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.
Werle described Hughes as "unbelievably happy" with their piece of paradise. "We both got that little island and said, 'Yeah, we could die here. This is where we could spend the rest of our days.'"
Hodge also knew how much her friend loved that property. She said she knew something was terribly wrong when she heard it'd been sold. "That was her dream home, and she would never, ever sell that property," she said.
Werle said he and his wife had been on friendly terms with the Cortezes, and they had entertained the Cortezes on several occasions. "This man was my neighbor. He was in my house for dinner with his wife," he said. "We knew them for two and a half years. It was just "Wild Bill" and his wife."
In a place like Boca del Toro where tourists and foreigners drift in and out, the Browns' disappearance had gone unremarked. Bo Icelar had talked about leaving, so his abrupt departure wasn't enough to raise alarm bells. With Hughes, however, people noticed. Her estranged husband says Cortez "picked the wrong girl," he said. "He had no idea how many people loved her and how many people would care," Keith Werle added. "He just got greedy and picked somebody that was special."
Even though they were separated, Werle said he and Cher remained in regular contact, texting several times a day. Around the time of Hughes' disappearance, however, he felt something was off.
"The last three or four texts I got were just a little strange," he said. "They weren't quite what Cher would say, and she indicated in the text that she had met someone and she was leaving."
Werle, Hodge and other concerned friends didn't believe it. They brought their suspicions to the attention of the local authorities. Getting those authorities to take action, however, was another story.
"It's Central America; a lot of people come here to be missing," Werle said. "They [police] don't really look."
Werle even tried confronting Cortez. "I said, 'Bill, show me some papers. Show me you really bought this because Cher would never sell it, certainly not without talking to me about it first because it was our home,'" he said.
The police finally mounted an investigation when expat blogger Don Winner began digging into the disappearances after being contacted by one of Hughes' friends. Winner began writing daily about the suspicions surrounding Cortez. In addition, Werle traveled to Panama City with his wife's aunt and sister to meet with national police. There they filed a "denuncio," officially accusing Cortez outright for Hughes' death. Werle told police about an automatic weapon, an AK-47, that he knew Cortez kept on the property. That evidence was enough for police to get a search warrant.
By the time authorities arrived at Hacienda Cortez, William Dathan Holbert and Laura Michelle Reese had fled Bocas del Toro. After finding suspicious documents and possessions on the property, they called Keith Werle, to identify items that apparently belonged to his wife.