DEATH ON THE SERPENT RIVER

The Lost Girls of Panama: The Camera, the Jungle, and the Bones

The mysterious deaths of two young tourists in Panama puzzled examiners and shocked nations on both sides of the Atlantic; now secretly leaked documents reveal what happened.

Courtesy of Jeremy Kryt

This is the final article in a three-part investigation of 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 also consulted several top sleuths in fields as varied as wilderness survival and photographic analysis, including forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Kathy Reichs.

BOQUETE, Panama—At the crest of the Continental Divide stands a rustproof sign that reads:

END OF TRAIL, NO RETURN PASSAGE

Posted high in the cloud forests that surround the still-active Baru volcano, the marker is hard to miss. But the sign also lists sharply to one side—as if this remote warning had been slapped together in a rush.

Back in early April of 2014, when Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22, disappeared near the top of the Divide, there was no sign here at all.

For weeks there was no sign of the women either. Investigators know they started the hike in good weather, at mid-morning, and should have summited by about 1:00 p.m. That would have given them plenty of time to return to Boquete before nightfall, but for some reason they never made it back to town.

After a slow start, authorities eventually put dog teams on the ground and rescue choppers in the air—but initial search efforts proved useless.

A few months later some scattered remains were found in the rugged country on the far side of the Divide, on the banks of a river that locals call the Culebra, or Serpent. DNA tests confirmed a match, but the actual cause of death for the holandesas—as they came to be known throughout Panama—remains unsolved.

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The local authorities’ version of events is that Froon and Kremers died in some kind of hiking accident, but few specifics have been offered to back this hypothesis.

Some close to the case doubt the “hiking accident” scenario. They suggest a darker version of events, including a possible sex crime and murder—which the government either ignored or covered up. According to this theory, the remains and belongings were either thrown in the river to get rid of them, or deliberately planted by the perpetrators.

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Which brings us back to the crooked sign atop the Continental Divide, in the rainforests of Panama’s highest cordillera.

The sign reads “End of Trail” because that’s where the official tourist footpath from Boquete up to the Divide ends. That trail—called La Pianista due to its keyboard-like ups and downs—is maintained by rangers from the nearby Baru National Park.

But the galvanized sign marking the terminus of the Pianista isn’t really the “end of the trail.” In fact, there’s a very obvious, albeit mud-choked, passage that goes down the other side of the crest—only to intersect with an entire web of paths constructed and used primarily by members of the indigenous Ngobe tribe.

These nameless trails aren’t monitored or maintained by park rangers. They’re also exceptionally rugged and dangerous, especially during the April-to-October wet season. Even the Ngobe only use them when absolutely necessary after the big rains come.

A key tenet of the foul-play hypothesis is that Kris and Lisanne, who had come to Boquete to study Spanish and volunteer to work with children in the community, wouldn’t have wandered off onto the daunting and mud-choked indigenous trails.

Or at least not of their free will. The women had only light clothing, and no food, camping, or survival gear, indicating they almost certainly had not planned for more than a few hours’ hike in the forest.

Proponents of an abduction theory claim that Kris and Lisanne were either forced down into the web of native trails by a third party, or abducted after returning from their hike up to the Divide—possibly while walking the two-lane highway back into the small tourist town of Boquete in the valley below. (Robberies have occurred on the trail before, and travel guides like Lonely Planet have warned about crime on the Pianista.)

“I hiked it myself—the whole trail. I saw it with my own eyes,” said Enrique Arrocha, the lawyer who represented the Kremers family in the investigation, when I met with him in Boquete. “Once you start to go down the other side everything changes. The country is very wild. The mud comes up to here,” he slapped his leg at the knee.

“The trail is like a river! It’s almost impossible to walk it,” said Arrocha, who strongly advocates for a criminal investigation due to unanswered questions about the case.

“I saw what conditions were like,” and he slapped his knee again, harder this time.

“The holandesas would never have wanted to go on down into that hell.”

Up at the Continental Divide, on a recent rain-soaked afternoon, I can see that the lawyer isn’t lying about the harsh conditions.

The off-limits pathway on the other side of the signpost is so steep that sometimes you have to scoot down backwards on all fours. The main trace is also crisscrossed by a baffling network of game trails and creek beds.

Too steep even for mules, the trail eventually runs out of the state called Chiriquí, and into the province called Bocas del Toro. On the way it crosses several steep river gorges. These same ravines, which can be up to 70 feet deep, must be traversed using notoriously unsteady cable bridges. (Those same cables also made the trail off-limits for search dogs.)

As the trail appears now, in the midst of northern Panama’s six-month rainy season, it’s hard to imagine the women would attempt it. Lisanne was an accomplished athlete, with an Alpine hiking background; Kris had less outdoors experience, but she was also young and healthy. Even so, they would have been out of their league after crossing the Divide. Extreme hikers who pay guides to take them into the river canyons of Bocas typically tackle the canyons with full-frame packs and supplies to last for days. They also come equipped with ponchos, weather-proof tents, and other gear to protect against the constant, chill-inducing rains.

But it doesn’t always rain in Bocas. In fact, when Kris and Lisanne reached the clearing at the top of the Continental Divide on April 1—dry season weather patterns were still in effect.

The holandesas’s own recovered photographs show the day they disappeared was bright and sunny, as was the rest of that week. Trails would have been considerably easier to hike at that time, as river levels much lower—at least for the first few days after they went missing.

Once the rains start, though, conditions can change overnight. The same heavy rains and thick mists that make this cloud forest such a unique ecosystem can also limit visibility to almost nothing within seconds. Most of the time, navigating in the forest by the sun or stars just isn’t possible.

“Sometimes even we get lost over there,” says Plinio Montenegro, a senior tour guide in Boquete, when I ask him about the maze of trails on the other side of the Divide.

Back in January, Plinio tells me, a party of eight guides on a training mission got disoriented and lost on the Bocas side, in the same area where Kris and Lisanne went missing.

“First they got lost, then they started fighting about which route to take, until finally the group split up over it,” says Plinio, who volunteered to lead several searches for Kremers and Froon after the initial alert went out. He was also tapped to find the eight stranded apprentice guides—and brought them all back home again.

Plinio is still in top shape at 35, and like all the government-licensed guides in Boquete, speaks fluent English. As we talk in the lobby of my hotel, he describes the feeling that comes over those lost in the jungle as “a kind of forest madness.”

“Once you get lost up there you change. You’re not the same person you are down below,” he says. “Some people go crazy and start to sprint down the trail,” he says. “It’s like a nightmare to be lost in the selva.”

In Part 2 of this series, wilderness survival expert Carl Weil told The Daily Beast he doubted foul play was involved in the Kremers-Froon case. After further review of the evidence, Weil singles out the confusing web of trails as a top suspect.

“If one of them had been injured or suffered a snake bite, then you’d expect the healthy one to hike out and get help,” says Weil, the director of the Wilderness Medicine program in Colorado, when I reach him again by phone.

“But if neither of them knew how to get out—then they’d be less likely to separate,” he says.

At some point, says Weil, who also teaches survival tactics for U.S. military personnel, the Dutch women would have had to choose an arbitrary direction and start walking.

“The further they would have gone without seeing something familiar, the more scared they would be. If you don’t have a map or compass,” he says, “it’s very easy to end up just walking in circles.”

The women had just come from a town, says Weil, and so might have thought there was another Boquete-like community on the other side of the Divide.

“They probably never dreamed they were heading off into a deep, dark wilderness.”

A series of over a hundred images, found on the digital memory card of Lisanne’s camera, gives us a glimpse of just how deep and dark it was.

The amateur shutterbug and college volleyball star had brought a Canon Powershot SX270 along on her post-graduate trip to Panama. A durable pocket camera, the model comes with a zoom lens and built-in flash. Unfortunately for investigators, unlike some similar models, the SX270 doesn’t have GPS or Wifi capabilities.

Lisanne’s Canon was discovered in its own padded case inside her backpack on the banks of the Culebra. (The nylon pack also contained her passport, as well as both women’s cell phones, sunglasses, cash, and bras.)

The first dozen or so images found on the camera seem normal enough.

Tuesday, April 1, was a bright, sunny day. The women are smiling and cheerful and no third party is visible in any of the images. Aside from a few selfies taken at the overlook of the Divide, most of the pictures are shot by Lisanne, and many of them show Kris walking ahead of her on the trail, enjoying the sunshine and the primal beauty of the rainforest.

Then things get strange.

In the last few shots from that day we do indeed see Kris and Lisanne following an indigenous trail down the opposite side of the high ridge-crest that marks the division of the Pacific and Caribbean watersheds. Geographical features near a streambed visible in the last few photos place them about an hour from the top of the Divide—and still heading downhill, away from Boquete.

Court-certified forensic photography analyst Keith Rosenthal says the women might already be lost at the time these images were made.

“They could have taken these pictures in an attempt to mark where they’d already been,” Rosenthal tells The Daily Beast, after reviewing the full set of images. He says the photos might have been intended as reference points, “in case they tried to come back the same way.”

The last image we have of Kris Kremers’ face, turning to look back into the camera as she crosses a streambed, could also be telling.

“Her facial expression is different from in all the other pictures,” says Rosenthal, after magnification and enhancement of the image. “She doesn’t appear so happy here for some reason.”

According to the call log from her iPhone—which was also found intact with the camera in the backpack—the first call from Kris’s phone attempting to reach an emergency services number in Holland comes later that same night, at 9:39 p.m, roughly three hours after sunset.

“It seems like everything went wrong when they got off the main trail,” Rosenthal says.

Many of those who choose to believe Kris and Lisanne were murdered point to the fact that they didn’t leave behind any obvious goodbye messages to loved ones, as people stranded in the wilderness often do.

Other observers have countered this by saying the lost women seem to have been anxious about conserving their phone batteries, or that they might have been the victims of a sudden crisis that didn’t leave time for message writing. A pattern of regularly timed, daily signal checks made with the iPhone ceases on April 6, leading to speculation that an accident or other incident that day left Kris’s iPhone with Lisanne—but that she lacked the PIN or password to use it.

However, new evidence indicates that at least one of the women did try to leave a record of sorts behind. It’s true there are no written messages in the form of texts or SMSs on either of the salvaged phones. But if a picture really is worth a thousand words, then the images found on Lisanne Froon’s tough little Canon could be trying to speak volumes.

The Daily Beast is the first media outlet to have access to the whole series of pictures taken that night, and this investigation marks the first time the images have been subjected to independent experts for review.

Many of these photos were thought to have been taken in complete darkness, but enhancements made by forensic experts consulted in the course of this investigation have revealed previously unknown landscape features hidden within some of the images.

Here’s what we know now: All of the photos were taken in a steep, jungle environment, and the timing between them varies from just a few seconds—likely as fast as the camera could fire—to 15 minutes or more. According to the timestamp made by Lisanne’s SX270, these images were made on April 8. That means one of the women had already managed to survive more than a week without food or shelter in the wilderness.

A handful of these so-called “night pictures” were released to the press shortly after the backpack was discovered. Taken out of order and with no context, the publicly released photos fueled more conspiracy theories and even supernatural explanations for the tragedy.

Our photo-forensic sleuths quickly debunk the sinister hype.

“I don’t see any evidence of foul play at all,” says Rosenthal, echoing Wilderness Medicine director Weil.

Rosenthal says it was “raining pretty hard” when the photos were made. He points to the way flash reflecting back off the raindrops would have limited the camera’s ability to capture images at a distance.

The rain also jibes with the recorded timestamp, as weather reports indicate the first big storm of the rainy season falling on the night of April 8.

And that’s just the start of the camera’s tale.

The images in the sequence are all “taken from virtually the same spot,” says George Reis, an independent forensic imaging analyst who assisted The Daily Beast with this case.

“The camera is not being moved more than a few meters from shot to shot,” says Reis, who dismisses speculation that the women were attempting to use the camera’s flash as a light source.

Reis is likewise skeptical about the camera’s flash having been triggered to signal rescuers, as some have suggested, because “the images are made under close [foliage] cover,” where searchers would have been unlikely to see them. If the flash were intended to attract a search party in the area, they “would likely have tried to move out into the open.”

Some of the images are “sharp and clear” in a way that Reis says could mark them as “deliberately intended to show a specific image.” If they had been taken at random, he says, it’s “unlikely they would be so crisp.”

When reviewed chronologically, by time stamp, the “night pictures” turn out to reveal a strange but definite pattern—with most of the images being carefully grouped by content.

A dozen or more long-range (quasi-dark) images show a rock outcropping, tree formations, and even individually identifiable plants. Then the shooter’s position changes, and we see one or more close-up, well-lit images. Afterward, the camera moves slightly and the pattern is repeated, with the exact same unique landscape features shot again from a different angle, followed by more close-up shots.

Wilderness expert Weil also finds the oft-repeated imagery significant.

“She might be trying to use the camera to tell us something she thinks is important,” he says. “Something that went down that night, and she wanted to record it for her loved ones or whoever else.”

The photos also tell us that the women had been behaving rationally and intelligently, using whatever they had available to signal rescuers. For example, one picture shows a crude but effective direction marker made of sticks and orange plastic, laid out on a large flat-topped boulder. The women had also used a roll of toilet tissue to spell out something (possibly another arrow or an SOS) on a boulder, even placing a rusty mirror in the center of the letters to reflect sunlight and perhaps flag passing helicopters.

If one of them was injured or deceased at that point, it was likely Kris. A single close-up appears to show a wound to the right side of her head in the temple area, and blood matting her distinctive strawberry blonde hair.

Wilderness survival expert Weil says a possibly fatal injury to Kris might be the reason the strange night-pictures were made in the first place—perhaps because the heavy rain visible in the photos was threatening to sweep her friend’s body away downstream.

“The photos look to be made to mark the place where she left her friend, in case [Lisanne] had to find her way back there again,” he says, “or in case someone else found the camera.”

Clues hidden in the night pictures also offer subtle hints about where Kris and Lisanne were at the time.

And the spot makes the idea that they were abducted by kidnappers close to Boquete, as critics suggest, seem unlikely.

“You can see from the round-bodied ferns, from the dominant algae on the rocks, and from the heavy pattern of leaf fall—that these pictures were made on the other side of the Continental Divide,” says environmental engineer Patricio Ortiz, who works as a conservation consultant in Boquete.

“That kind of vegetation just isn’t found anywhere on the Boquete side,” Ortiz says.

Another, more specific hint as to the women’s whereabouts comes in the form of well-worn areas in the moss-cover of the rocks in some of the close-ups. Photography expert Rosenthal says the worn spots indicate the area “sees a fairly high volume of foot traffic”—and was therefore on or close to the trail.

Some of the images appear to be made “looking upward,” while others clearly show a view down into what looks like a ravine or gorge “of at least 60 feet,” according to photo analyst Rosenthal.

The images made looking straight down could also show a body lying prone at the bottom of the river canyon—and the leaked case files we received show that previous examiners had also flagged that image as a piece of key evidence in the case. But the image really is too dark to be definitive.

Reis also sees evidence of what appears to be a “man-made structure,” visible in the background of at least one of the photos.

“You don’t see straight lines like that in nature,” says Reis, of the horizontal strands he spies in a light-enhanced version of the picture.

According to survivalist Weil, the shape, angle, and placement of the converging lines Reis identifies look suspiciously like the notorious “monkey bridges” used by the indigenous Ngobe to ford local rivers.

Adding it all up, Weil thinks the sum total of evidence points to Kris suffering a fall, possibly while attempting to navigate a dangerous river crossing.

A fall into the river canyon below “would’ve been extremely concerning, and possibly even fatal,” Weil says, with the victim likely being swept dozens of meters downstream over large boulders with the current.

Hauntingly, the outline of the cable bridge appears center-frame in one of the most carefully composed of the recovered photos. In the foreground of the same image is the makeshift trail marker—with one branch pointing across the cables, and the other angled straight downstream.

Boquete’s top guide, Plinio Montenegro, knows first-hand how risky these three-cable “bridges” can be.

“You’re always afraid to cross them,” he says. “The top cables move and throw you off balance. Even the indigenous sometimes die on those bridges.”

Backing up Plinio’s claims, search parties dragging the Culebra for Kris and Lisanne also identified remains from at least three other individuals whose DNA revealed indigenous ancestry.

“When an indigena dies in the river, they don’t even report it,” Plinio says. “And even if they did, the authorities wouldn’t do anything about it anyway.”

When I show some of the leaked night photos to the guides around Boquete, they each independently identify the same spot on the map.

That site is about three miles from Boquete, on the western bank of a powerful tributary that helps form the headwaters of the Serpent River.

From the Continental Divide, where the last tourist photos were made, the spot is straight downhill all the way.

Wilderness Medicine program director Weil thinks the women might have been following a commonly preached tenet of survivalist dogma—which in this case got them in trouble.

“You can’t always follow a river downstream when you’re lost,” says Weil. “Some rivers can be death traps, especially if the country is steep and you get trapped down in there.”

A better strategy, says Weil, would have been to seek out the highest point of elevation, and attempt to use their cell phones from there.

Kris and Lisanne might have come to this realization themselves—only a little too late.

Once they started downhill into the steeply angled watershed, it might have been difficult for them to turn around, “even if they had wanted to,” Weil concludes.

Dr. Kathy Reichs—world-famous forensic anthropologist, best-selling author and creator of the popular TV show “Bones”—also agreed to weigh-in on the case.

Like the other forensics experts consulted, Reichs also considers foul play unlikely:

“In my opinion accidental death is the most probable considering all the factors and findings,” says Reichs, in an email to The Daily Beast. She goes on to clear up several other formerly puzzling questions related to the case.

For example, critics of the official “accident scenario” have pointed to inconsistencies in the rate of decay reported for the found remains, such as a fragment of Kris’s rib showing signs of “bleaching”—while a flap of Lisanne’s skinsurvived intact.

Reichs does not find this extraordinary.

“A rainforest habitat means many micro-environments,” she explains. “Decomposition can occur quite rapidly in some [micro-environments],” but due to factors like variance in river current, flora growing on the banks, and transport by scavengers, “preservation or decomposition of various body parts can occur at a different rates.”

Exposed regions on sandbars or along the banks also receive more sunlight, which could account for the observed bone bleaching after the soft tissue is sloughed off.

The extreme fragmentation of the remains doesn’t surprise Reichs either.

“With bodies decomposing in water, dismemberment follows typical patterns with the head and limbs detaching first,” says Reichs, whose next novel, The Bone Collection, will be out November 1, 2016.

“Further damage from animal scavenging can be very diverse due to multiple transport modes: avian, fish, turtle, crab, small and large carnivores, etcetera,” she says.

Despite confidence in her conclusions, Dr. Reichs says some forensic mysteries surrounding the case do still warrant further investigation—such as the fact that Panama’s national coroner reported that he failed to detect any abrasions or trauma during a microscopic examination of the remains.

“I would expect to see damage due to animal scavenging,” says Reichs, but she also raises a powerful point that might trump such minor anomalies:

Why would any criminal or criminals “leave cash, a passport, and electronics in the back pack?”

A last piece of forensic evidence, uncovered late in this investigation, might hold an important clue as to Lisanne’s fate.

Frank van de Goot, a Dutch physician who worked on the case, told The Daily Beast that the final examination of the bones of Lisanne Froon’s left foot, which were found intact and inside her boot, showed multiple fractures of the metatarsals, the long bones that connect the ankle to the toes.

According to the official necropsy reports, those fractures could only have been caused by a “fall from a high place.”

Based on the evidence unearthed in this investigation, it seems highly likely that Lisanne attempted to hike out of the Serpent-River canyon system. In order to reach safety, Lisanne would have had to cross several other branches of the Culebra headwaters before she would have come to the Ngobe village of Alto Romero.

“You could say they both did an amazing job against impossible odds,” concludes survival expert Weil, who also describes Lisanne’s actions in her last days and perhaps hours as “impressively brave” under “truly terrible circumstances.”

