Death on the Serpent River
The Lost Girls of Panama: The Full Story
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.
The Daily Beast brings together here all three parts of its investigation into the fate of Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22, who went out for a brief hike near a mountain resort in Panama in 2014 and never came back.
Were they victims of a tragic accident or a savage crime? Amid what seems conflicting evidence and botched police work, theories have proliferated, some of them even involving the occult.
Now, thanks to a trove of documents and photographs revealing hitherto unexamined aspects of the case, we have been able to offer fresh insights into what happened in this celebrated mystery.
We have consulted reputable sleuths in fields as varied as wilderness survival and photographic analysis, and obtained the expert opinion of forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Kathy Reichs.
The results may not close the debate entirely about an incident that has fascinated and horrified people around the world, but our discoveries should bring closure to those who knew the women, or have grown to care, truly, about their fate.
BOQUETE, Panama — Welcome to the jungle: specifically, the cloud forests of the Talamanca highlands.
It’s a rainy Saturday in early June, at the height of the wet season here in northern Panama, and we are—quite literally—on the trail of a deadly international mystery.
This mud-slick, root-choked footpath is called the Pianista, or Piano Player, because it climbs—in a series of ladder-like steps reminiscent of a keyboard—up from the tourist town of Boquete to the Continental Divide, at about 6,660 feet.
Bright-tailed quetzals flit through dwarf species of cedar, oak, and wild avocado along the trail. At this elevation the trees are stunted and wind-warped, their twisted limbs draped with moss and epiphytes.
The rain is falling in surprisingly cold gusts by the time our small party reaches the Mirador, the overlook at the top of the Divide, about three hours after leaving the trailhead. On a clear day you can see all the way to Boquete. Today, however, the only thing visible from here is the white sea of mist atop the canopy below.
But the Pianista is known for more than just its pretty birds and haunting vistas.
Back in April 2014, two Dutch tourists—Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22—disppeared after setting out on this same three-mile stretch of trail.
The women, who had come to Boquete to study Spanish and work with children, were never seen alive again. Searchers found no trace of them but, a few months later, a member of the indigenous Ngobe tribe turned up in Boquete with Lisanne’s backpack and some of the girls’ belongings.
A few scattered remains and articles of clothing eventually were recovered near the area where the pack was found. The evidence was sufficient to make a positive DNA match to the victims, but there were not enough remains for examiners to render a conclusive verdict as to cause of death.
The lack of hard answers led to a flurry of suspicions—and, eventually, formal allegations of foul play. The case also spawned a host of bizarre theories, and amateur investigations.
The deaths of Kris and Lisanne have been blamed on pygmy cannibals, cartel hitmen, and organ traffickers, as well as more conventional explanations—like kidnapping and rape that ends in murder.
Boquete’s best guide resists buying into any of the gossip and still searches for some hard proof to tell him what happened.
“Most tourists go up to the Mirador and snap a few selfies. Then they come straight back down the same path to town,” says Plinio Montenegro, who grew up in Boquete, and led several search parties for Kris and Lisanne in the days after they disappeared.
“We don’t know why las holandesas [the Dutch girls] didn’t come back down,” Plinio tells me, back in Boquete after hiking the Pianista. Above us, the heavy rain hisses on my hotel’s A-shaped, Swiss-chalet-inspired roofing.
“When something like this happens in a small town, the people of that pueblo feel responsible,” says Plinio.
“We want this to be a safe place for tourists—no matter where they come from. That’s why we need to know what really happened to them,” says Plinio.
“All we want is to know the truth,” he says, staring out at the falling rain, “so we know who—or what—to blame for their deaths.”
This investigation was undertaken after The Daily Beast received secretly leaked copies of the official case files used by investigators. Those archives contained autopsy reports, data recovered from the electronic devices the women had with them when they went missing (a camera and two phones), as well as DNA analysis, maps used in the search, and more, including Kris Kremer’s diary.
Since no independent media have had access to complete case files before, and in the hopes of telling the victims’ story as accurately as possible, The Daily Beast called on a team of experts—including authorities on photography, wilderness medicine, and globally famous forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Dr. Kathy Reichs—to provide opinions and analysis on this case.
