That being the case, three times in the last six months I’ve written about the mystery of two Dutch girls, Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, who disappeared from my part of Panama in April. The doomed girlsare now off the radar of most officialdom, which would like to quiet the whole thing down so it doesn’t impact tourism., Because of this, I haven’t really anticipated any new information that would prompt a fourth post. Also, this is a true crime story – if there even is a crime – so it’s been a bit of a stretch for this blog all along. Except for the story. There’s nothing quite like a disappearance for plot and this story has plenty of it. If you want to read back for all the twists and turns, here are the links, in order:
If you prefer to skip ahead, then the important thing to know is that four months after the girls vanished, a pitifully small number of their bones and personal items were found in a far-away place where no one ever expected them to be.
Fast forward again — a week ago, my husband and I were returning from a trip to Panama City and, as is our custom, we’d hired a local company to collect us from the airport in David, a city at sea-level on the Pacific Ocean, and transport us 4,000 feet upward to our house in the mountains of Boquete.
You never know who you’re going to get as a driver with this company; it’s a bit like the lotto. One time, we were ferried back by a young man who was later implicated in a drag race gone horribly wrong. I understand he’s now living out his twenties in one of Panama’s infamous prisons.
But this time we were collected by a very pleasant fellow who occasionally drives for the company but is first and foremost a professional guide who prefers serious trekking. In fact, that very day he’d walked for six or seven hours, accompanying a European couple over one of Boquete’s many trails. And then he came in a modern conveyance to pick us up.
When I heard his name, I remembered that he was one of the local guides I’d read about as I’d researched the story of the lost girls. He was someone who had often walked the trail the girls had presumably taken. And, more than that, he routinely trekked between Boquete and Bocas del Toro, a trip of several days, from one ocean overland to the other.
The few bones and personal articles associated with the girls were found about a 15-hour walk from Boquete, across the Continental Divide, and down toward the Caribbean. This guide had been there, too.
In fact, he’s so well known as a trekker that he’s chairing the ad hoc task force that’s been given the job of cleaning up Panama’s 300+ trails, posting new multilingual signs with international symbols, and rating each trail according to its type of challenge.
It’s very important to Panama that no more tall, blonde European visitors simply disappear into thin air.
Even now, trails are being evaluated as to their difficulty, the presence of poisonous snakes, tapirs, jaguars, panthers, deadly frogs, and insects, and the availability of water and shelter. Every trail will have a sign that will say something like “This Trail Should be Taken Only When Accompanied by a Licensed Professional Guide.” Right. We’ll see how well that’s observed.
As our driver talked loquaciously, I pounced. Here was someone who had firsthand knowledge of the area, the flora, the fauna, the good guys and the bad ones (we are talking about a jungle and one in Panama so the word “drugs” is never far from one’s mind). I asked him what he thought had happened to the Dutch girls and his reply startled me – not because of the novelty of his answer but because it has been my theory since the get-go. Put a mystery writer into the middle of a set of circumstances like this disappearance and the likely scenario all along had been Murder, with a capital M.
However, the guide didn’t echo my thoughts, he volunteered his own version and he had some interesting evidence.
First off, we both thought narco-trafficantes were probably involved. The walking trails from Bocas to the Inter-American Highway and Costa Rica have been known for drug traffic, though its intensity varies with locale. The gangs in Colombia move cocaine North using every means at their disposal and shanks mare is decidedly one of them.
Both the driver and I believe the girls happened upon some narcos, or at least some Very Bad Men, or perhaps, after becoming lost and disoriented, the girls came upon a place where drugs were stored or being used. There are many possible variations of this theory but the nub of it is that the girls and the hombres malos encountered each other, the girls were probably sexually assaulted, and then murdered. Afterward, (this is the guide’s belief) they were callously dismembered and disposed of here and there.
It’s a grisly scenario and unfortunately dismemberment of murder victims is all too common here in Panama. CBS’ 48 Hours just did a segment on the dismemberment of a woman in Bocas del Toro.
My belief in this scenario has been an instinctive one. I got the same tingle running down my neck when I first heard the story of the girls’ disappearance as I do when I make a wrong turn at night or walk down a poorly lit street. Every woman knows that tingle.
But our driver had some interesting facts that, even if they didn’t directly support the murder scenario, at least took away from the other major theory – that the girls were victims of nature.
This theory holds that they became lost and then either fell into a river, were bitten by snakes, poisoned by insects, or eaten by jaguars, etc., etc. However they perished, it was without leaving any messages for their loved ones or photos that documented their sad trip into the jungle. (Both their phones and camera were found in the backpack in good shape.) The few recovered bones have also told no tales of dragging in a river or mauling by a carnivore.
At the time I met the guide the case appeared to be in “irons.” There have been one or two indications that forensics are continuing on the boots, but that seems to be about it. So it was refreshing to hear what this energetic new source had to say.
What the guide had standing behind his belief was experience, and one thing he related was very telling. It was the story of two men he’d agreed to take on an all-day trek. Unfortunately, they were forced to return to Boquete after only two hours as his clients’ boots had become hopelessly shredded. It was his experience, he said, that most foreigners do not buy boots that are capable of withstanding Panama’s arduous terrain.
Although next to nothing has been recovered that belonged to Kris and Lisanne, two boots were found, one – horribly — with a foot still in it. And while one boot showed medium signs of wear, the other was almost pristine in appearance.
The girls, the guide believes, were abducted soon after they began their trek, perhaps not long after they crested the Continental Divide and headed unknowingly down the Caribbean side instead of back to their hostel in Boquete. The boots did not show enough wear, he thinks, to have endured a 15-hour trek to the place where the handful of bones, backpack, and footwear were finally discovered.
Going back to the “Victims of Nature” theory — there’s been a lot of speculation that the girls were bitten by a snake or touched by a poisonous frog or attacked by insects. In my reading, I’d learned that there were four particularly venomous snakes that dwell in the part of the jungle Kris and Lisanne apparently traversed.
The guide had a good laugh at that. Evidently, there are many more deadly varieties, subsets of subsets, and so on.
But here’s the particularly interesting part.
Our driver said that on his treks he routinely sees the corpses of horses and cattle and other animals lying intact and decomposing naturally. Why? Because they were bitten by snakes whose venom is so powerful it can poison an entire beast and render it completely inedible.
But Kris and Lisanne were not found in that condition and the hunt for them was so massive it should have turned up their bodies if they had succumbed to snakebite.
The same is true for poisonous frogs. Every frog in Panama is deadly to some degree and just touching certain varieties can, in fact, put you in the grave. A single Golden Dart Frog has enough poison to kill 10 to 20 humans, depending on their size.
Our new acquaintance was fairly certain the women had not been killed by a serpent or frog or even a poisonous insect.
Fascinating, I told him, and meant it.
By the time we reached home, I had thoroughly enjoyed my serendipitous encounter, was full up with new and pertinent information — and felt heartened that none of this new knowledge had shaken my initial conclusion.
In my mind, these helpless girls were murdered. I murder people every day on paper; it’s only natural that I would think so.
But the guide, a trekker who knows all parts of Panama, its geography and its people, intimately – now that’s another matter.
And that’s where I’m going to leave it. This case is a source of endless speculation here in Panama, but the story has given of itself, in terms of plot especially, to its maximum. Unless someone comes forward with genuine, concrete knowledge of what happened to reduce these two bright and cheerful girls to a pathetic handful of bones, I’m leaving it here.
But I’m taking the plot with me.
Already, I have the inkling of a story. It’s not Kris’ and Lisanne’s story, but certainly they will have been the tragic inspiration for it.
And that makes it a “writerly thing” at last.