RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina man accused of killing two Americans in Panama was married with three kids, living a successful life with a lucrative landscaping business and a beautiful mountain home.
That was six years ago. Then things went from promising to problematic for William Dathan Holbert.
He split from his wife and family. He sold his business, filed for bankruptcy and stopped paying child support. Authorities said his life on the run started soon after.
He sold a $200,000 coastal home he didn't own, and a car he had stolen in Montana, according to law enforcement officials. He used aliases and eluded authorities in at least six states, even escaping police in an off-road, high-speed chase in Wyoming.
Holbert turned up this week in Nicaragua, along with a new wife, who acquantinances said appeared to be a woman he met in North Carolina as his family life crumbled. He was deported Thursday to Panama to face charges in the killings of two Americans found buried behind a hotel, and the couple face questioning in the disappearances of 5 other people, reportedly three Americans and two Panamanian workers.
The couple are charged with killing Cheryl Lynn Hughes, 53, a St. Louis, Mo.-native who had lived in Panama for 10 years, and Bo Icelar, who a friend described as the former owner of a Santa Fe, N.M., gallery. Investigators in Panama said the killings may have been part of a scheme to steal the victims' property.
Known as William Cortez in Panama, authorities said Holbert and his wife preyed on residents of the scenic coastal Bocas del Toro region. People who knew Holbert in the U.S. said the woman arrested alongside him appeared to be, Laura Michelle Reese, whom he met in 2004 after selling his landscaping business.
He was helping manage a fitness club in Asheville for about 10 weeks when he struck up a romantic relationship with Reese, his co-worker. But then his boss realized he spent $25,000 in company checks to buy TVs, mattresses and washers and dryers. He was soon out of a job.
"If only he could have focused himself, he had a brilliant mind," said Kevin Hoover, the former boss who never pressed charges. He and authorities recalled Holbert's white supremacy tattoos and how he later started a business in the area that sold items such as flags and bandanas with swastikas.
In May 2004, Holbert separated from his wife and moved briefly to Charleston, S.C. before returning to North Carolina's mountains, according to court documents. His ex-wife declined comment.
A year later he filed for bankruptcy, listing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.
In June 2005, a judge ordered Holbert arrested for failing to make child support payments and failing to appear in court. He was sentenced to 20 days in jail, but never showed up.
Just a few weeks later, authorities in Montana said Holbert was working under an alias when he stole a car in Missoula, changed the VIN number and sold it to a buyer in Conrad — a few hours to the northeast. Undersheriff Jeff Pruttis remembered Holbert had also forged the vehicle's title.
"The guy was pretty intelligent for doing that kind of fraudulant stuff," he said.
By the end of 2005, Holbert returned back to North Carolina to the coastal community of Oak Island, where he sold a home that never belonged to him, according to authorities. They believe he made about $200,000 in cash on the deal.
Then, in early 2006, authorities in Kentucky began looking into Holbert and Reese — who were using different names at the time — after they paid cash for a cabin and looked to open a 24-hour fitness center in the area. Lawrence County Sheriff Garrett Roberts ran the license tag on their van and found that it didn't have insurance. He told them of the issue and they began acting suspicious, Roberts recalled.
"Right after that is when he hightailed and left the area," Roberts said.
In February 2006, authorities in Wyoming encountered Holbert. A trooper pulled him over on Interstate 90 near the Montana border, but when he tried to make an arrest, Holford broke away and drove off.
A high-speed chase and searched ensued, with Holbert and an unidentified female passenger taking his Jeep Cherokee off road. He eventually crashed and the two fled, according to Wyoming Highway Patrol. The vehicle had been reported stolen in Hurricane, W.Va.
A few days later, Holbert used an alias to rent a moving van in Bismarck, N.D., authorities said. The company reported it missing the next day but it was found almost a month later in North Palm Beach, Fla.
There was no sign of Holbert.
"I knew he had been on the run for a long time," said Hoover, Holbert's former boss. "But I never thought he could be a killer, much less a serial killer."
Authorities in North Carolina still have warrants out for Holbert's arrest.
"I guess that warrant's going to stay on file for a while because it's hard to believe he's going to be back from Panama soon," said Lucy Crockett, a spokeswoman at the Wilmington Police Department.