When Wild Bill arrived in Bocas del Toro, killed five members of the expatriate community, stole their houses, pilfered their assets, then fled into the darkened interior of Central America, almost two decades had passed since the archipelago's first property boom. Gringo dollars flowed like wine at a village fiesta. The police were warm and drowsy. And there was a widely agreed unspoken rule regarding one's business and buried history. In sum: no questions asked. Wild Bill, the latter day pirate, had come home.
I was slung in a hammock in a half-fallen shack on the water. A procession of rickety grey piers jutted over the bay, threatening collapse under the terminal tropical torpor. Bocas Town, the indolent island capital of Panama's far-flung Bocas del Toro province, was fading to blurry smudge of spent beer bottles and flickering porch lights.
Nearby, in a half-built Pentecostal church, the minister was attending his flock with a viscous Caribbean drawl, words pouring like sour coconut milk into the night.
"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth," he said. "…and that his every thought was only evil. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth. And it grieved him - yes, it grieved him at his heart! I shall rub him out, cried the Lord! I shall smite him!"
The congregation grew animated under his spell, whooping and braying and praying for salvation. Arms raised to the rafters, heavens beseeched, their bodies began to jerk and tremble with spiritual charge:
"Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
Inside my head, lines of prose chased themselves in erratic, ever-decreasing orbits, tangling impossibly in the folds of my darkening cerebellum. I sensed the onset of a monster migraine.
"Even now," said a voice from my Dictaphone, as I played back snippets of interviews. "When I think about it… it's just so bizarre… I know two people who were killed by this maniac… in your lifetime, you just don't expect something like that… "
But for me, the morbid thrill of investigating Panama's first serial killer, Wild Bill, was quickly fading. I was awash with notes, papers, jottings, cuttings. Two dozen leads leading precisely to nowhere. A hundred unanswered questions. Half-formed meditations. Wild, abortive monologues on the nature of darkness and evil. I had nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Pirates and Paradise Islands
"When Christopher Columbus sailed these emerald isles in 1502, he found neither gold nor a passage to India. Instead he discovered a scintillating natural treasure that many are calling 'The Galapagos of the 21st Century'. Whether you're seeking the perfect retirement destination, or simply a solid investment venture, Bocas is the place to be …"
- Fantasy Island Investment Corp
The year was 1989.
The United States had finally dumped its quarrelsome business partner, President Manuel Noriega, along with his vicious cohorts in the Guardia Nacional. Panama's new-found stability was lending credibility to a nation otherwise famed for its insalubrious tropical diseases, its military dictators, its transoceanic canal, and its drug lords. Waves of foreigners arrived, speculating with a view to accumulating.
Few places were as ripe for exploitation as the verdant atolls of the Bocas del Toro archipelago: a chain of rum-soaked Caribbean islands steeped in grandiose legends of pirates. It was a tourist developers dream. Dazzling white sand beaches, kaleidoscopic coral reefs, teeming rainforests and lost-in-time Creole villages drew the frenzied attentions of blood-thirsty land grabbers.
"Come to the Paradise Islands of Bocas del Toro," they cried. "Central America's best kept secret!"
But what no investment broker ever admitted about Panama — or Central America generally — is its peculiar appeal to the social failures of the north. Scammers, swindlers, crooks, and criminals are as prolific as vultures at the roadside.
The White Supremacist Flees South
I wondered, vaguely, if Wild Bill suffered torments. Did night terrors consume him? Did he writhe, delirious, at the mercy of strange fevers? A savage burst of lightening illuminated the shack, casting thick bars of shadow on my flesh.
"His killing… " Douglas Ruscher, a friend of the victims, had told me one afternoon at his hotel in Bocas Town. "He did that almost in a professional way. The way he plotted, he did a lot of studying of people. But I think he liked to kill. I think it's something he enjoyed."
In many ways, Bill fit the profile of a classic profit killer: all his murders were planned, all were motivated by material gain, all were directed at acquaintances. Equally, it was easy to believe he had derived a twisted pleasure from his slayings.
Born William Dathen Holbert in Hendersonville, North Carolina, 1979, Bill struggled with rejections until he found purpose and meaning in the shady meeting halls of his local White Supremacy chapter. He shaved his head, pumped iron, drank voraciously and jacked up on steroids. He opened a shop and sold fascist memorabilia to his Great White Brothers, dreaming of the day when the Great White Southern Race would once again rise to greatness.
"We believe our culture is the pinnacle of achievement in western society," he said on-camera in 2005, with no hint of irony or sarcasm.
Clearly, Bill was not a refined or educated man. But what he lacked in charm, he made up for with force. The power of flesh, the charge of adrenalin, the Viking roar and the call of the wild, all that he understood. And guns, of course. What kind of southerner would he be without his guns?
Wild Bill…the outlaw, gun-slinger, slayer, butcher and bandit ultimately answered to two great demons of old: Greed and Domination.
When Wild Bill wasn't bowed prostrate to the Confederate flag, he engaged a minor fascination with Satan. Petty crime, meanwhile, paid the bills.
In 2006, he narrowly escaped arrest in the United States for a host of misdemeanours including real estate fraud. Following a high-speed chase by the authorities, he fled south of the border with his girlfriend in tow, Laura Michelle Reese. They hid out in Costa Rica, let their hair grow long, got hitched and acquired fake passports. Holbert and Reese became William Adolfo and Jane Seana Cortez. In July 2007, they entered Panama and settled in the highland town of Volcán.
Panama House for Sale: 3 Bullets
One day, Bill answered a for sale advert on the classifieds website Craigslist. A US-expat, Mike Brown, whose real name was Mike Salem, was selling his house in Bocas del Toro. Brown was a retired drug peddler with connections to powerful Asian cartels. He'd been on the run for three decades.
Brown invited Bill and Jane to view his family house in Aguacate — an isolated enclave on a peninsula aptly named Cerro de la Bruja, or Witch's hill. For three days and nights they partied. On the fourth day, Bill took his 38-caliber revolver and shot Mike Brown, his wife and his 16 year old son, Watson, in the back of the neck. He dug various holes in the garden, buried the evidence and made himself at home.
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