Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The real-life 'Hostel' murders

Pan American flight

In Bocas del Toro, William Holbert and Laura Reese used the names William Adolfo Cortez and Jane Cortez. Running a hostel and presenting themselves as wealthy entrepreneurs, they fell in with the local circle of expatriate Americans who periodically met for parties and other group events.

Cheryl Lynn Hughes
Cheryl Lynn Hughes

One of these Americans was Cheryl Lynn Hughes, 53, originally from St. Louis, Mo. She'd owned a hotel in Bocas del Toro for the last 10 years, after selling her Southern Exposure sign shop in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In March 2010, Hughes attended an early evening party hosted by the couple she knew as the Cortezes. When the other guests left, Holbert persuaded her to stay behind to talk about business. Then he lured her into the jungle to watch monkeys—and allegedly shot her in the head.

Hughes's estranged husband, Keith Werle, eventually persuaded local police to look into her disappearance, but they made little progress. The family hired journalist and retired Air Force officer Don Winner to find clues to their beloved Cher's disappearance. And Hughes' aunt, Mary Wittmeyer, did what she could to piece together the story from abroad. Wittmeyer even spoke to Holbert over the phone.

Wittmeyer found herself suspicious of Holbert, who allegedly told her that her niece and best friend had sold him her hotel and other property and possessions, and given him control of her financial assets. Holbert told Wittmeyer that Hughes had then spontaneously skipped town to go on an extended sailing trip. Wittmeyer called the FBI and the U.S. Embassy in Panama. Local authorities then searched the property, officially on the grounds that Holbert illegally possessed an AK-47 firearm.

Bo Icelar
Bo Icelar

Unbelievably, Hughes' Doberman met police at the Holbert property and led them to a shallow grave. Authorities now believe that the bodies they found were those of Cheryl Lynn Hughes and Bo Icelar. Holbert also claimed to have bought a house from Icelar before the retired New Mexico gallery owner disappeared.

Panamanian investigators now think that Holbert and Reese may also be connected to the disappearance of two as-yet unnamed Panamanian victims, and to the deaths of a whole family. According to prosecuting attorney Angel Calderon, Mike Brown was living in Panama under an assumed name because he was wanted on drug charges. Calderon Believes that Brown's large amount of cash and multiple bank accounts tempted Holbert. Brown, along with his wife, Manchittha Nankratoke and his 18-year-old son, Watson Brown, disappeared in 2007.

But Holbert and Reese were on the run again before anyone had sorted that out.

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