Bill set about insinuating himself into the expat community. He transformed the Brown family home into a tawdry hotel-bar — the Hacienda Cortez — complete with garish skull-and-crossbones and a banner bearing the words "Lucifer's Slave." Locals described the atmosphere as "unusual" and "not quite right."
The slogan he used to publicise his debauched "members only" drinking club, the so-called Jolly Roger Social Club, said it all:
"Over 90% of our members make it out alive."
Although unusual, Bill was not unpopular. He kept a loyal court of colorful wastrels, clowns, and petty outlaws. But the self-declared Minister of the First Church of the Inebriation was consumed by ego as much as he was by ethanol-based beverages. He revelled in the secret knowledge of who he was, what he had done, and indeed, what he intended to do.
"Now I've got a licensed firearm," he used to jokingly tell his Jolly Roger affiliates. "I'm gonna shoot some of you gringo jerks!"
Even Jane, normally silent and mousey, couldn't resist making sadistic hints:
"There's things goin' on in here Bocas that's gonna make your blood curdle," she is reported to have said. "People are gonna be completely freaked out!"
Say Hello to My Lawyers, Smith & Wesson
Bill and Jane Cortez slowly leeched Mike Brown's bank accounts, cashing in his savings for expensive toys like speed boats, cars, trucks and AK-47s. As far the neighbors were concerned, Bill was the son of a wealthy Mexican diplomat.
"I'm solvent." He boasted. "I don't need to work. It's just fun."
Psychopathically speaking, Bill was languishing in a so-called cool-off period. For two years, he did not kill again. And then, one day, driven by dwindling funds and lingering alcoholic rot, he struck once more.
Bo Icelar was from Santa Fe, New Mexico. His friend, Douglas Ruscher, described him as an interesting and cultured man, well-travelled and bohemian. He enjoyed blues and jazz, had several black-belts in the martial arts and maintained a phenomenal art collection at his home in Big Creek, just outside of Bocas Town.
Bo had been trying to sell his house for months and believed he had a potential buyer in Bill Cortez. On the morning of November 30, 2009, Bo took breakfast in Lili's Cafe in Bocas Town. Bill and Jane arrived soon after to escort Bo to a meeting with their "lawyer." No one saw Bo alive ever again.
The next day, Bill moved into his Bo's house in Big Creek and when a worker showed up to fulfil a painting contract, Bill barked at him from the balcony:
"What the hell do you want? Bo doesn't live here anymore. He sold the house to me yesterday. "
Bo's disappearance, although it was sudden, prompted no questions. If anything, Bocas is transitory, and besides, Bo was a reclusive character and given to bouts of eccentricity.
"Taking off without any warning was the kind of thing Bo might actually do." Douglas told me.
The truth was, Bill had murdered Bo and buried him under a trash pile at the Hacienda Cortez. If he had just stopped there, he might gotten away with it. But after only two and a half months, he killed again. Both his timing and his choice of victim were uncharacteristically reckless.
The Lament of Jack the Wonder Dog
Cher Hughes was a sparkling, lively woman. Her friends, Chris and Sandi Hodge, described her as positive, fun-loving and well-liked by the community. She had a winning smile and an adventurous sprit. She loved children, but had none of her own. She also loved animals, and kept a pack of good-tempered hounds. Jack, a slender black Doberman, was her most loyal.
In early 2010, Cher was recently separated from her husband Keith Werle and lived alone at her private island home in Cauchero, a mile or so from the Hacienda Cortez.
"We were neighbors with Wild Bill and his wife," explained Keith. "We used to have them over for dinner."
On March 23rd, 2010, Bill invited Cher to his house, and at around 8.00pm, called her outside to look at the sloths. When her back was turned, he pulled out his gun, aimed and fired.
Why did Wild Bill prey on Cher, a woman who would be so obviously missed? Was it vanity? Pride? Or simple drunken misjudgement? As a psychopath, he was unable to feel empathy or experience true friendship, and hence, may not have comprehended the intimate nature of Cher's own friendships. Few could accept her sudden and unannounced departure.
On June 20th, police finally responded to ongoing pleas from Cher's friends and family. They dispatched a team of investigators to look into Cher's disappearance and landed at Hacienda Cortez. Jack the Doberman was visibly distressed. They followed him into the garden where he lay down on a pile of freshly turned soil. The investigators dug.
One by one they extracted the decomposed remains of Cher Hughes, Bo Icelar and the Brown family. Inside the house, they discovered numerous documents pertaining to finances, assorted weaponry, satanic literature, and a jar filled with human teeth. Both Wild Bill and his accomplice, Jane Cortez, were gone.
Bill and Jane's Central American sojourn ended much like it began — with a high-speed chase and a dash for an international border. This time they failed to escape. On July 26th 2010, the Nicaraguan army apprehended the couple as they made a break for the jungle-shrouded San Juan river. Clapped in chains and escorted back to Panama, the pair were paraded before the cameras like a pair of circus curiosities.
Once in police custody, Bill confessed to everything. Laura Reese, aka Jane Cortez, denied any involvement in the murders. The pair are awaiting trial in David, western Panama.
Meanwhile, in the days following the grizzly exhumation at Hacienda Cortez, Bocas went into shock. People fell silent, horrified and uncertain. As Sandi Hodge famously said to ABC news:
"We think we know one another -- but no, not really…"
But if that is true of Bocas, it is true of anywhere. From suburban London to outback Australia, monsters lurk in the most of prosaic places - why not Bocas too? Of course, the mean joke between salty expatriates — which can only be understood in light of Panama's unusually jaded love-hate relationship with the United States — is that the country's first serial killer just had to be American.
Another Rainy Night in Panama
Back at my cabin, a relentless deluge had settled over the island. Giant droplets pelted the tin roof. Wind clattered the clapboard walls. Waves washed over the deck. Tree trunks, branches and random flotsam collided with the floor boards. The whole dilapidated structure banged and creaked and shook, threatening to break away into the torment.
Determined to beat my writer's block, I closed my eyes and tried to conjure a complete and final image of Wild Bill. He appeared to me at the precipice with his gun, a brooding storm of dark and terrible omniscience. But this was a lie, a mirage: Bill was no god.
In reality, he was like some bully huntsman, who after tracking an animal across the wilderness, murders it at a sly and opportune moment, cuts off its horns and leaves the carcass to rot in the undergrowth. For all his work, he considers himself a very skilled and able sportsman, never realising he is a nothing but a petty sadist and a tyrant.
I picked up my pen and wrote down the words:
"I was lying in a hammock in a half-fallen shack on the water…"
Richard Arghiris has co–authored best–selling guides to Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. His work has featured in British newspapers like The Independent and The Observer. Richard lives in Nicaragua and has no plans to return home to the UK.
Photos by the author except where indicated.
A Requiem for Bluefields, Nicaragua by Richard Arghiris
Missing in Patagonia by Camille Cusumano
Let's Spend The Night Together by Chris Epting
Other Central America and Mexico travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: