TRUTH OR LYE
The Lost Girls, the Bones, and the Man in the Panama Morgue
Unsolved murders and disappearances in Panama have baffled authorities, claiming the lives of two young Dutch women, an American, and dozens more. A fresh look.
Since The Daily Beast’s original “Lost Girls” investigation last summer, additional evidence and archives have come to light, forcing a re-think of our conclusions. We now know that more than two dozen other victims also were reported in the same region of Panama, including a young woman from the United States found murdered earlier this year. A return trip to the scene of these events—as well as renewed sleuthing by best-selling author Dr. Kathy Reichs and other forensic specialists—provides a fresh take on these cold cases.
In the first chapter of this series, we traveled to the last place Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, two young Dutch women killed three years ago, were known to have been alive and apparently signalling for help. In the second chapter, we looked at the usual and unusual suspects and witnesses in the “Lost Girls” case. In the third chapter, we visited the Serpent River, where key evidence was found—and where we discovered it had been universally misinterpreted. In this article we visit a Panama morgue, and in the next and last segment we will look at whether the case of American Catherine Johannet, strangled to death in February, may fit into a larger pattern of murder cover-ups.
BOQUETE, Panama—There’s an old saw among forensic anthropologists and archaeologists that “the truth is in the bones.”
To test that proposition, I’ve come to the morgue. Specifically, to the hazard-taped and plastic-sealed door of a certain un-nameable Panamanian morgue. I’m here for a secret meeting with one of the country’s top medical examiners—and hoping he can tell me the bone truth about what happened to Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, two Dutch tourists who died in Panama under mysterious circumstances back in April of 2014.
About two months after the “Holandesas” were reported missing from a town called Boquete in the mountains near the northern border with Costa Rica, five small bone fragments and a few personal items belonging to the women were found scattered along a riverbank in the high cloud forest.
On the three-year anniversary of their disappearance, the cause of death in the case is still disputed. Questions continue to mount as other women—including an adventurous young American named Catherine Johannet from Scarsdale, New York—have gone missing or been murdered in roughly the same region.
“There aren’t any marks on the bones at all.”
Aside from a few personal effects, the only other hints we have as to what befell Kris and Lisanne come from the five recovered bone fragments.
Part of Lisanne Froon’s left leg eventually was located by guides working with the indigenous Ngobe people, including her femur, tibia, and still-booted foot.
Only the left half of Kris Kremers’ pelvis, and her right number 10 rib were ever found.
“We have less than 10 percent of one individual, and less than five percent of the other,” says a Panamanian forensic anthropologist with close knowledge of the case, who agrees to talk with The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity.
Under the circumstances, “this kind of extreme fragmentation is very strange,” says that same member of Panama’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science (IMELCF). We’re sitting now in his air-conditioned and formaldehyde-smelling office in the morgue, far from the rain forests around Boquete.
“There’s no evidence that animals scavenged the Holandesas,” he says, directly contradicting the accident theory espoused in the wake of the tragedy by Panama’s Public Ministry, the main government center for investigations and prosecution.
No claw marks, he says. No bite marks from the fangs of animals. No marks that would indicate they had been broken up on river rocks, either. Nevertheless, the official position is that the women were “dragged to death” in a river called the Culebra, the Serpent, after an unexplained hiking accident.
Even under magnification, “there are no discernible scratches of any kind on the bones, neither of natural nor cultural origin—there are no marks on the bones at all.”
The IMELCF forensic anthropologist then pulls up a detailed topographical map on his computer monitor, with the precise locations of the remains sites marked onscreen by color-coded circles.
“The Holandesas bodies should not have broken up like that—not in just seven or eight weeks,” he says, echoing other forensic sources I’ve interviewed. “And we should have found more of their bones,” he taps the map of the Serpent River headwaters several times for emphasis.
“Then there is the question of the bleaching.”
Total fragmentation of two human bodies is unlikely within such a short time frame. Especially in the cool, high-elevation environment where the bone fragments were found, the IMELCF examiner explains. But the extreme desiccation observed in the autopsy is “bien raro”—even stranger.
Another forensic expert I talk to is more succinct:
“There shouldn’t be bleaching on these bones,” says Dr. Georgina Pacheco, who heads up the Legal Medicine Department in neighboring Costa Rica, and has agreed to review a copy of Kris Kremers’ autopsy that was leaked to The Daily Beast.
Dr. Pacheco is an expert in how the specific micro-climates and ecosystems in this region can impact taphonomic patterns—the effects of burial, decay, preservation—meaning she’s uniquely qualified to help analyze the Kremers-Froon findings.
