Tourist Trap

Deep Inside the Panama ‘Paradise’ Murder Mysteries

Why were her cut-offs found, but not her body? A series of murders and disappearances in Panama have baffled authorities. On the ground in the jungle, we take a fresh look.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

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 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 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, the two young Dutch students who were killed just over 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. Here, we visit the Serpent River, where key evidence was found—and misinterpreted. In the days to come, we will discover the secrets of a Panama morgue, and look at any possible connections to the case of American graduate student Catherine Johannet, murdered in February this year.

BOQUETE, Panama—The travel ads and tourist brochures all call Panama a paradise.

High in the pristine cloud forests of the Talamanca Cordillera, near the Continental Divide, it’s easy enough to imagine you’re in eco-phile heaven. But, as the locals say, every Eden hides a serpent.

In this case, that’s not just a metaphor: The Serpent River—or Rio Culebra, as the region’s indigenous Ngobe call it—winds through remote and thickly wooded highlands on the outskirts of the Baru Volcano National Park. Few outsiders venture here, and those who do must be prepared.

The postcard-perfect, riverside spot where we’ve camped this afternoon is a rigorous, 10-mile hike from the resort town of Boquete, on the far side of the Divide. The Serpent’s headwaters are an unspoiled Arcadia alright—but also inaccessible and unforgiving. As dangerous to the unwary traveler as the venomous species of serpiente for which it’s named.

But could the secluded Culebra country be hiding another, two-legged snake as well?

There have been a rash of unsolved disappearances in this area over the last few years—the most famous of these being the “Caso de Holendesas,” (“Case of the Dutch Girls”), as it’s come to be known. The Holandesas went missing back in the spring of 2014, under strange and haunting circumstances, and hints of foul play still swirl around the case.

But at least one of our four guides has another take on the tragedy. It was probably just an accident, Lauriano Vejerano tells me in Spanish, once the tents and rainfly are set up in camp. In this, Vejerano disagrees with a leaked police report received by The Daily Beast, which refers to a double “homicide,” in the Holandesas case, as police investigators called it at the time.

And Vejerano’s not alone. The much-criticized official position offered by Panama’s Public Ministry—their own police report notwithstanding—also alleges the women died in an unexplained hiking accident.

“For me, the river did it,” says skeptical guide Vejerano, when I ask him what happened to Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, the two young Dutch students who were killed near here just over three years ago.

“The native people in the area are very gentle,” says Vejerano, who accompanied the search party that found some of the Holandesas’ scattered remains.

But the Ngobe aren’t the only ones to use these trails.

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Our team leader, David Miranda, leans more toward the forensic and criminology experts I’ve spoken to about the case, all of whom express doubts about the hiking accident scenario.

“I’ve asked myself that question, too,” Miranda says, when I put the same query to him as I did to Vejerano. There are some parts of about an accidental-death hypothesis the guide says still baffle him.

“One of them might have fallen, or gotten hurt somehow; that’s very possible,” he reasons it out with me as we stand on the river bank, watching the rapids-laced and still-potable Serpent roll by below.

“But if one was hurt—why didn’t her friend just walk out for help?”

There’s never been another case like this.”

Because so few remains and personal effects were recovered in the Kremers-Froon case, a great deal of attention and scrutiny has been applied to each item, each fragment of bone or scrap of cloth.

One piece of purported evidence that proponents of the hiking-accident hypothesis have pointed to is a statement, widely published in the press, that Kris Kremers’ jean shorts were found zipped and folded and laid out on the trail, carefully placed high above the waterline.

Last time we talked about it, Carl Weil, the director of Colorado’s Wilderness Medicine School (WMS), had told me the use of clothes or other personal effects to mark the trail was a tactic often employed by people lost in the wilderness—usually to ensure they can find their way back to something, or someone. A person under duress wouldn’t be inclined to fold and zip and neatly place an article of clothing on the trail, Weil’s thinking went. And I went along with it.

Only now, standing on the banks of the Serpent River, do we find out those reports on how and where Kris’s shorts were found aren’t true.

“Her clothing wasn’t found on any trail!” says the guide Vejerano, a flat-bellied and tireless man of 49, who’s known back in Boquete as El Caballero sin Caballo, “The Cowboy without a Horse.” The Cowboy has been carrying a 45-pound load of gear all day and isn’t even breathing hard.

“We found those shorts down there in the river,” he points to the far bank of the Culebra, some 50 or 60 feet away, and then wags his hand at the wrist to indicate a direction downstream.

