MADRID—Following five long months of investigation, the case of a missing American pilgrim in Spain was resolved in less than 24 hours, but only after U.S. Senator John McCain pressured Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to call in the FBI.
On Friday, Spanish police found what almost certainly are the remains of Pikka Denise Thiem. This came after the arrest and confession of the suspected murderer, who led police to the place where Thiem was buried and covered with tree branches, only a few meters from his hut.
Thiem was 41, and born in Hong Kong, but lived in Litchfield Park, Arizona, Sen. McCain’s home state. She liked to travel. She had left her job at PetSmart’s corporate headquarters in Phoenix to take a trip around the world But she disappeared last April 5 in Astorga, in northwestern Spain, while walking the ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James.
The government re-launched the search for Thiem last Thursday with a massive and virtually unprecedented police deployment, including members of the Military Emergencies Unit, a unit of the armed forces. Within a day the main suspect confessed and the badly decomposed body was found. DNA tests are expected to confirm its identity shortly.
Clearly, solving the case had become a government priority, and for good reason. The pilgrimage trail that runs for 500 miles from France across northern Spain has become a huge tourist attraction for the mystical and the curious as well as for devout Catholics. No one wanted to believe a murderer stalked the pilgrims, but a storm of publicity was building about Thiem’s unsolved disappearance.
The confessed killer, identified by authorities as Miguel A. M. B., was arrested Friday in the town of Grandas in Asturias, where he had fled on Wednesday as police closed in on his farm.
The 39-year-old recluse, originally from Madrid, had been interviewed in the course of earlier police investigations, but had never been required to make a formal statement. Attention focused on him initially because he had exchanged over $1,000 into euros four days after Thiem disappeared. And after Miguel A. M. B. was first questioned, according to people in the nearby village of Polvazares Castrillo, he never showed up there any more.
Denise Thiem had started her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from Pamplona on March 6. She did not carry a mobile phone but her path could be followed by friends as she checked in occasionally on social media, publishing anecdotes and photographs. On April 5, Easter Sunday, her trail went cold at the church of Santa Marta in Astorga.
According to other pilgrims she intended to go to church and then hike 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) to the town of El Ganso, where she would look for a "decent hostel."
On April 20, Denise's brother, Cedric Thiem, moved to Spain, publicized her disappearance, and actively participated in searches that dozens of volunteers and neighbors conducted along with the police, but without any result.
The hunt for the Arizona woman and her killer took a new turn this summer after the official intervention of Sen. McCain, who, according to the Thiem family, has been personally involved in the case from the beginning.
On August 3, McCain himself sent a letter directly to Rajoy, urging him to ask for "immediate" help from the FBI to find the woman: “While I understand that there may be domestic sensitivities involved in doing so, the FBI has significant resources that it can bring to bear to aid the investigation and provide additional support to the search.”
Rajoy responded to the letter from McCain in late August, declining the help of the FBI, highlighting the professionalism of the Spanish police, and assuring the senator that they were putting all their resources into the ongoing investigation, about which details could not be divulged.
The interior ministry said it had conducted more than 200 interviews with people from over 20 nationalities, mostly pilgrims who had crossed the victim’s path at some point on the Camino de Santiago between Pamplona and Astorga.
Police sources told The Daily Beast that Miguel was the prime suspect from the beginning, and had been located in recent weeks, but had been allowed to remain at large in the hope his movements would “provide a new clue to the location of the body or the existence of a possible accomplice. "
"We have taken five months, but the murderer was arrested and the body’s been found,” said the source. “We have one of the best police forces in the world.” As for security on the Camino de Santiago: "The route has only seen this one incident in many years of history."
In the five months since Thiem’s disappearance, the Spanish authorities have tried to minimize the negative impact that her murder might have on the image of the Camino de Santiago. Crime on the route is low, and anyone who has traveled it knows that the constant flow of people along the trail—more than 230,000 pilgrims every year from around the world—fosters a climate of security.
But the case of Denise Thiem shows at least one danger on the road that went unaddressed: witnesses say Miguel already was known to have "harassed" other pilgrims.
Miguel lived in a wooden hut built on a plot of land in Astorga, where he moved four years ago. He lived a solitary life, and several witnesses say he had disputes with his neighbors. He also used to go out on his bicycle wearing a balaclava and chasing pilgrims, threatening to rob them.
Since Miguel’s arrest, police have assured the public that the investigation remains open to clarify "other disturbing cases" that occurred on this stretch of road.
The Camino de Santiago was established as a pilgrimage route toward the West in the Middle Ages not least as an alternative to the long and dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the East. The great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is said to hold relics of James, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.
The pilgrimage route originally began deep in France, but even the Spanish portion was relatively little traveled as late as the 1980s when the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote his best-selling narrative of the walk, The Pilgrimage. The hike’s popularity hit a peak in the Holy Year of 1993, when the camino also was declared a World Heritage Site.
On Wednesday, September 16, as if opening the way for justice, the Cathedral of Santiago will hold a memorial service for Denise Thiem.