"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.
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.