By combining their appraisal of the evidence with on-site reporting we can now make some confident assertions regarding the victim’s whereabouts and activities during at least part of the time they were missing—and, as a result, we can also offer new insights into the accident-versus-foul-play controversy.
“We need to set the record straight for the sake of the victims themselves,” as local guide Plinio Montenegro put it.
“The holandesas deserve to have their story told the right way at last.”
At the time of their disappearance, Kris and Lisanne were on break from their studies back in the Netherlands. Both were outstanding students. They’d first met while working part-time gigs at the same café in the southern city of Amersfoort, before deciding to share a flat.
They must have made a good team. Kris was the outgoing one, with striking, strawberry-blond hair and cool blue eyes. She was also an amateur actress, and planned to go on to graduate school in art history after her stint in Panama.
Lisanne’s ash-blond hair was just a few shades darker than her best friend’s. And, at six feet tall, she was the more athletic of the two. She’d been a volleyball star in college, and had tried her hand at more extreme sports, like sky diving and mountaineering. Froon had an introspective side, too, and had majored in applied psychology back in Amsfoort; she was also a budding amateur photographer.
Kris and Lisanne arrived in Panama to serve as volunteer social workers—and to learn fluent Spanish—but someone had miscalculated.
Apparently, they arrived in Boquete a week early; the program administrators weren’t ready for them, and the assistant instructor had been “very rude and not at all friendly” about it, as Kris wrote in her diary.
“There was not yet a place or work for us so we could not start.… The school thought it odd as it was all planned since months ago,” Kris wrote, moments before leaving the room she shared with Lisanne to set out on the fatal hike that morning of April 1, 2014.
“Tomorrow they will try and get a hold of the [head teacher].… This was a real disappointment,” she wrote, but her final log entry hints that she was already looking forward to putting such cares behind her.
“Anyway,” she advises herself, in the diary’s last line, “Go with the Panamanian flow.”
The combination of steep terrain and heavy rainfall make for a complex network of fast-running river channels throughout the Talamanca cordillera. Moist air currents rising from the Pacific dump some 136 inches of rain each year in the region, and the runoff rockets downhill through the jagged, boulder-strewn ravines that dominate the landscape.
The Continental Divide, at the top of the Pianista trail, marks the point where the two regional watersheds change course. On the western side of the Divide the rushing mass of rivers fed by the upland rainforests flow downhill into the Pacific Ocean; those eastward eventually reach the Caribbean Sea.
Boquete sits cupped in a brook-laced valley that protects it from some of the worst storms that blow down from the cordillera. It’s about 40 minutes by car from the base of the still-active volcano called Baru, which is also the site of a national park.
The region is known as “Little Switzerland” for its resemblance to the steep meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and pine forests of the Alps. Local architects have done their part to make the town resemble a snowless version of Zermatt or Grindelwald, albeit with a higher percentage of mule traffic on the street.
The area is popular with gringo retirees and expats who’ve come for the weather and the easy pace of life. It’s also an eco-tourism hotspot for birdwatchers and outdoor adventurers of all stripes. The streets are lined with shops advertising cloud forest safaris, rock climbing, river rafting—and most of these tourist outfits are run both by and for the extranjeros, or foreigners.
“Sometimes the turistas get lost—but they usually turn up again, or are found by search parties,” says our expert on the trails, Plinio Montenegro. Such gringos come back hungry and embarrassed and humbled by the jungle. But at least they come back.
The fact that Kris and Lisanne didn’t come back is still seen as very strange in and around Boquete.
Panama is infamous as an off-shore tax haven. And dictator Manuel Noriega, in a U.S. prison since 1989, may once have been at the center of both CIA and drug cartel intrigues. But today Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, and idyllic Boquete is thought to be even safer.
In the wake of the Kremers-Froon tragedy, some observers suggested a connection to the disappearance of a British backpacker named Alex Humphrey, who went missing while staying at a hostel here back in 2009.
The Daily Beast could not identify any link between Humphrey’s disappearance and the Kremers-Froon tragedy. There were some reports that Humphrey, who was autistic, was last seen looking “disoriented” at a beach town hours south of Boquete.
What is worth noting, however, is that in both cases Panamanian authorities came under heavy fire for mishandling the investigations.
Witnesses say Kris and Lisanne left the trailhead, just north of Boquete, at about 10 o’clock on that sunny Tuesday morning. They were dressed in light clothing, and with only Lisanne’s small backpack to share between them.
