In 2010, an American named William “Wild Bill” Holbert killed five of his fellow expats in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. He stole their real estate and disposed of their bodies, all the while entertaining friends and neighbors at a bar he owned called The Jolly Roger Social Club. Journalist Nick Foster retraces Holbert’s steps and presents a chilling picture of this true-crime tale. From his meticulous research of the Panamanian justice system, to his descriptive and detailed rendering of Bocas island, Foster’s sharp writing proves that sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. I’m pleased to welcome journalist and author, Nick Foster, to Book Club Babble today.
Tabitha Lord: Thank you for chatting with me today, Nick. What first sparked your interest in this story?
Nick Foster: I discovered the series of murders at the heart of The Jolly Roger Social Club quite by chance. Back in 2011, I was doing some research for a newspaper piece on Panama’s real estate boom when I found out about the strange “Wild Bill” serial killer story. An American blogger based in Panama City had put some posts on his website and there had been some reports in the local media. ABC News had also sent a crew down to Panama to film. But the information available on the murders was patchy and confusing. What was for sure was that a young American man, William Dathan Holbert, known locally as “Wild Bill,” and his partner, Laura Michelle Reese, had been arrested after fleeing their home in Bocas del Toro, a superficially idyllic place of swaying palm trees and white-sand beaches, popular with American expats. Five corpses were unearthed from shallow graves behind their house. These were the remains of Americans who Holbert had befriended and then murdered, according to what Holbert himself told Panamanian investigators. And the Jolly Roger Social Club actually existed. It was a bare-bones drinking den that Holbert had been running. Back then, Holbert was a larger-than-life presence, bulked up on steroids and wearing a horned Viking hat he liked to think was his trademark. The club’s tagline was: “Over 90 percent of our members survive.” I finished my newspaper piece, but just couldn’t get “Wild Bill” and his Caribbean house of horrors out of my mind. At the same time, everything that I was discovering about Bocas del Toro pointed to it being a place with a sinister vibe. Some of the expats had gone there to disappear – from the I.R.S., unpaid debts, the police, or problems with spouses and family. Many lived under assumed names, and Bocas del Toro was also a transit point for drugs heading north from Colombia. I had been looking for the perfect true story to tell and I knew that this was it.
TL: The story of William Dathan Holbert is a complicated one and you obviously had to do an enormous amount of research — on Holbert, his victims, other ex-pats in Bocas del Toro, and the criminal case itself. How did you organize your work and determine how you would present the story to readers?
NF: Well, the first half of the book is an account of how a bunch of American expats disappear mysteriously, and how Holbert committed his crimes. We see a progression from small-town crook in the U.S. to multiple killer in Central America. The second part of the book is about what happens when he’s imprisoned awaiting trial. And this second part, in particular, is such an amazing story that, if it were a work of fiction, could be dismissed as being so improbable as to be unrealistic. This structure was pretty obvious from the outset, especially since much of the second half was written in real time as events unfolded. And it’s true that the book required a huge amount of research, particularly since the case had not – still has not – come to trial. Usually true-crime writers base their accounts on evidence presented at court. They can quote from transcripts of a trial and, if they are present in the courtroom itself, have plenty of opportunities to size up the accused and consider evidence given by witnesses under cross-examination. This is their number one resource. Since I didn’t have it, I had to figure out how to approach the expats in Bocas del Toro and have them tell me the story. Gaining their trust was a big challenge. Having said that, about half-way into my research I got access to part of the Panamanian prosecutor’s file. Those documents were a great help.
TL: I appreciate the additional, thorough presentation of Panama’s recent history in the book. It creates a context for what kind of people might be “hiding” out in Bocas del Toro, and gives the reader some background for the partly functional, often frustrating criminal justice system still operating in the country as a whole. There is also a tie-in at the end of the book when you report that Holbert himself was petitioning the prison system for Noriega’s release. How did you determine what and how much to include in this parallel story of Panama’s colorful past?
NF: That’s right: the book has a couple of chapters telling the story of the rise of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from small beginnings to acts of pure evil. This is important, as the political background explains how Panama, a tax haven offering an extraordinary degree of privacy and discretion, came to be the ideal place for Holbert to carry out his crimes. Holbert could have murdered people in other countries – indeed, he did kill at least one person in Costa Rica – but the real estate fraud that was a big part of the murders in Panama could not have been committed anywhere else. And I’m really happy you saw how the Holbert and Manuel Noriega strands of the book come together at the end. Fundamentally, though, the decision of how much material to include in the parallel Noriega story was decided by theme. This is a book, ultimately, about greed taken to an extreme. I wanted to show what happens when greed, outsize ego, violence and an absolute lack of empathy come together in a person. They come together in both Noriega and Holbert.
