Hello, fellow true crime and mystery lovers! I am writing live from the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently on week 5 (I think?) of social distancing/sheltering in place. I am currently finishing the semester teaching from home, as my college, like pretty much every college in the US, has moved to online instruction for the spring 2020 semester. Living through this pandemic is beyond anything I ever imagined in my lifetime. However, that is not the focus of this particular blog. If you’d like to read about my pandemic/social distancing thoughts, check out my other blog, Daring to Be Powerful.
One positive of having to stay at home is that I have more time to focus on writing projects, including blogging! This week, I’ll be writing about a case that has haunted me ever since I first heard about it on the Thinking Sideways podcast: the Lost Girls of Panama. Their disappearance, and more so what they left behind, has made their tragic fate the focus of much speculation. Were they victims of a terrible hiking accident, or something more sinister?
Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon (who are, side note, so stinking cute in all their pictures that I can barely stand it) were two young women from the Netherlands. Kris, 21, had recently earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural social education with a concentration in art education, while Lisanne, 22, had recently graduated with a BS degree in applied sciences. To celebrate their college graduations, Lisanne and Kris had worked for months to save up money for a vacation/volunteer trip to Panama that began in March of 2014. They spent a few weeks touring the country before arriving in Boquete, where they were to stay with a host family while in a program to simultaneously learn Spanish and teach arts and crafts to local children.
Having a few days of free time before beginning their program, Kris and Lisanne decided to spend their additional time seeing the sites in and around Boquete. One such tourist destination is Sendero El Pianista (“The Pianist’s Trail”), a hiking trail near Boquete that brings travelers through a lush rainforest referred to as a “cloud forest” because the elevation allows hikers to walk through clouds. The summit of the hike is at the continental divide. After summit, the trail wraps around to bring hikers back down the trail to end up back where they started. Various sources claim the total hike up and back will take hikers anywhere from 3 to 6 total hours, and, depending on the source, the hike is classified somewhere between easy and moderate in difficulty. Pretty much every travel site I found “strongly recommends” hiking with a guide.
Kris and Lisanne did make an appointment for a guided hike scheduled for April 2, 2014. Howecer, for reasons unknown, the two women decided to hike the trail by themselves the day before. On April 1, 2014, the women posted on Facebook that they had had brunch with two other Dutch tourists and were heading to Sendero El Pianista. The women took a dog named Blue with them; this dog reportedly belonged to either the host family the women were staying with, or to the owners of the restaurant where the women had brunch. The women were dressed casually and lightly for the weather, in tank tops, shorts, and hiking boots, and packed lightly for their journey, which would imply that they did not expect to be gone more than the 3-6 hours the hike was supposed to take.
The first indication of trouble occurred later the afternoon of April 1, when the dog Blue returned alone without the two women. While this caused some concern, the thought at that point was that the young women were merely off partying somewhere or having some other sort of adventure, and would return shortly. On April 2, the tour guide they had booked their hike with was concerned when they failed to show up at their scheduled time, and alerted the host family, who noticed they had never returned the previous night. Ground search efforts for Kris and Lisanne began on April 3. On April 6, the women’s families arrived from the Netherlands and aerial searches were added. Ten days of full-scale searching led to absolutely no results; they didn’t find the women nor any trace of their belongings.
Ten weeks after the women went missing, a member of the local indigenous Ngäbe tribe turned over to police a blue backpack that she had found in a field. The woman said that she walked by the location of the backpack several times each day and was sure it had not been there the day before. Inside the blue backpack were some of Kris and Lisanne’s belongings: two bras, two pairs of sunglasses, a water bottle, the equivalent of $83 in cash, Lisanne’s passport, Lisanne’s camera, Kris’ iPhone, and Lisanne’s Samsung Galaxy. All the items were dry and in good condition.
The finding of the backpack restarted the search for the women near the area where the backpack was found. Over the course of a few weeks, Kris’ shorts, a hiking boot with a sock and foot still inside, and a total of 33 bone fragments were found, including a pelvic bone and a rib. DNA tests later confirmed that the foot belonged to Lisanne, while the pelvic bone and rib belonged to Kris.