Thanks to photos recovered from a camera later found in that same backpack, we know the women made fairly good time up to the Mirador. They are smiling and seem to be enjoying themselves in these images, and there is no indication of a third party being along with them—although there are reports that a local dog named Blue followed them at least part way up the trail.
Geographical features visible in the last few pictures indicate that by mid-afternoon the women had left the Pianista, and, perhaps accidentally, crossed over to the other side of the Divide.
These last images suggest them wandering off onto a network of trails not maintained by rangers or guides affiliated with Baru National Park. Such unmarked traces aren’t meant for tourists, but are used almost exclusively by indigenous peoples living deep within the forests of the Talamanca.
Nine weeks later, in mid-June, Lisanne’s pack was brought to Ngobe woman—who claimed to have found it on the riverbank near her village of Alto Romero, in the Boco del Toros region, about 12 hours by foot from the Continental Divide.
The contents would cause a firestorm of speculation on both sides of the Atlantic: two bras, two smart phones, and two pairs of cheap sunglasses. Also a water bottle, Lisanne’s camera and passport—and $83 in cash.
The discovery of the backpack prompted a renewed search, and by August the Ngobe had helped authorities locate about two handfuls of bone fragments, all found along the shores of the Rio Culebra, or the River of the Serpent.
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 first, since there will be no clients anyway. Street vendors race to pack their carts 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 attractive young tourists disappeared under strange circumstances in April of 2014. Allegations of a double homicide have surfaced,. No formal charges were ever filed. but forensics investigators say foul play can’t be ruled out.
Armed with new evidence, and backed by a team of U.S.-based experts, I’ve come to Boquete seeking answers to the questions that continue to define this case:
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, I call an important—and elusive—source.
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. There’s no proof, and he firmly denies such insinuations. And I am not hoping for a “confession.” I’d just like a little clarity. He met the girls when they were alive — and he helped find some of their bones when they were dead. He’s clearly someone to talk to.
“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.
The few scattered remains and personal articles eventually found were 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 the Netherlands, 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 on line, 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 disagreed.
“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 gridfrom 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 thwarted by heavy rains, and the team went home empty handed.
The jungle seemed to have won.
A couple of months after the Panamanian 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 the 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 autopsy.
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.”
Although no hard evidence against him has yet been uncovered, the part-time tour leader who offered to shepherd the victims on this same hike remains under suspicion among Boquete’s guiding community.
“Some of our female clients have complained of him harassing them,” says Tornblom. And other guides in Boquete back this up, saying the man in question has a habit of bathing in the hot springs with lady tourists, which is against code.
“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 who tell me, in interviews, that 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 holandesas 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 the Netherlands) 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 were 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.
The leading third-party candidate, at least for some people, is the same guide who first invited the women up to the Divide.
“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 get the man 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.
“I spent many days helping SINAPROC search for those poor girls. I even met with their families when they came to Boquete. I did everything I could!” he finishes screaming into the phone.
This guía might be known for taking liberties with female clients out in the forest—and he’s no great shakes as an interview subject—but a thorough investigation fails to turn up any hard evidence linking him to a crime.
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?
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 the 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.
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 up 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.
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, weatherproof 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’ 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 were 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 college volleyball star and amateur shutterbug 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’s 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, newly analyzed 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, given that search parties had gone out two days before. “The images are made under close [foliage] cover,” he says. Searchers would have been unlikely to see them there. 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 photographs 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 some 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.
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 indigenas 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 skin survived 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, the Dutch physician who worked on the case and went with a search party to Boquete, told The Daily Beast that the final examination of the bones of Lisanne Froon’s left foot (found intact and inside her boot) showed multiple fractures of the metatarsal bones.
According to the official autopsy reports, those fractures could only have been caused by a “fall from a high place,” likely while Lisanne was still alive.
“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, it seems she didn’t just sit down and shrivel up and wait to starve,” Weil says, referring to Lisanne’s apparent gambit to escape the river system that held her captive.
About two months after the disappearance, search parties discovered Kris Kremers’s stonewashed jean shorts lying on a narrow tongue 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—and that rock is 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 partial remains would be found two months later, gathered up and intermingled with 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 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 Montenegro, 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.