The mysterious deaths of two young tourists in Panama puzzled examiners and shocked nations on both sides of the Atlantic; now secretly leaked documents reveal what happened.”>
BOQUETE, Panama Welcome to the jungle: specifically, the cloud woods of the Talamanca highlands.
Its a rainy Saturday in early June, at the height of the wet season here in northern Panama, and we arequite literallyon the trail of a deadly international mystery.
This mud-slick, root-choked footpath is called the Pianista, or Piano Player, because it climbsin a series of ladder-like steps reminiscent of a keyboardup from the tourist town of Boquete to the Continental Divide, at about 6,660 feet.
Bright-tailed quetzals flit through dwarf species of cedar, oak, and wild avocado along the trail. At this altitude the trees are stunted and wind-warped, their distorted legs draped with moss and epiphytes.
The rain is falling in surprisingly cold gusts by the time our small party reaches the Mirador, the overlook at the top of the Divide, about 3 hour after leaving the trailhead. On a clear day you can see all the way to Boquete. Today, however, the only thing visible from here is the white sea of mist atop the canopy below.
But the Pianista is well known for more than merely its pretty birds and haunting vistas.
Back in April 2014, two Dutch touristsKris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22 disappearedafter setting out on this same three-mile stretch of trail.
The females, who had come to Boquete to study Spanish and work with children, were never seen alive again. Searchers found no trace of them but, a few months later, a member of human rights and indigenous Ngobe tribe turned up in Boquete with Lisannes backpackand some of the girls belongings.
A few scattered remains and articles of clothingeventually were recovered near the area where the pack was find. The proof was sufficient to make a positive DNA match to the victims, but there were not enough remains for examiners to render a conclusive verdict as to cause of death.
Boquetes best guide resists buying into any of the rumor and still searches for some hard proof to tell him what happened.
Most tourists go up to the Mirador and snap a few selfies. Then they come straight-out back up the same path to town, tells Plinio Montenegro, who grew up in Boquete, and resulted several search parties for Kris and Lisanne in the working day after they disappeared.
We dont know why las holandesas [ the Dutch daughters] didnt come back down, Plinio tells me, back in Boquete after hiking the Pianista. Above us, the heavy rain hisses on my hotels -Ashaped, Swiss-chalet-inspired roofing.
When something like this happens in a small town, the people of that pueblo feeling responsible, tells Plinio.
We want this to be a safe place for touristsno matter where they come from. Thats why we need to know what really happened to them , tells Plinio.
All we want is to know the truth, he tells, staring out at the falling rain, so we know whoor whatto blame for their deaths.
This investigation was undertaken after The Daily Beastreceived secretly leaked transcripts of the official suit files used by investigators. Those archives contained autopsy reports, data recovered from the electronic devices the women had with them when they went missing( a camera and two phones ), as well as DNA analysis, maps being implemented in the search, and more, including Kris Kremers diary.
Since no independent media have had access to complete suit files before, and in the hopes of telling the victims story as accurately as possible, The Daily Beastcalled on a team of expertsincluding authorities on photography, wilderness medication, and globally famous forensic anthropologist and best-selling writer Dr. Kathy Reichsto provide opinions and analysis on this case.
By blending their evaluation of the evidence with on-site reporting we can now make some confident affirms regarding the victims whereabouts and activities during at the least part of the time they were missingand, as a result, we can also offer new insights into the accident-versus-foul-play controversy.
We need to set the record straight for the sake of the victims themselves, as local guide Plinio Montenegro put it.
The holandesas deserve to have their tale told the right way at last.
At the time of their disappearance , Kris and Lisanne were on break from their studies back in the Netherlands . Both were outstanding students. Theyd first satisfied while working part-time gigs at the same caf in the southern city of Amersfoort, before deciding to share a flat.
They must have made a good team. Kris was the outgoing one, with striking, strawberry-blondhair and cool blue eyes. She was also an amateur actress, and planned to go on to grad school in art history after her stint in Panama.
Lisannes ash-blond hair was just a few shades darker than her best friend. And, at six feet tall, she was the more athletic of the two. Shed been a volleyball starin college, and had tried her hand at more extreme sports, like sky diving and mountaineering. Froon had an introspective side, too, and had majored in applied psychology back in Amsfoort; she was also a budding amateur photographer.
Kris and Lisanne arrived in Panama to serve as volunteer social workersand to learn fluent Spanishbut someone had miscalculated.
