PANAMA CITY — A jailed U.S. man has admitted killing five other Americans so he could take over their businesses and other properties in a Panamanian resort area, a government prosecutor said Saturday.
The man's wife refused to talk with investigators and asked for legal assistance from the U.S. Embassy, the official said. The embassy was closed Saturday and U.S. officials could not be located for comment.
The couple, William Dathan Holbert and Laura Michelle Reese, were arrested earlier this week when they tried to enter Nicaragua from Costa Rica and were sent back to Panama in shackles for questioning in the slayings of two Americans and the disappearances of three other U.S. citizens and two Panamanians.
In testimony Friday, Holbert "acknowledged that he killed five people" – the five missing American citizens, Assistant Prosecutor Angel Calderon said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"He has explained what he did, how he did it and why he did it," said Calderon, who added that Holbert denied killing the two missing Panamanians.
Local media reported that a public defender was present for Holbert's questioning, but didn't report the lawyer's name, so no independent comment was available on Calderon's description of the prisoner's statements.
The case began when authorities found the bodies of a woman and a man buried behind a hostel run by Holbert in an area of small islands in Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean archipelago popular with tourists.
The woman was identified as Cheryl Lynn Hughes, 53, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, who had lived in Panama 10 years and was reported missing by friends and relatives in late March. The man was Bo Icelar, who disappeared in late November and was described by a friend as the former owner of a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Authorities in North Carolina say Holbert had owned a landscaping business in that U.S. state until six years ago, when he divorced his wife, sold the company and filed for bankruptcy. Holbert disappeared soon after and allegedly sold a house he didn't own and a car he had stolen. Police say he used aliases to elude authorities in at least six states.
Calderon quoted Holbert as saying he established friendships with Icelar and Hughes by posing as a potential investor, then shot each in the head, buried them and took over their money and other properties.
But Holbert said his first killings in Panama occurred about three years ago, when he fatally shot a U.S. citizen named Mike Brown, his wife and small son in the head, the prosecutor said.
Holbert said he also had developed a friendship with Brown, describing him as a fugitive sought American authorities on drug trafficking charges who was living under an assumed name, Calderon said.
"Seeing that he had a lot of money and bank accounts, he shot him in the head," the prosecutor said.
Calderon said Holbert told investigators about two spots on his property in Bocas del Toro where he buried the Browns and experts would examine the site next week to verify the information and exhume the bodies.
Holbert and his wife used false names and citizenship papers while living in Panama. Holbert posted as a Dutch citizen, William Cortez-Reese, and his wife went by the names Jane or Jeane Cortez.
When Holbert and his wife arrived Thursday at Panama's Judicial Investigation Department, they refused to answer questions from journalists. Holbert said he would talk only to Panamanian authorities.
"The people in Panama are very friendly and I like living here," he said.