PANAMA CITY – PANAMA CITY (AP) — A U.S. couple was deported in shackles Thursday from Nicaragua to Panama, where they face charges of killing two Americans and questioning in the disappearances of 5 other people.
Authorities identified the suspects as William Cortez and his wife, Jane, though the male suspect claimed his name was William Dathan Holbert, which matches a suspect featured on the "America's Most Wanted" website who is reportedly wanted for a 2005 fraud case in North Carolina.
The couple was arrested in Nicaragua, and prosecutors said they had apparently preyed on residents of the scenic coastal Bocas del Toro region in what President Ricardo Martinelli called "one of the first cases of serial murders" in the Central American country.
"He picked out his victims after making their acquaintance," assistant prosecutor Angel Calderon told reporters. "Knowing that nobody would ask about them, he got rid of them."
They are charged with killing Cheryl Lynn Hughes, 53, a St. Louis, Missouri-native who had lived in Panama for 10 years, and Bo Icelar, who a friend described as the former owner of a Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallery.
The pair were caught Monday by Nicaraguan soldiers at the border with Costa Rica after they identified themselves with what authorities have called false names.
Since investigators uncovered the bodies of Hughes and Icelar last week, buried in shallow graves behind a hotel run by Cortez in Bocas del Toro, "residents have come out and given testimony, knowing that he (Cortez) is in custody," Calderon said.
Cortez and his wife face charges for "crimes against the life and personal integrity" of the two victims, said Assistant Director of Investigations Omar Pinzon. He said they will also be questioned about the disappearance of five other people — reportedly three Americans and two Panamanian workers.
Upon arrival at Panama City's Albrook airport, Cortez and his wife were bundled into a vehicle and taken to a cell at the Office of Judicial Investigation. Before entering, Cortez told Channel 13 television, "The people of Panama are very friendly, and I like living here."
Asked about the two deaths, Cortez laughed and said: "I need to speak to them (authorities) about that. I just want to say, thanks for the trip."
Investigators in Panama say the killings may have been part of a scheme to steal the victims' property on a Caribbean archipelago popular with expatriates.
Friends and relatives say Hughes owned the hotel but wanted to sell it, and that Cortez took it over after she disappeared in March.
She was reported missing by a friend. Police found her body after her estranged husband, Keith Werle, persuaded them to search the hotel run by Cortez.
Werle, who also lives in Panama but was separated from Hughes, said Cortez claimed he had bought Hughes' property and that she had left the area without saying where she was going.
Werle said he began suspecting Cortez when his stories about the transaction didn't add up, and when he realized that Cortez also owned property that had belonged to Icelar, who also disappeared in Bocas del Toro, a Panamanian archipelago of mangrove islands.
Werle said he received text messages from Hughes' phone that he found suspicious, including one claiming that she had gone sailing.
"She didn't like sailing. The stories he kept telling people didn't make sense," Werle said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Then Werle stopped hearing from Hughes altogether, which he found implausible despite their estrangement. The couple moved to Panama together 10 years ago and married after five years.
"If she had met someone and moved on or something she would have thrown that in my face," he said.
Werle said several of Hughes' dogs, her passport and other items belonging to her were found at the hotel during the police search last week. It was one of the dogs that led police to Hughes' body in a wooded area behind the house, he said.
A few hours later, police found another body that Panamanian authorities identified as Icelar.
Icelar, too, had been trying to sell his property in Panama and move back to the United States, said longtime friend, Sharon L. McConnell. He wanted to leave Panama "because the political climate was such that he didn't want to get involved in any of that stuff," she added.
McConnell became suspicious after Icelar stopped answering his phone on Nov. 30.
She learned Cortez had bought the property and left numerous phone messages for him asking about Icelar's whereabouts. Cortez never returned those messages.
Eventually, she asked a friend of Icelar's in Panama to report him as missing.
According to the America's Most Wanted article, William Dathan Holbert was involved in a similar scheme of taking over a house in North Carolina. The article cites police as saying the man travels under different identities.
The U.S. Embassy said it had no information about Icelar, but Calderon said he was an American. The embassy declined to comment on the investigation or on the two U.S. suspects. It was unclear if Cortez and his wife had an attorney.
Panamanian police said they are investigating how Cortez obtained Hughes' hotel and property that had belonged to Icelar.
Associated Press Writer Sue Holmes contributed to this report