saw them after that,” he says with what sounds like genuine regret.
“I spent many days helping SINAPROC search for those poor ones. I even met with their families when they came to Boquete. I did everything I could!” he finishes screaming into the phone.
And he might be telling the truth. Despite all the dark gossip in Boquete, our investigation fails to turn up any hard evidence linking him to a crime against Kris and Lisanne.
When I ask forensics expert Weil again about a possible accident scenario, he says that people stranded in the wilderness without basic survival equipment often live for a week to ten days, but “rarely do they make it for more than two weeks.”
The hike to the Continental Divide and back to Boquete takes just four or five hours, and the Dutch team concluded that Kris and Lisanne “could not have lost their way” on that trail.
“I don’t get it,” Weil pauses to study the map.
“They were so close” he says. “So why didn’t they just walk back to town?”
—with additional reporting by Nadette De Visser, from Amsterdam