Back in the Spring, I noted here the story of two Dutch students, Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, who came to my town of Boquete, Panama, and never made it home. One beautiful April day, they disappeared on a hike near the local volcano, leaving town without a guide and without saying precisely which trail they were taking. Their only companion was “Blue,” the Husky mix who belonged to the hostel where the students were staying. “Blue” returned to Boquete, but, ominously, the girls didn’t.
The disappearance was one which captured my attention on several planes. Like everyone else in Boquete, I was horrified thinking of what the girls must be enduring. There was also the fact that they disappeared from my own back yard, not an everyday occurrence. And then there was the mystery of it all. As a writer, I couldn’t help being pulled in by the story.
Early days — no one knew what resources they had. Food was important, water even more so, but possibly the most critical item was a GPS or even a simple compass. Lacking those, the sun would be their only reference point and the sun in Panama — like so many other things here — is not always what it seems to be.
Here’s why: The tiny, narrow country of Panama runs in an East-West direction, almost doubling back on itself, serpent-like. Owing to a peculiar optical illusion, the sun here appears to rise in the West, not the East.
If the women were not aware of this peculiarity, they would be pulled in the wrong direction, away from town, further into the jungle. This alone is a powerful, potentially tragic story element.
But this, like so much about their disappearance, is speculation.
While most believed the girls had simply stepped off a trail and become lost, as others certainly have before them, Panama has also seen its share of terrible crimes, including human trafficking, gruesome serial murders, machete decapitations, and lots more to fuel the imagination.
On top of this, our particular locale suffers from a persistent, ugly urban legend that casts healthy young adults and children as victims of a vicious Central American organ harvesting scheme.
I’ve always maintained that by moving to Panama, I’ve happened upon a treasure-trove of potential plot lines. This is one time I didn’t want to think about all the different possibilities. Unfortunately, as news of the girls’ disappearance spread throughout our community, there were several awful “what if” scenarios that lent special energy to the developing hunt.
It didn’t take long for that hunt to come together, and, when it did, it was huge: Coordinating it was Panama’s Policia Nacional, along with the Directorate of Judicial Investigation and the National Civil Protection System, a mouthful collectively known as SINAPROC.
Even before officialdom mobilized, the Boquete Bomberos (fire department), had swung into action. Swelled by eager Panamanian and gringo volunteers, the Bomberos hit the ground running, immediately targeting the most popular local trails. Simultaneously, in Holland, the families established a reward of $2500, and a compelling “Missing” poster flooded Panama. Within days, the reward jumped to $30,000.The disappearance of the girls had become a major event not only in the life of our community but in Panama as a whole and, of course, in Holland.
As the investigation progressed, the Dutch sent their own contingent to scour as many trails as possible. They were joined by Panamanian and Costa Rican Red Cross volunteers. The Costa Rican group alone combed 19 kilometers of rugged, mountainous jungle terrain. Hikers in Boquete — including but not limited to the indefatigable Bomberos — raked over local paths ceaselessly. And through it all, the Panamanian authorities poured thousands of men and women into the jungles, looking for any speck, any clue that would lead them to the girls.
About six weeks into the investigation, the Dutch upped their participation, sending in a specially trained search team, along with ten rescue and cadaver dogs.
The dogs, it was said, could track human remains as old as nine months, even if they were sitting at the bottom of a river in high Rainy Season.
Well, by then it was Rainy Season. Both dogs and humans spent nine sweltering days in the jungle, enduring relentless heat and incapacitating downpours. Despite the conditions, the dogs registered several “hits,” all excitedly marked by the team with GPS coordinates. The heady bubble of initial enthusiasm quickly burst, however, as further investigation stalled. All the “hit” areas, it seemed, had been visited by other searchers before, some multiple times. Ground was being covered — but much of it was old ground.
Again, the Dutch mobilized unique resources, this time a group of criminal investigators specializing in foreign disappearances. They duly investigated and made an electrifying public pronouncement:
The women could not have simply disappeared from one of the trails.
Fueled by the Dutch declaration, people here in Boquete, in Holland, and all over the world had cause to fear the worst. Nobody knew what the “worst” might be, but by then everyone was openly speculating about it. There were reports of sightings with shadowy young men, allusions to telling cell phone records, a mysterious anti-bug lotion in Boquete that could “impair judgment” and “cause odd behavior.” Even the hypothesis that an earthquake caused a landslide burying the students.
As a mystery writer, I could not have developed more compelling plot elements. As part of the Boquete community, I was horrified by the newest rumors and wild speculations.
The families of Lisanne and Kris came to Panama. And returned to Holland, full of sad possibilities, empty of concrete leads.
A solemn candlelight march and prayer vigil were held in Boquete, our little town feeling the students’ loss keenly.
More commemorations took place in Holland. A Facebook page and website for the girls were created, a foundation was established to help fund the ongoing search and the efforts of private investigators newly hired by the families. Local and international internet sites swam with conjecture.
Just as one might expect in fiction, the Panamanian authorities eventually came in for criticism, even from themselves. SINAPROC charged the Policia Nacional with inappropriately undertaking “procedures” in the girls’ room at the hostel, actions normally assigned to criminalists. “Evidence Contamination” was the new bugaboo of the investigation.
Had the Panamanian government undertaken thermal imaging from a satellite? The Dutch would have, a man from Holland insisted on his blog, if the disappearance had occurred in his country.
Second-guessing, back-stabbing, and over it all the words of the Dutch investigators echoed in everyone’s ears:
The women could not have simply disappeared from one of the trails.
In a novel, a statement like this would demand high action by the authorities. In real life, the exhausted searchers pressed on with their hunt over the merciless terrain.
Then, about a month ago, an Indian man and his wife, members of the semi-nomadic Gnabe-Bugle tribe, were planting rice on the shores of a river-fed pool, a day’s walk from Boquete, far across the Continental Divide, deep in the jungle. It was hot work, and, after a few hours, they decided on a swim to cool off. As they were bathing, the wife noticed something odd in the weeds, and they went over to investigate.
There, fifteen hours away from Boquete, from civilization, in a section of jungle teeming with big cats and alive with four deadly snake species including the lethal pit viper, there was a shiny aqua blue backpack in pristine condition. Within: $83, two cell phones, sunglasses, two bras — and Lisanne Froon’s passport.
If this occurred in a work of fiction, it might have a low believability quotient. But it happened in real life. And it rocked the investigation.
There’s much more to the mystery of Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, and I’ll continue the story in an upcoming installment. Sad as this is on one level and compelling on another, it can also be instructive for us as writers. I’ll try to be as respectful as possible while I tell you next time about the amazing new developments in the case, including five eyewitnesses who completely contradict each other (one says, excusing any possible errors, that all Europeans look alike); a timeline also at odds with itself; and the Boquete herbalist who’s been branded a possible serial killer.
As they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
~~ Britt Vasarhelyi