“Based on the evidence," Weil says, it seems Lisanne "didn’t just sit down and shrivel up and wait to starve."

About two months after the disappearance, search parties discovered Kris Kremers’s stonewashed jean shorts lying on a narrow bit of land between two fast-flowing and powerful tributaries.

The Ngobe who recovered the shorts claimed to have found them zipped and folded and set on a rock high above the water line—on the opposite, or eastern, bank of the tributary from where the night photos were made.

If that report is correct, it means at least one of the women—probably Lisanne—made it across the first, westernmost river crossing depicted in the night photos. Kris’s jean shorts, according to Weil, might well have been placed at the crossing as a marker, a tactic he’s encountered before in similar, lost-hiker scenarios.

From that point the trail leads over another dangerous cable bridge, and two more rickety plank swing-bridges, before reaching the Ngobe village of Alto Romero on the banks of the Culebra.

Lisanne’s backpack would be found not far from Alto Romero, washed up on the river bank—and just a few kilometers downstream from Kris’s shorts.

In the flats between those finger-like river gorges are several semi-abandoned Ngobe structures which might have provided shelters for the kind of “last camps” victims often seek before they’re immobilized by hunger and the elements.

Lisanne’s remains would be found two months later, as were those of her best friend and university roommate, both upstream and downstream from Romero. For that to happen—and assuming foul play is ruled out—she would have had to perish in or very close to the same spot in the river that claimed Kris.

“Some people wouldn’t have even tried to cross over and get out,” Weil says.

Lisanne was an athlete, and her fitness and hand-eye coordination would have helped her negotiate those so-called monkey bridges, which Weil likens to those used in military boot camps worldwide. A week of hunger and exposure, however, would have “impacted her muscle control and motor skills.”

A fall from any of the bridges over these river-canyon tributaries could have led to Lisanne's remains being strewn along the Culebra itself. But the most likely culprit might be the very next cable crossing, to the east of where the night photos were made. A fall from that bridge wouldn't necessarily have been fatal in itself, but if indeed she broke her foot or injured herself seriously in any fashion, weakened as she was, that would have made it almost impossible for Lisanne to proceed down the trail, and stranded her in the river system. When the iPhone was turned on for the last time, on April 11, that may have been her final effort to get some kind of assistance, knowing she could no longer hope to get out on her own power.

There is a tale told among the local Ngobe that the ghostly, keening cries of the holandesas can still be heard to echo through the canyons above the Rio Culebra in early April, when the rainy season begins.

That, of course, is just superstition—another of the many incredible fictions and vicious rumors swirling around this case.

“I hope people understand what really happened, and don’t blame Boquete,” says ace guide Plinio, the last time I meet with him.

Plinio led a police search party to the headwaters of the Culebra, arriving on or about April 12, just a day after Kris Kremers’ iPhone was powered on for the very last time, according to the leaked phone log.

Some will always choose to believe Kris and Lisanne were victims of a criminal assault, or even a supernatural event. Others pin the tragedy, far more convincingly, on Panamanian authorities’ delayed and haphazard search efforts.

A few of the guides I’ve spoken to in Boquete even fault themselves, because they were unable to find or save the women. A source close to the families says they still yearn for answers—and closure—having only accepted authorities’ account for lack of further recourse.

But Plinio—who knows the dangers and the beauty of the cloud forests as well as anyone—calls this a story with no real villain.

“The only thing to blame,” he says, “is the jungle itself.”

Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam also contributed reporting to this story.

The Daily Beast's investigation did not end in 2016 when this article was published. A year later, Jeremy Kryt picked up the trail again and reached some frightening conclusions.

Additional evidence and archives were 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 in early 2017.

In the first chapter of the second series, Kryt traveled to the last place Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon were known to have been alive and apparently signalling for help. In the second chapter, he looked at the usual and unusual suspects and witnesses in the "Lost Girls" case. In the third chapter, he visited the Serpent River, where key evidence was found—and where he discovered it had been universally misinterpreted. In the last article he visited a Panama morgue to speak with an expert in the investigation, and looked at whether the case of American Catherine Johannet, strangled to death in February 2017, may fit into a larger pattern of murder cover-ups.