Apparently, they arrived in Boquete a week early; the program administrators werent ready for them, and the assistant instructor had been very rude and not at all friendly about it, as Kris wrote in her diary.
There was not yet a place or work for us so we could not start. The school thought it odd as it was all planned since months ago, Kris wrote, moments before leaving the room she shared with Lisanne to set out on the fatal hike that morning of April 1, 2014.
Tomorrow they will try and get a hold of the[ head teacher ]. This was a real disappointment, she wrote, but her final log entry hints that she was already looking forward to putting such cares behind her.
Anyway, she advises herself, in the diarys last line, Go with the Panamanian flow.
The combination of steep terrain and heavy rainfall make for a complex network of fast-running river channels throughout the Talamanca cordillera. Moist air currents rising from the Pacific dump some 136 inchesof rain per year of the states of the region, and the runoff rockets downhill through the jagged, boulder-strewn canyons that dominate the landscape.
The Continental Divide, at the opening of the Pianista trail, marks the phase where the two regional watersheds change course. On the western side of the Divide the rushing mass of rivers fed by the upland rainforests flow downhill into the Pacific Ocean; those eastward eventually reach the Caribbean Sea.
Boquetesits cupped in a brook-laced valley that protects it from some of the worst cyclones that blow down from the cordillera. Its about 40 minutes by car from the base of the still-active volcano called Baru, which is also the site of a national park.
The region is known as Little Switzerland for its resemblance to the steep meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and pine forests of the Alps. Local architects have done their part to make the town resemble a snowless version of Zermatt or Grindelwald, albeit with a higher percentage of mule traffic on the street.
The area is popular with gringo retirees and expats whove come for the climate and the easy pace of life. Its also an eco-tourism hotspot for birdwatchers and outdoor adventurers of all stripes. The streets are lined with stores advertising cloud forest safarus, rock climbing, river raftingand most of these tourist attires are run both by and for the extranjeros , or foreigners.
Sometimes the turistas get lostbut they usually turn out again, or are found by search parties, tells our expert on the trails, Plinio Montenegro. Such gringos come back hungry and embarrassed and humbled by the jungle. But at the least they come back.
The fact that Kris and Lisanne didnt come back is still seen as very strange in and around Boquete.
Panama is infamous as an off-shore taxation haven. And dictator Manuel Noriega, in a U.S. prison since 1989, may once have been at the center of both CIA and medication cartel intrigues. But today Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, and idyllic Boquete is thought to be even safer.
In the wake of the Kremers-Froon tragedy, some observers indicated a connectionto the disappearance of a British backpacker named Alex Humphrey, who went missing while staying at a hostel here back in 2009.
The Daily Beast could not identify any is connected with Humphreys disappearance and the Kremers-Froon tragedy. There were some reports that Humphrey, who was autistic, was last watched looking disoriented at a beach town hours south of Boquete.
What is worth noting, however, is that in both cases Panamanian authorities went under heavy firefor mishandling the investigations.
Witnesses say Kris and Lisanne left the trailhead , merely north of Boquete, at about 10 oclock on that sunny Tuesday morning. They were garmented in light apparel, and with only Lisannes small knapsack to share between them.
Thanks to photos recovered from a camera later found in that same knapsack, we know the women stimulated fairly good time up to the Mirador. They are smiling and seem to be enjoying themselves in these images, and there is no indication of a third party being along with themalthough there are reports that a local dog named Bluefollowed them at least part route up the trail.
Geographical features visible in the last few paintings indicate that by mid-afternoon the women had left the Pianista, and, perhaps accidentally, crossed over to the other side of the Divide.
These last images indicate them wandering off onto a network of trails not maintained by rangers or guides affiliated with Baru National Park. Such unmarked traces arent mean for tourists, but are used almost exclusively by indigenous peoples living deep within the woods of the Talamanca.
Nine weeks later, in mid-June, Lisannes pack was brought to authoritiesby a Ngobe womanwho claimed to have found it on the riverbank near her village of Alto Romero, in the Boco del Toros region, about 12 hours by foot from the Continental Divide.
The contents would cause a firestorm of supposition on both sides of the Atlantic: two bras, two smart phones, and two pairs of cheap sunglasses. Also a water bottle, Lisannes camera and passportand $83 in cash.
The discovery of the knapsack prompted a renewed search, and by August the Ngobe had helped authorities locate about two handfuls of bone fragments, all found along the shores of the Rio Culebra, or the River of the Serpent.