So what happened to the two women? Both the phone records and the photos on the camera provided some potential clues. Call logs showed that there had been several call attempts on both phones to emergency numbers 112 (the international emergency number) and 911, none of which went through because of the lack of cell phone reception in the rainforest. The first call attempt to 112 was made at 4:39 PM on the afternoon of April 1, the same day the women began their hike, implying that they were already in some kind of trouble on that first day. There were a total of 7 attempted calls to emergency numbers over the span of April 1-3, and then 77 signal checks over the span of April 3-April 11. The phones were powered on and off intermittently, presumably to conserve battery. Lisanne’s Samsung died on April 5; interestingly, each time Kris’ iPhone was powered on after April 5, an incorrect PIN was entered. This leads many to theorize that Kris was already dead or incapacitated in some way by April 6, and that Lisanne was trying to use the iPhone but didn’t know Kris’ PIN number. Kris’ iPhone was powered on for the last time on April 11; it is unknown whether the battery died or the phone was simply never turned on again after that day.
The photos left behind on the camera’s memory card provide some even more sinister clues. The first photos time-stamped earlier in the day on April 1 show Lisanne and Kris hiking up Sendero El Pianista to the continental divide. The women appear happy and healthy in the photos and are on a clear trail surrounded by beautiful scenery. The selfie shown at the top of this blog post was taken at the top of the continental divide and is time stamped at 1PM, less than 4 hours before their first emergency call attempt. There are a few other photos taken early afternoon on April 1. The women still appear physically okay in these photos, but the scenery suggests to those familiar with the area that the women, instead of going back down the trail they had come from, had gone to the other side of the continental divide and were moving further away from their homestay in Boquete. The trails on the opposite side of the continental divide are windy, rocky, and confusing, traveled mainly by members of indigenous tribes and not by hikers. After the April 1 photos, the next photos that appear on memory card were taken on April 8, more than a week after the women first embarked on their hike. Between the hours of 1AM and 4AM on April 8, 90 flash photos were taken in rapid succession, most of which show complete blackness. There are four photos in which we can see something other than darkness. In one, there appears to be a bunch of toilet paper and candy wrappers surrounding a piece of mirror on a rock. In a second one, there is a picture of a branch with some pieces of red plastic attached to it. A third photo shows a rock formation with a drop. Some claim that a blurry image in the upper right corner of the photo could be a body, but it is impossible to tell for sure what the image is. The fourth photo, perhaps most disturbingly, shows an extreme close-up of Kris’ distinct strawberry-blonde hair. The complete image has never been released, but reports all say that blood can be seen at Kris’ temple.
So what do these clues tell us? There are two theories surrounding the disappearance and death of Lisanne and Kris. The first is that the women got lost and/or were injured during their hike, and either died as a result of injuries or from starvation and lack of water. This is similar to the official ruling by Panama authorities, which is that the women got lost and were eventually dragged to death by the nearby river called Rio Culebra, which translates to “Serpent River.” The second theory is that foul play was involved in their deaths. Let’s look at the evidence in support of each theory.
First, there is a solid case to be made that Kris and Lisanne got lost and were then injured or starved to death while out in the elements. The photos show that the women went off the established El Pianista trail and over to the other side of the continental divide, where the terrain is much harder to navigate and it would be easy to lose track of their original trail. That emergency call attempts went on over a series of days fits in with the idea that they were lost and trying to reach out for help. Those that subscribe to the accidental death theory believe that the women got lost, and while trying to find their way back, Kris sustained some sort of injury, like a fall off one of the many surrounding cliffs, and probably died from her injuries on April 5, which is why the PIN attempts on her iPhone were incorrect. As for the April 8 photos, perhaps Lisanne took the photos as an attempt to provide a message about what happened to them, although the message is pretty unclear from the photos. Some also think that the large amount of flash photos could have been an attempt for someone to light their path as they were walking, to chase or scare away some sort of natural predator, or to signal for help, as aerial searches were taking place during this time. In addition, if there were some sort of killer or kidnapper, why would they keep one or both women alive for days, and allow them access to their phones and camera?