TL: I, like many people, have a macabre fascination with serial killers. I think this is partly due to the otherness of how they think, and what they are ultimately capable of. A normal soul can’t comprehend that kind of darkness. You touch on this at the end of the book when you talk about Holbert’s motivations. At first glance, his crimes seemed to be financially oriented, but your research presents him as an even uglier, more complex character. Were you expecting this?
NF: Well, I had been warned by a Panamanian journalist that I shouldn’t believe a word Holbert told me, that he was the “ultimate manipulator.” I was expecting a difficult interview and that’s what I got. His parting shot was to tell me: “I am your worst nightmare.” As far as his character is concerned, a couple of psychologists examined Holbert and filed a clinical report, which I saw. They came to the conclusion that Holbert was a psychopath, albeit a borderline one. But their report was just three or four pages long. They registered Holbert’s lack of empathy and lack of remorse. But they didn’t say a whole lot more. In the book, I explain what we know about serial killers and, based on the evidence, I hazard a guess at which of the identified types of serial killer Holbert most resembles. Another aspect is that the Panamanian prosecutors do not believe that Holbert acted alone – this, they say, was a murder spree planned and carried out by Reese, as well. Ultimately, though, my feeling is that we must judge Holbert on his actions. Much of his character will likely remain unknowable.
TL: Can you describe the experience of meeting William Dathan Holbert in jail?
NF: That’s the question I get asked most frequently! If your knowledge of prison interviews comes from the movies, you might picture a couple of booths separated by triple-glazed glass connected by a telephone line. But it wasn’t at all like that. I was led into the prison’s administrative area, a room with four or five young woman processing stacks of paper files. The guards set out a couple of chairs, plus another for Holbert’s attorney. Holbert arrived with a smile and a brisk, “Hey, I’m Bill,” and offered me his hand. He was polite and soft-spoken. It wasn’t exactly what I had expected. I wondered if it was a trick to fool me. I came to the conclusion that it was.
TL: Based on your own research, and your gut feeling, do you believe Laura Michelle Reese was Holbert’s willing accomplice in all the murders, a victim herself, or something in between?
NF: Holbert and Reese have been charged with committing the same murders, regardless of the likelihood, in my view, that it was Holbert who pulled the trigger each time. That’s as true for Panama as it is for Costa Rica. The Costa Rican authorities want to extradite both Holbert and Reese to stand trial for the murder of an American man named Jeffrey Kline. The evidence that points towards Reese’s full involvement in each one of the crimes is too strong to ignore. Her protestations to Panamanian investigators that she knew nothing about what was going on are absurd, based on the evidence I’ve seen. Early on in their killing spree, Reese promised a neighbour that “Folks won’t believe what we’ve been doing here when we’ve gone.” Reese is no victim.
TL: If I’m understanding this correctly, Holbert’s case may never actually get to trial. The Panamanian court system appears content to hold him indefinitely, but without the closure that victims’ families want to see. Will you continue to follow this case?
NF: That’s not quite correct. There is no provision in Panamanian law to hold suspects indefinitely. There are two specific issues here. First, Holbert’s attorney pressed for the separate Panamanian murder files to be joined and dealt with together in one big trial. This would potentially be advantageous to Holbert, and Reese, too, as they would receive a single sentence rather than several different ones. Long story short, they might end up spending less time in jail that way. But the attorney met with some opposition, as you might expect, and it took around eighteen months for the matter to be resolved in a ruling by Panama’s Supreme Court in favor of a single, big trial. That’s one thing. The other issue is that, from my standpoint, and as far as this case is concerned, there is a lack of professional responsibility in Panama’s criminal justice system. I was told so many times by ordinary Panamanians to the effect that, “This is a gringo killing other gringos.” This same attitude affects a good number of the individuals charged with processing this case and bringing it to a conclusion. I honestly think that there are people high up in the criminal justice system in Panama who could care less if six years have passed since Holbert and Reese were arrested and there is still no trial in sight. This is a tragedy for the family and friends of the victims, who demand and deserve justice and closure.
TL: Did this project take a toll on you personally? I know you met with some of the victim’s family members.
NF: I was privileged to meet with some of the family members and close friends of the victims. I am happy that they have responded very positively to the book. Any toll that the project may have taken on me personally is nothing compared to what they have been through. By the way, I reached out to Holbert’s former wife, and mother of his three children. This is a lady living in North Carolina, described by everyone as kind and decent. She preferred not to give me an interview. My heart goes out to her.
TL: Are you currently working on another book?
NF: Yes, I am. It’s an all-American true story that concerns mentalism, magic tricks and religious faith. I’m very excited about it!
TL: Nick, thank you so much!
Nick Foster was born in Liverpool, UK, and educated at University College London. He was employed for several years as as European Union diplomat and as a stringer working out of Caracas, Venezuela, filing news stories and research to the UK’s broadsheets. He now writes features for the Financial Times and the International New York Times, among other outlets. He is also coproducing a documentary film on one of France’s highest-profile cold cases. Foster is married with two young sons and lives in Belgium. You can buy his book here.