DNA tests were positiveand also thickened the plot.
A total of five fragmented remains were identified as are subordinate to Kris and Lisannebut the Ngobe had also submitted bone chips from as many as three other individuals.
Aside from the bras in the knapsack and one of Lisannes bootswith her foot and ankle bones still inside itvery little other apparel was ever found. One of Kriss( empty) boots was also recovered. As were her denim shorts, which were allegedly found zipped and folded on a rock high above the waterline near the headwaters of the Culebraabout a mile-and-a-half upstream from where the knapsack and other remains were found.
Why had so little remains been find? Why were there no marks on the bones? What did the presence of other human remains mean?
Answers were in short supply. Neither Dutch nor Panamanian forensic examiners could offer a definitive decision on the cause of deaththe Dutch felt it most likely an accident, while admitting they couldnt rule in foul play while their colleagues in Panama publicly speculatedabout the possibility of a criminal act.
After the discovery of the identified remains, Panamas attorney general had calledthe suit a crime against personal integrity, but when forensic examiners reached an impasse, the Panamanian government simply declared the suit closed.
By November 2014, Attorney General Betzaida Pitti had publicly declared the women dead of a hiking accident, after having been dragged to death in a river system.
Some critics have taken issue with Pittis government-sanctioned hypothesis.
The problem is that the governments hypothesis is completely illogical, tells attorney Arrocha, who is short and energetic and wears a camouflage shirt to our interview at the restaurant, as if he were expecting an ambush.
The day before, when we arranged this meeting over the phone, hed hinted that his life has been threatened over the Kremers-Froon case. Perhaps for the above reasons, hes accompanied to our table by a bouncer-sized bodyguard.
If my client and Miss Froon had died of natural causes, Arrocha tells in a rapid whisper, so as not to be overheard by nearby tables, grease from decomposition would impregnate the clothes and backpack.
The bodyguard and I both lean in with interest, and Arrocha continues in the same hushed tone:
Its almost impossible for the bones to be in this condition, he tells, and points out that the result forensic examiner had publicly theorized that lime might have been used to hasten decomposition.
The evidence seems to have been manipulated in order to hide something, tells Arrocha, who at one point threatenedto take the suit to the International Court of Justice( ICJ ).
At the very least there should have been a criminal investigation, he slaps his hand on the table. Even the[ Panamanian] forensic examiners wanted to do that. But the public prosecutor threw out all our petitions.
Some high-profile members of the Panamanian press also were skepticalabout the official theory.
AdelitaCoriat, who covered the storyfor La Estrella , one of the countrys largest papers, believes the investigation would have been more robust if the authorities concerned had find the complete skeletons of the girls.
The first official search party didnt get under way until April 6almost a week after the women went missing, according to information The Daily Beast received from Panamas National System for Civil Protection( SINAPROC ). Even worse, as Coriat points out in an email toThe Daily Beast, no chain of detention was established for the recovered evidence.
I have many doubts, she tells, about the government hypothesis.
For instance, when the contents of the knapsack were examined by experts at the Dutch Forensic Institute, they discovered more than 30 unidentified fingerprintsbut Panama had failed to record prints from any of the indigenous people involved in the case.
One of the hardest details for Coriat to swallow, she tells, is how the knapsack was allegedly found washed up on the riverbankand with bone fragments found both upstream and down from that spotyet the electronics inside the pack were relatively undamaged.
The intact conditions of the clothes and billfold seem to contradict the hypothesis of the prosecution, tells Coriat, quoting verbatim a criminologist she interviewed in the course of her original investigation.
No forensics examination was ever done at the crime scene! Arrocha holds up his index finger, starting his counting of the policing blunders.
None of the dog squads ever get near the scene eitherincluding the Dutch dog teams! Hes half-shouting now, but nobody can hear him over the cheers and jeers for the futbol game.
Then the indigenas merely demonstrated up with all these bones in a container, and the prosecution been agreed upon. He pulls down the last finger.
But nothing was ever verified!
According to critics like Arrocha and Coriat, the government has a clear-cut motive for insisting on road traffic accidents scenario, instead of at the least looking into the possibility of a homicide:
Its the need to protect tourism, Arrocha tells, echoing those involved in the Humphrey case.
When I ask him why the Kremer family ultimately declined to take the suit to the ICJ, Arrocha says that the family might have preferred psychological closure to learning any more unpleasant facts.
You dont assure what you dont want to see, he says.
There are many ways to die up there in the mountains, tells Plinio, who continued to lead police search parties for some two weeks after Kris and Lisanne were reported missing. His list of hazards includes disorienting terrain, jumping vipers, jaguars, and treacherous river crossings.
Any criminals[ in the area] would face the same hazards as the holandesas themselves, Plinio muses aloud. The general lack of mobility would cut both styles, he tells, and all the trails in the area were searched at the time.
If a third party was involved, Plinio asks himself, as if still haunted by the question, how arrived we never found any sign of them?
Then the guide intersects himself, and kisses his fingertips.
There are a lot of ways to die up there, he tells again.
BOQUETE, PanamaAnother day, another deluge.
When the big rainfalls come each afternoon this town battens down like a ship in heavy oceans. The safari outfitters and souvenir stallings close first, since there will be no clients anyway. Street vendors race to pack their carts in the downpour.
Its the middle of Junethe height of the rainy season here in the Talamanca mountainsand Ive already spent a very wet week in this town, searching for clues in the unsolved deathsof Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, who was 22.
The two attractive young tourists disappearedunder strange situations in April of 2014. Allegations of a doubled homicide have surfaced ,. No formal charges were ever filed. but forensics investigators say foul play cant be ruled out.
Armed with new proof, and backed by a squad of U.S.-based experts, Ive come to Boquete seeking answers to the questions that continue to define this case:
Did the women succumb in a tragic hiking accident? Or were they victims of a brutal assassination?
When the torrential rain slackens, and cell-phone service resumes, I call an importantand elusivesource.
The man is a local rancher and part-time guide, who has asked not to be identified in this story for security reasons. Hes also one of the last people to see the women alive.
He doesnt answer his phone at first, so I keep trying, hoping to get through before the next squall. This guide already stood me up several times this week, promising to meet me at various points around Boquete, then failing to show up on time.
I understand why he might be shy. The rumor mill in Boquete maintains churning out scenarios that indicate he orchestrated the Dutch women abductionallegedly to commit a sex crime deep in the woodland. Theres no proof, and he securely denies such insinuations. And I am not hoping for a confession. Id just like a little clarity. He satisfied the girls when they were alive and he helped find some of their bones when they were dead. Hes clearly someone to talk to.
Maybe hell be around later, he tells me, or maybe not. Then he hangs up.
Witnesses say this same guide met with Kris and Lisanne less than 24 hours before they disappeared, on the campus of an all-inclusive speech school called Spanish by the River, where the women were staying in Boquete.
During that meeting, he offered them a full-package tour, including a guided hike up to the nearby Continental Divide, and an overnight stop at his ranch, deep in the jungle on the far side of the mountains.
For unknown reasons, the women declined.
Early the next morning, Kris and Lisanne set out to climb up to the Continental Divide on their own. They were never seen alive again.
The few scattered remains and personal articles eventually find were several miles back, on the other side of the Divideand merely a couple of hours by foot from the guides ranch property.
When I get him on the phone again, I mention the victims families back in the Netherlands, who are still desperate for answers.
Talk to the attorney general if you want info. Or talk to SINAPROC, he tells, referring to Panamas FEM-Alike National Service for Civil Protection.
I give him my full name again, so he can seem me up on line, and offer to show him my press pass when we meet.
I already told the police everything I know, he tells, but adds a final suppose, just before hanging up on me again:
Those daughters couldve been saved, he tells, if the SINAPROC people knew how to do their jobs.
In the immediate aftermath of the misfortune, local and international media portrayed official search endeavoursin Panama as both prompt and efficient.
But when I start asking around Boquetea town where I& apos; ve spent period beforeother participants in the search disagreed.
We were out go looking for the girls three or four days before SINAPROC even got involved, tells John Tornblom, 32, a guide with more than 10 years of experience in the surrounding cloud forests.
The first 24 hours are key for a search and rescue operation, but the authorities concerned hesitated since they are thought the girls were out on a party somewhere, instead of truly missing, Tornblom tells me when we meet at his outfitter store downtown.
Inside, climbing and rafting gear covering the walls. A few off-season tourists sit on a lounge wrapped in their slickers, waiting for the next jeep ride up to the sierra.
Once the government did get involved, Tornblom tells, volunteers like himself were ordered to stand down while SINAPROC conducted its own searches.
Were the ones who know the area, but they cut us out, tells Tornblom, who describes SINAPROC as top-heavy and weighed down by bureaucracy.
That rescue operation was a total clusterfuck.
When I visit Boquetes SINAPROC office, Security Director Lecia Espinoza admits that the first phase of the search was impeded because nobody knew where to look for the missing women.
There are dozens of trails in the sierra, tells Espinoza, whose position was created in the wake of the Kremers-Froon tragedy. At first, we had absolutely no idea what route the girls might have taken.
Espinoza confirms that the governmental forces search began on April 6four days after educators from the language school reported the women missing to police.
We were up hunting for those two on the Baru volcano those first few days, Tornblom explains, since the still-active volcano is the most popular hiking attraction in the area.
[ The daughters] didnt tell anybody where they were going, he tells, so we could never narrow the search down to a tight grid.
Contradictory witnesfrom eyewitnesses also hampered rescue tries. It would be months before investigators confirmed Kris and Lisanne had in fact set out on April 1, instead of the day before.
If only theyd left a note saying where they were going, Tornblom tells. If theyd merely written one sentence or sent someone a texteverything might have been different.
After a 10 -day search use puppies, helicopters, and ground squads failed to turn up any leadings, SINAPROC curtailed great efforts to. A Dutch teambrought in its own developed puppies near the end of May, but endeavours were thwarted by heavy rains, and the team went home empty handed.
The jungle seemed to have won.
A couple of months after the Panamanian searches had ended, in mid-June of 2014, a Ngobe woman from a village called Alto Romero strolled into the local police station with Lisanne Froons backpack.
The woman claimed to have found the pack while tending to her rice paddy, about five miles from where the victims were last watched, on the banks of the powerful river locals call the Culebra, or Serpent.
The pack was wedged into a mess of flotsam on the bank, the Ngobe woman said, and she was sure it hadnt been there the day before.
The discovery touched off a new wave of intense searches along the Culebraall captained by the same fading guide who Ive been chasing around Boquete all this time in the rain.
By the end of August, a total of 33 skeletal fragments had been linked to the missing females use Dna tests. Twenty-eight of the recovered bones were the smaller metatarsals of Lisannes left foot, still in its boot and sock, and reportedly found behind a tree near the river.
Unfortunately, the information about where any of the remains were found doesnt get much more specific than that.
At this stage of the search, proper police procedures were largely ignored. No search grid was made at the time; no soil samples were taken to compare with proof found in the autopsy.
And the poor policing wasnt limited to the search area itself. For example, examiners from the Dutch Forensic Institute discovered more than 30 unidentified fingerprintson the contents of Lisannes backpack.
Panamanian investigators, however, had stimulated no print records relating to such suit, so no screening could be done for suspicious prints.
Forensics faux-pasnotwithstanding, the Dutch examiners stated that Kris and Lisanne probably were victims of a hiking accident.
You cant truly exclude international crimes, but I remain[ of the opinion] it was an accident scenario, Dr. Frank Van de Goot, the head of the Dutch team, tells The Daily Beasts Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam.
Van de Goot quotes the rugged, geographic features in the region as the most likely culprit:
You can scream and shout what you will, the jungle absorbs everything. There is a constant off-land gust, puppies can& apos; t reek you and there is no phone reception, tells Van de Goot, who led a second team of examiners to Panama to hike the Pianista trail in January 2015. Despite a valiant effort the Dutch team was unable to reach the banks of the Culebra, where the remains were found, due to heavy rains.
The forensic anthropologist also says the lack of a ransom demand is in keeping with road traffic accidents.
If they had been kidnapped, we& apos; ve heard nothing to confirm that, tells Van de Goot. Usually people get in touch and ask for money. I can& apos; t completely exclude international crimes, but I have nothing to prove that. With road traffic accidents, there are a few possibilities, but I can& apos; t prove it.
In Boquete, Van de Goots accident theory is often met with grim skepticism , in part because of a lack of specifics, such as GPS coordinates indicating where the fall might have taken place.
If it was really road traffic accidents why couldnt they find more remains? tells guide Tornblom. Where are all the big bones? Where are the skulls? There are no animals up there that would eat a skull.
Although no hard proof against him has yet been uncovered, the part-time tour leader who offered to shepherd the victims on this same hike remains under suspicion among Boquetes guiding community.
Some of our female clients have complained of him harassing them, tells Tornblom. And other guides in Boquete back this up, saying “the mens” in question has a habit of bathing in the hot spring with lady tourists, which is against code.
