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.
A 'Dream Home' to Die For
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.
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."
'He Picked the Wrong Girl'
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.
'A Lot of People Come Here to Be Missing'
"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.
Horrible Discovery at La Hacienda
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.
"They found her camera, credit cards, her purse, so they wanted me to positively identify those items," Werle said. "The last thing I thought I'd be identifying [was] her body coming out of a hole in his backyard."
But authorities had also uncovered the remains of five bodies: Cheryl Hughes, Bo Icelar and the three members of the Brown family, all found in the backyard of the home Holbert allegedly "bought" from the Browns.
Further investigation revealed more information about Holbert and Reese. Holbert had once owned a store in North Carolina that sold white supremacist paraphernalia. They also discovered that the pair had been on the run for nearly five years. In 2005, Holbert had been sentenced to twenty days in jail for failing to pay child support. Rather than go to jail, Holbert took and his girlfriend went on the run.
Police in the U.S. wanted to question Holbert in connection with several shady real estate schemes. He was wanted in at least six states. After a high-speed car chase in 2006, it appears Holbert and Reese left the United States. Panamanian authorities say they now believe the pair stopped in Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica before arriving in Bocas del Toro, and have informed authorities in those countries so they can open their own investigations.
Killing for Money?
It took nearly a month after the grisly discoveries at "Hacienda Cortez" for Holbert and Reese to be apprehended. They were picked up trying to cross the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua.
Panamanian Police Chief Gustavo Perez interviewed William Holbert in jail, and he said he detected no remorse. "He was saying very proudly he shot them in the back of the neck, Perez said, adding "everything was to gain money."
Police say Holbert readily confessed to killing five Americans – but says he killed no Panamanians. However, authorities continue searching for other victims, including the Panamanian staff members who worked at the properties Holbert took over. Some of those workers have gone missing.
However, even as the investigation continues, police want to convey to the public that Panama remains a safe place. Sandi Hodge isn't so sure.
"The police do not know what's going on," she said. "As we talk amongst ourselves we all say, 'Yeah, you say you're Sandi Hodge and that you owned a salon and you came from California,' but how do we know?
"That's how everybody feels now," she said. "We think we know one another, but, no, not really."
Keith Werle says he will return to the island where he lived with his wife in happier times. He says he will bury her ashes there. But for now, the island Cher Hughes loved so much remains empty.