To get to the spot you have to pass over a simple but effective three-cable bridge, constructed by the Ngobe, that spans the river and joins the trailheads on either side. You want to cross slowly, Vejerano cautions, and only one person at a time.

We pass carefully along the quarter-inch steel cable strung above the foaming rapids. The “monkey bridge” is slick from a light rain, but even so it feels solid and secure under my boots. Not a cakewalk, in other words; but also not the death trap some sources have made it out to be.

This river crossing is flagged on the original maps, used by Vejerano and his team, as one of the most probable places for the accident scenario to have played out in the Holandesas case. Vejerano is reluctant to disagree with the government’s official conclusion (at least in front of me), but like expedition chief Miranda he admits there are questions for which he doesn’t have an answer.

Standing on the high, wooded bank, about 400 yards downstream from the cables, Vejerano shows me the charco, or eddy, where one of the Ngobe searchers found Ms. Kremers’ waterlogged denim.

“Her shorts weren’t used as any kind of trail marker,” Vejerano politely corrects my ignorance. “And they weren’t put there on purpose.”

So how does someone fall in the river and lose her shorts in just a few hundred meters? I ask him in Spanish.

,” Vejerano says, “Nunca habia otro caso como asi.” There’s never been another case like this.

The last time a person drowned in the Serpent was more than 25 years ago, by Vejerano’s count. During the dry season, he says, you don’t even need to use the high and potentially dangerous cable bridge. There’s an easier crossing just upstream, which we’ll take on the way back to camp.

As we’re wading along through the thigh-high water, just a couple of dozen yards above the monkey bridge, I ask my sturdy guide about some of the other inconsistencies in the case—such as the women’s backpack being found downstream of their fragmented remains, and yet with working electronics still inside it.

“I never could understand that about the backpack,” says Vejerano, who has more than four decades of experience working and living in Serpent River country. “To me that part just doesn’t make any sense.”

Mapped Out

Later that night, over a dinner of spaghetti and rice cooked on the camp stove, the guides and I study the records made by searchers at the time of the remains recovery.

There is even a spot on one map, which corresponds to where we are now, with the ominous words “Fallen (No Help)” scribbled in Spanish. This means that, according to the map-maker, one or both of the women suffered a fatal fall within a few meters of where we’re slurping pasta.

The possibility of an initial accident does seem to be supported by some of the photos taken by Lisanne Froon at the bridgehead, and for some reason in the dead of night. Those images indicate that one or both of the women had been attempting to signal rescuers—perhaps for days—by laying bright objects and signage out in plain view on the dry stones of the river bank.

If Kris is indeed suffering from a gash in the back of her head, in the lone close-up photo we see of her, that could have been the reason the women stopped moving only eight hours from Boquete and settled down to wait for help.

But what happened next?

The distance from the monkey bridge to the first of the bone fragments is only two kilometers, according to guide Vejerano, who finds it “doubtful” that two human bodies would break up after such a short passage in the Serpent.

In fact, most drowning victims—even those who fall in rapids—are usually found in one piece further downstream, according to WMS director Weil. Or they get stuck between rocks or log jams, and their bodies are found when the river is dragged—even over a year later or more in some cases.

It’s “almost unheard of,” for drowning victims “to break up into tiny fragments,” said Weil, a former cadaver lab supervisor. And “almost impossible” for it to happen in less than two months, which is the time between when the Holandesas went missing in April, and when their scattered bone shards were recovered in June.

“After [two months] the bones should not be bare, but still covered with significant amounts of flesh,” Weil opined, “unless of course there was human intervention.”

There are no large indigenous animals at that elevation in the Talamancas, no crocs or other alpha predators that would crush large bones—a fact which seems to throw another wrench in the theory that the women were mutilated by scavengers.

Cowboy vs. Serpent

A few days after our safari to the Serpent watershed, I get a message at my hotel in Boquete that Lauriano Vejerano was badly hurt and stranded during a recent solo trek. He’d gashed open his ankle, and lain helpless on the trail for hours. Eventually he was reported missing by his family, and a team of his fellow guides dispatched to rescue him.

Vejerano’s story speaks to the dangers of traveling alone in this rugged country, even for an experienced outdoorsman. And yet unlike the Holandesas the lost “Cowboy” was found alive, and within less than a day of being reported missing.

Based on data retrieved from the phones and camera of the Dutch women, it appears Kris and Lisanne—faced with the same challenges of terrain and exposure as Vejerano and perhaps also, like him, having been hobbled by injury—managed to survive on their own for at least a week.

What happened to them after that is still the Serpent’s secret. But there are clues.

Next: Revelations in the Morgue