He ought to at least be interrogated the right way, Tornblom tells. If this occurred in the Nation or in Europe the investigation wouldve been taken to a whole different level.
Tornblom is just one of several tour operators who tell me, in interviews, that theyre concerned the rancher-cum-guide might be literally get away with murder.
The Panamanian press picked up on those frets, too.
If a crime was involved, ” Adelita Coriat, a reporter who coveredthe Kremers-Froon investigation for Panama Citys La Estrella newspaper, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview, he “would have to be the top suspect.”
He has a son who lives up near there[ Alto Romero ], too, Coriat tells. As I understand it they were both seen in the area when the holandesas disappearedbut I dont suppose the police ever appeared too closely into any of that.
Cue Carl Weil, a Master Fellow in Wilderness Medicine with decades of search-and-rescue, law enforcement, and forensics experience. Now 70, Weil serves as directorof Colorados Wilderness Medical Program, and, in his spare time, teaches Search Evade and Rescue( SER) classes for Air force and Marine pilots.
After reviewing data regarding the leaked suit files we received( including the cell phone records and images taken from the camera found in the victims knapsack) Weil concludes that the initial event that prevented the women from returning to Boquete along the Pianista trail was almost certainly not criminal.
I dont assure any evidence of foul play, Weil tells. Theyre continuing to take paintings and use their phones. Id say that attains it look like some various kinds of accident, at the least initially.
No third party, Weil find, would let the victims operate their phones and camera after abduction.
The log from Kriss iPhone, also found in the knapsack, shows the first call to 112( the equivalent of 911 in the Netherlands) went at 9:39 p.m. on April 1. And more calls to emergency numbers were stimulated over the next few days.
The last attempted call comes on the third; but at the least one of the women continued to power on Kriss phone at the same period each day, perhaps to check for a signal, until April 6.
The Daily Beast received more than 100 images taken from Lisannes camera, with about 90 of them made outdoors in heavy jungle and at night. If the date included in the timestamp on the last photos is correct, it would mean they were stimulated on April 8.
That means when the SINAPROC search endeavours get underway on April 6, one or both of the women were still alivestranded without food or shelter in very steep country, but alive.
They must have been drinking river water, which couldve contained giardia or amoebic dysentery, Weil points out. After the working day diarrhea could have started, causing dehydration, weakness, and loss of mental and physical sharpness.
Temperatures at night in the cloud forest would have been in the 50 s and low 60 s at that altitude, which means hypothermia would have been a risk, especially as they lacked jackets or ponchos.
After a week of constant starvation and exposure to the elements they would already be psychologically and physically impaired, tells Weil, and experiencing a loss of wit, quickness, strength, and agility.
The recovered iPhones final powering event comes on April 11 three days after the photos were made and five days after the search began.
Dr. Van de Goots team of examiners declared they couldnt be certain a third party didnt activate the phone on that day.
The resulting third-party candidate, at the least for some people, is the same guide who first invited the women up to the Divide.
Hes the last guy to see them aliveand then hes the one who detects their bones , tells fellow guide Tornblom. Something about that merely feels wrong to me.
When I ultimately get the man in question back on the phone, several days later, he staunchly defends his innocence
I satisfied the holandesas in town but never considered them after that, he says.
I spent many days helping SINAPROC search for those poor girls. I even met with their families when they came to Boquete. I did everything I could! he finishes hollering into the phone.
This gua might be known for taking liberties with female clients out in the forestand hes no great shakes as an interview subjectbut a thorough investigation fails to turn up any hard proof connecting him to a crime.
When I ask forensics expert Weil again about a possible accident scenario, he says that people stranded in the wilderness without basic survival equipment often live for a week to ten days, but rarely do they make it for more than two weeks.
The hike to the Continental Divide and back to Boquete takes merely four or five hours, and the Dutch team concluded that Kris and Lisanne could not have lost their route on that trail.
I dont get it, Weil pauses to study the map.
They were so close he tells. So why didnt they just walk back to town?
BOQUETE, PanamaAt the pinnacle of the Continental Divide stands a rustproof sign that reads:
END OF TRAIL, NO RETURN PASSAGE
Posted high in the cloud forests that surround the still-active Baru volcano, the marker is hard to miss. But the sign also lists sharply to one sideas if this remote warning had been slapped together in a rush.
