Cher Hughes loved the beauty, the white sand beaches and sun-kissed climate of the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama. So she sold her thriving sign business in Florida and spent the profits on creating a new life on the Caribbean archipelago. She and her husband built a beautiful home filled with fine furnishings on Darklands, a private island with coconut palm trees and a sheltered cove, while investing in a couple of rental units nearby.
Hughes threw herself into her new life. She went into the jungle to find strange blooms for her vases and searched for armadillos in the moonlight. A blonde in her forties, she became a popular member of the largely American community of about 2,000 expats. The numbers were growing fast, swelled by baby boomers fed up with life in the States and seduced by lagoons and lobster cook-outs. Property prices shot up, some people doubling their cash in a couple of years.
Darklands was little more than a mile away from the Jolly Roger Social Club, a rumbustious weekend bar run by a larger-than-life American called ‘Wild Bill’ Cortez and his often-silent wife Jane. A big guy with a beard and long hair, Cortez wore a Viking helmet, hung pictures of Harley-Davidson motorbikes on the walls and knew how to throw a party. His bar was a boozy focal point for the expats, the owner sometimes firing a gun in the air to gain attention. The club flew the skull and crossbones flag and its motto was: ‘Over 90 per cent of our members survive.’
Hughes and her husband became regulars. When they separated, Hughes grew closer to the American bar owners, defending them when others criticised their vulgarity. Then one night in March 2010, after they had been drinking heavily, Cortez invited Hughes to go with him to look at some sloths behind his house. She was never seen again — until her body was dug up from a shallow jungle grave. No wonder Jane used to say ‘folks aren’t going to believe what we’ve been doing here when we’ve gone.’
For Hughes was not the first victim of Cortez. His real name was William Holbert, and he was a white supremacist from North Carolina who had fled to Panama after a property scam. He had also killed a naive lawyer carrying cash, a couple with drug money stashed in the bank and their teenage son, plus an antiquities dealer with lizard tattoos on each shoulder who had moved there from New Mexico. Yet although Holbert bragged about killing people and brazenly moved in to the properties of his victims, he was only caught when he went on the run after the Hughes killing.
Nick Foster, who stumbled on the story when sent to write about Panama’s property boom for the Financial Times, is clearly fascinated by both the seedy tale and rather sleazy expat community. Bocas del Toro attracted people who wanted to disappear, whether from families, tax authorities or the law. Back stories were frequently false, the criminal justice system flawed; police sometimes used torture, and property scams — such as selling land only visible at low tide — were commonplace. People often left with little notice. This explains why Holbert — far from the only one there living under an assumed name — managed to get away with his murders.
It makes for an entertaining yarn, despite the cast of unlovable characters. Foster’s research is diligent as he unravels the details of the crook who befriended his victims, shot them in the head — possibly after torturing them for bank codes — and then moved in to their homes. After his capture, gold dental fillings were found in his last residence. One neighbour called him ‘the world’s first capitalist serial killer’, although perhaps that gives Holbert more dignity than he deserves.
Foster scrapes away with forensic precision beneath the picture-postcard image of Bocas del Toro, a key transit point for drugs flowing from Colombia into the United States. Yet sometimes the sheer weight of detail and welter of description drowns the central narrative. And while he writes well, there are major diversions into Panamanian history and politics that, while sometimes interesting, can feel uncomfortably grafted on to this true-crime story.
Five years after his capture, Holbert was still awaiting trial in jail. He slimmed down, claimed to have found God and became a minor celebrity, fighting for prisoners’ rights from his cell. Foster finally met him and twice asked how he killed a teenage boy. But the question was ducked as the self-confessed killer rambled on; and the families of his victims await justice. It seems fitting, however, to find an island called Darklands at the core of this tale. For while telling the story of a greedy psychopath, Foster shows the dirt that often lies beneath the deceptive surface of paradise.