Ian Birrell

Getting away with murder

Panama’s palm-fringed islands recently harboured a ruthless serial killer — the seemingly genial owner of the Jolly Roger Social Club, as Nick Foster discovered

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.

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