Back in early April of 2014, when Kris Kremers, 21, and Lisanne Froon, 22, disappearednear the upper part of the Divide, there was no sign here at all.
For weeks there was no sign of the women either. Investigators know they started the hike in good climate, at mid-morning, and should have summited by about 1:00 p.m. That would have given them plenty of time to return to Boquete before nightfall, but for some reason they never stimulated it back to town.
After a slow start, authorities eventually put dog squads on the ground and rescue choppers in the airbut initial search endeavours proved useless.
A few months later some scattered remains were found in the rugged country on the far side of the Divide, on the banks of the river that locals call the Culebra, or Serpent. Dna tests confirmed a match, but the actual cause of death for the holandesas as they came to be known throughout Panamaremains unsolved.
The local authorities version of events is that Froon and Kremers died in some kind of hiking accident, but few specifics have been offered to back up this hypothesis.
Some close to the case doubt the hiking accident scenario. They indicate a darker version of events, including a possible sex crime and murderwhich the government either ignored or encompassed up. According to this theory, the remains and belongings were either hurled in the river to get rid of them, or deliberately plantedby the perpetrators.
Which brings us back to the crooked sign atop the Continental Divide, in the rainforests of Panamas highest cordillera.
The sign reads End of Trail because thats where the official tourist footpath from Boquete up to the Divide ends. That trailcalled La Pianista due to its keyboard-like ups and downsis maintained by rangers from the nearby Baru National Park.
But the galvanized sign marking the terminus of the Pianista isnt truly the end of the trail. In fact, theres a very obvious, albeit mud-choked, passage that goes down the other side of the crestonly to intersect with an entire web of routes constructed and used primarily by members of the indigenous Ngobe tribe.
These nameless trails arent monitored or maintained by park rangers. Theyre also exceptionally rugged and dangerous, especially during the April-to-October wet season. Even the Ngobe only use them when absolutely necessary after the big rainfalls come.
A key tenet of the foul-play hypothesis is that Kris and Lisanne, who had come to Boquete to study Spanish and volunteer to work with children in the community, wouldnt have wandered off onto the daunt and mud-choked indigenous trails.
Or at least not of their free will. The females had only light apparel, and no food, camping, or survival gear, noted that they almost certainly had not planned for more than a few hours hike in the forest.
Proponents of an abduction theory claim that Kris and Lisanne were either forced down into the web of native trails by a third party, or abducted after returning from their hike up to the Dividepossibly while walking the two-lane road back into the small tourist town of Boquete in the valley below.( Theft have occurred on the trail before, and traveling guides like Lonely Planet have warned about crime on the Pianista .)
I hiked it myselfthe whole trail. I “ve seen it with my own” eyes, said Enrique Arrocha, the lawyer who represented the Kremers family in the investigation, when I met with him in Boquete. Once you start to go down the other side everything changes. The country is very wild. The dirt comes up to here , he slapped his leg at the knee.
The trail is like a river! Its almost impossible to walk it, said Arrocha, who strongly advocates for a criminal investigation due to unanswered questions about the case.
I considered what conditions were like, and he slapped his knee again, harder this time.
The holandesas would never have wanted to go on down into that hell.
Up at the Continental Divide, on a recent rain-soaked afternoon , I can see that the lawyer isnt lying about the harsh conditions.
The off-limits pathway on the other side of the signpost is so steep that sometimes you have to scoot down backwards on all fours. The main trace is also crisscrossed by a baffle network of game trails and creek beds.
Too steep even for mules, the trail eventually runs out of the state called Chiriqu, and into the province called Bocas del Toro. On the route it intersects several steep river gorges. These same canyons, which can be up to 70 feet deep, is necessary traversed use notoriously unsteady cable bridges.( Those same cables also made the trail off-limits for search puppies .)
As the trail appears now, in the midst of northern Panamas six-month rainy season, its hard to imagine the women would attempt it. Lisanne was an achieved athlete, with an Alpine hiking background; Kris had less outdoors experience, but she was also young and healthy. Even so, they would have been out of their league after crossing the Divide.
Extreme hikers who pay guides to take them into the river valleys of Bocas typically tackle the canyons with full-frame packs and supplies to last for days. They also come equipped with ponchos, weatherproof tents, and other gear to protect against the constant, chill-inducing rains.
But it doesnt always rain in Bocas. In fact, when Kris and Lisanne reached the clearing at the opening of the Continental Divide on April 1, dry season climate patterns were still in effect.