There are some interesting pieces of evidence for the foul play theory as well. When Lisanne and Kris’ remains were found, they appeared quite different. Lisanne’s foot still had some skin and decomposing flesh attached and, according to forensic anthropologists, was consistent with the level of decomposition one would expect 10 weeks after death. Kris’ pelvic bone, in contrast, not only had zero flesh left on it, but actually appeared to be bleached. One medical examiner said the bleaching of the pelvic bone was consistent with lye or lime, a tool drug cartels would often use to dispose of evidence on remains. The lack of remains also suggests foul play to many. Other hikers who have perished in the rainforest or in the river were found almost completely intact, even those who were dragged to death in the river, as Panama authorities say happened to Kris and Lisanne. So where are the rest of their remains? Authorities have said the remains were probably scattered by animals, but there is no evidence of bite marks, scratch marks, or any other animal activity on the bones that were found. Another suspicious element is a photo missing from the memory card. The last photo of the women taken on April 1st is labeled as 508; the first photo taken on April 8th is labeled 510. Photo 509 was deleted, and efforts by law enforcement to recover the deleted photo were unsuccessful, suggesting to them that it could have been deleted by a computer. If this photo were deleted by a computer, it obviously had to have been tampered with by a third party for some reason. Maybe that photo contained some sort of evidence of a perpetrator, or even the perpetrator himself. We have no way of knowing when that missing photo was taken, and we can’t know for sure whether it was deleted from the camera or from a computer. But there were no other deleted photos from the camera; even blurry, out of focus photos from other parts of the trip remained. So why would they chose to delete this one?
If the women were murdered, who could have done it? The bleaching of the pelvis bone, as stated earlier, points to involvement by a drug cartel. The Boquete area was (and still is) considered fairly safe and without a lot of drug activity, but it is a possibility. Some speculate that members of the Ngäbe tribe were responsible, but there is no evidence to support this, especially since many tribe members were instrumental in assisting with a variety of search efforts and helped find both the backpack and some of the remains. Lisanne and Kris had brunch with some other tourists before their hike, but authorities say these two men have an alibi for the time the women were hiking; they also don’t appear in any of the photos with Lisanne and Kris and there’s no reason to believe the women didn’t at least start the hike alone. The final person of interest often cited is the tour guide that Lisanne and Kris had booked a hike with on April 2. Apparently, when they had first consulted the tour guide, he originally offered them a lengthier hike on April 1 that would culminate with an overnight stay at his private ranch on the other side of the continental divide. The women very smartly said no to this offer, opting for a shorter hike with him the following day. A tour guide offering an overnight stay on a private ranch to female tourists gives me automatic creeper vibes. Others who know or who have taken tours with this tour guide have said that he has been inappropriate and only gives tours to young European women. Plus, the proximity of his “private ranch” to where the women were last seen in their photographs could be more than a coincidence. Even so, there is no real evidence connecting the tour guide to the deaths of the two women.
So were the girls victims of an unfortunate hiking accident, or victims of a human predator? When I first heard about this case on the Thinking Sideways podcast, I was sure it was a tragic hiking accident. Still, something about this case stayed with me and made me want to consume more sources about it. Now, having consulted multiple sources on the case, I can also see some support for the foul play theory. The best theory, in my opinion, comes from true crime YouTuber Shauna Rae in her video Mystery in Panama: What REALLY Happened to Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers?! In this video (which also provided a ton of information about the case that I hadn’t heard before), Shauna Rae suggests that a combination of both theories could be what happened. She argues that the women probably did go off the trail and get lost in the forest, but that then the tour guide, after having been stood up by them the next day, perhaps went looking for them and could have done something to them after finding them near his ranch. It’s not a perfect theory, but I think it would explain why so much evidence can fit both foul play and hiking accident. Perhaps it really was actually both.
Regardless of what happened to Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers during their fateful hike to the continental divide, this case is haunting and tragic. These two young women were full of promise and had come to Panama for both a fun vacation and to volunteer to help out with local children. Their photos show two bubbly, excited, beautiful, vivacious humans who did not deserve whatever terror they experienced in that rainforest in April of 2014. Whether they were murdered or succumbed to natural elements while hiking, they undoubtedly went through a terrifying and traumatic experience, and their families will probably never know the truth of what happened to their loved ones.
Sources Used in This Blog Post:
Adelita Coriat, La Estrella De Panama: Dutch Girls’ Camera Took 90 Photos in 3 Hours.
Boquete Hiking Guide. Sendero El Pianista
The Generation Why Podcast: The Lost Girls of Panama.
Jeremy Kryt, The Daily Beast: Death on the Serpent River: How the Lost Girls of Panama Disappeared
Jeremy Kryt, The Daily Beast: The Lost Girls, The Bones, and the Man in the Panama Morgue.
NL Times Article Archives: https://nltimes.nl/tags/kris-kremers
Thinking Sideways Podcast: Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers.