Locals say expatriates move to the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro when they're either wanted or unwanted – wanted by the law, or unwanted by society. And they may be only half joking.
Bocas is a place where expatriates come and go, a peaceful, out-of-the-way archipelago, much of it accessible only by boat. It's a place that, Panamanian police say, provided the perfect cover for one couple to quietly kill off their neighbors in order to steal their property and their cash.
The couple who introduced themselves to neighbors as Bill and Jane Cortez arrived in Bocas del Toro around 2007. They claimed to be well-to-do entrepreneurs who made their living from real estate. But from the beginning, their behavior raised eyebrows. Cortez was known for his guns and his wild parties, which earned him the nickname "Wild Bill."
As neighbor Sandi Hodge said, "He was loud and big and wild, but mostly we just kind of ignored him."
Hodge, an expat from California who moved to Bocas del Toro five years ago said, "Everybody knew he was crazy but nobody thought he was a killer."
But now Panamanian police say "Wild Bill" Cortez -- real name William Dathan Holbert – has confessed to the cold-blooded murder of five people. Five Americans, whom Panamanian police say he killed to steal their homes, businesses, and money. The five have been identified as Michael Brown, his wife and teenage son; Bo Icelar; and Cheryl Lynn Hughes.
In 2007, when the Brown family disappeared and the Cortezes took over their home, renaming it Hacienda Cortez, no one thought much of it. The Browns kept to themselves; few people knew them. It turns out Michael Brown had his own checkered past: he was in the witness protection program, having turned witness against several drug dealers back in the United States.
Bo Icelar had owned an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the expact community on Bocas, friends say he had become increasingly disenchanted and made it known that he wanted to sell his house. So when the Cortezes told next-door neighbor Sandi Hodge that Bo had left suddenly in November of 2009 and sold them his property at a reduced price, Hodge says people were surprised, but mostly by the price.
"That struck me as very odd," Hodge said. "It was the talk of the town. I said, 'God, if I would've known he was going to give the house away, we would've bought it.'"
In March 2010, however, when another American went missing, Hodge took notice: her friend Cheryl Hughes disappeared suddenly, leaving behind her beloved dogs, abandoning her business and her home on the private island she had bought when she got married.
"That was what really made me wonder what was going on because Cher took the little dog, Feldman, everywhere she went," Hodge said.
Hodge wasn't the only one who thought the story sounded fishy. Hughes' husband, Keith Werle, from whom she had separated, also had a hard time believing Hughes had abandoned her home.
The private island she and Werle owned is in a remote area, a 45-minute boat ride from the nearest town. It is also across the water from where Cortez and his wife lived, in the property they had "bought" from the Brown family. It's also where they had a bar named Villa Cortez, with a sign bearing what Hodge called Cortez's "signature," the skull and crossbones.