The holandesas own recovered photographs demonstrate the day they disappeared was bright and sunny, as was the rest of that week. Trails would have been considerably easier to hike at that time, as river levels were much lowerat least for the first few days after they went missing.
Once the rainfalls start, though, conditions can change overnight. The same heavy rains and thick mists that make this cloud woodland such a unique ecosystem can also restriction visibility to almost nothing within seconds. Most of the time, navigating in the forest by the sunlight or starrings merely isnt possible.
Sometimes even we get lost over there, tells Plinio Montenegro, a senior tour guide in Boquete, when I ask him about the maze of trails on the other side of the Divide.
Back in January, Plinio tells me, a party of eight guideson a develop mission get disoriented and lost on the Bocas side, in the same area where Kris and Lisanne went missing.
First they got lost, then they started fighting about which road to take, until ultimately different groups split up over it, tells Plinio, who volunteered to lead several searches for Kremers and Froon after the initial alerting went out. He was also tapped to find the eight stranded apprentice guidesand brought them all back home again.
Plinio is still in top shape at 35, and like all the government-licensed guides in Boquete, speaks fluent English. As we talk in the foyer of my hotel, he describes the feeling that comes over those lost in the jungle as a kind of forest madness.
Once you get lost up there you change. Youre not the same person you are down below, he tells. Some people go crazy and start to sprint down the trail, he tells. Its like a nightmare to be lost in the selva .
In Part 2 of this series, wilderness survival expert Carl Weil told The Daily Beast he doubted foul play was involved in the Kremers-Froon case. After further review of the evidence, Weil singles out the confusing web of trails as a top suspect.
If one of them had been injured or suffered a snake bite, then youd expect the healthy one to hike out and get help, tells Weil, the director of the Wilderness Medicine program in Colorado, when I reach him again by phone.
But if neither of them knew how to get outthen theyd be less likely to separate, he says.
At some phase, tells Weil, who also teaches survival tactics for U.S. military personnel, the Dutch females would have had to choose an arbitrary direction and start walking.
The further they would have gone without find something familiar, the more scared they would be. If you dont have a map or compass, he tells, its very easy to end up merely walking in circles.
The females had just come from a town, tells Weil, and so might have guessed there was another Boquete-like community on the other side of the Divide.
They probably never dreamed they were heading off into a deep, dark wilderness.
A series of over a hundred images, found on the digital memory card of Lisannes camera, devotes us a glimpse of just how deep and dark it was.
The college volleyball star and amateur shutterbug had brought a Canon Powershot SX2 70 along on her post-graduate trip-up to Panama. A durable pocket camera, the model comes with a zoom lens and built-in flashing. Unfortunately for investigators, unlike some similar models, the SX270 doesnt have GPS or Wifi capabilities.
Lisannes Canon was discovered in its own padded suit inside her knapsack on the banks of the Culebra.( The nylon pack also contained her passport, as well as both women cell phone, sunglasses, money, and bras .)
The first dozen or so images found on the camera seem normal enough.
Tuesday, April 1, was a bright, sunny day. The females are smiling and cheerful and no third party is visible in any of the images. Aside from a few selfies taken at the overlook of the Divide, most of the pictures are shot by Lisanne, and many of them show Kris walking ahead of her on the trail, enjoying the sunshine and the primal beauty of the rainforest.
Then things get strange.
In the last few shoots from that day we do indeed assure Kris and Lisanne following an indigenous trail down the opposite side of the high ridge-crest that marks the division of the Pacific and Caribbean watersheds. Geographical features near a streambed visible in the last few photos place them about an hour from the top of the Divideand still heading downhill, away from Boquete.
Court-certified forensic photography analyst Keith Rosenthalsays the women might already be lost at the time these images were made.
They could have taken these paintings in an attempt to mark where theyd already been, Rosenthal tells The Daily Beast, after reviewing the full set of images. He tells the photos might have been intended as reference points, in case they tried to come back the same way.
The last image we have of Kris Kremerss face, turning to look back into the camera as she intersects a streambed, could also be telling.
Her facial expression is different from in all the other paintings, tells Rosenthal, after magnification and enhancement of the image. She doesnt seem so happy here for some reason.
According to the call log from her iPhonewhich was also found intact with the camera in the backpackthe first call from Kriss phone attempting to reach an emergency services number in Holland comes later that same night, at 9:39 p.m, approximately three
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