As an analogy, Pacheco cites a similar high-profile investigation she worked on recently in Costa Rica. That incident involved an American hiker named Cody Dial, who was lost in the same cordillera as Kremers and Froon, just across the border from Boquete in the Corcovado National Park.
“In the Dial case the skeleton was more than ninety percent intact after about two years in the forest,” Pacheco says, “and there was no bone bleaching present.”
Based on the new evidence regarding location and duration of exposure, world-famous forensic anthropologist and best-selling author Dr. Kathy Reichs agrees with Pacheco about the anomalous bleaching—and the smooth, unmarked nature of the bones.
“I always found it odd that there was no evidence of animal scavenging observed,” says Dr. Reichs in an email.
From the description of the environment and the probable timing of death, and “given water transport and exposure in a forest-riverine micro-climate, I would expect to see scoring, abrasion, or scavenging,” says Reichs, whose latest book, Two Nights, will be released July 11.
Both Reichs and Pacheco lament the lack of transparency on the part of Panamanian authorities, and their ongoing refusal to release the full set of autopsies in the Holandesas case.
For example, some press reports claim that Lisanne Froon’s foot bones had been broken in such a way that could “only” result from a fall. But without access for independent review, Dr. Reichs says she can’t be sure:
“I would have to know more or see the bones. Or the boot [found with Lisanne’s foot in it]. So many causes of fracture are possible,” she says, including a “crush fracture” as opposed to a fall.
Truth or Lye
Meanwhile, that same high-ranking source in the IMELCF says there’s a good reason why the Public Ministry is being so secretive about the autopsies:
“The low number of bones, the lack of marks on them, and the presence of bleaching—all of those could suggest the use of lime, or a similar chemical, to speed up decomposition.”
And he’s seen this done before, in cases involving Mexican cartels. “Their sicarios [hitmen] will use lime to break down corpses in a hurry,” he explains. The Holandesas remains “present similar characteristics” he says, to those of cartel victims he’s examined.
“Findings like these are often due to human processing [of the corpses],” says Carl Weil, a US-based forensics and law enforcement consultant who has served as an expert witness in hundreds of U.S. court cases.
“Lime or even lye,” could have been used in the Kremers-Froon case, based on the “limited remains and their condition,” Weil says when I reach him by phone from Panama, shortly after my rendezvous in the morgue.
Search teams hunting for Kris and Lisanne also hoovered up other human remains found in the area, likely from a “washed-out indigenous cemetery,” according to the IMELCF source. However, not even these older bones showed signs of bleaching, says the medical examiner, who personally studied all the related bone fragments in the case.
“I just can’t tell you it was an accident,” he says of the Holandesas, “because the science does not support that conclusion.”
“He Won’t be Easy to Catch.”
Adela Coriat, a reporter with one of Panama’s largest newspapers, has investigated the possible use of quicklime in the Holandesas case in detail.
“The forensics experts and criminologists I interviewed all kept bringing it up,” she told me in an interview a few weeks before my clandestine meeting in the morgue.
Back in 2014 Coriat even went so far as to track down quicklime distributors in the Boquete area, hoping to flag a connection. Cal, as it’s called here—is commonly used as a fertilizer by both subsistence farmers and large-scale coffee growers. It’s supposed to help restore balance to the rapidly depleted rainforest soil in the region. Lye is a metal hydroxide employed locally for a variety of purposes, including breaking up dead livestock.
“If I could get that far on my own,” Coriat told me, “surely the authorities could have taken things to the next level. They could’ve subpoenaed sales records, and cross referenced [lime] buyers with known suspects. But they didn’t seem to care.”
Later, in the morgue, I ask the forensics expert what he thinks the Public Ministry might have done differently during the investigation—and the previously placid científico stomps his foot hard on the concrete floor. “The show they put on at Alto Romero was just a distraction. Look at the map,” he swings back to the computer screen and enlarges the interactive display around the Ngobe settlement near the winding trail calle La Pianista where Kris and Lisanne disappeared.
“They need to investigate near the Pianista. Talk to the guides. And question them with a psychological anthropologist present, which they never did before. The crime scene was never handled the right way,” he says.
“Whoever did this is very smart. He didn’t leave much evidence. And he won’t be easy to catch,” the IMELCF scientist adds. In his view, Panamanian prosecutors have given up on the case—despite their own investigators’ suspicions of foul play—in order to save face:
“It’s much easier for them to ignore it all,” he says.
Next: Panama’s Rap Sheet for Murdered and Disappeared Women