A chilling tale about an expat American in Panama whose murderous crimes went undetected for years.
Journalist Nick Foster explores a backwater archipelago of Panama in The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise, a work of true crime and national history. As he investigates the serial killer known locally as Wild Bill Cortez, Foster asks: What is it about this expat society, or this place, that allowed these events to unfold?
William Dathan Holbert was originally from western North Carolina, where he showed an early disrespect for the law and his friends. Foster’s investigative work follows a young man who defrauded his mentor and experimented with white supremacy before running for the border with his girlfriend, Laura Michelle Reese. But it was in the small village of Bocas del Toro in Panama that he came into his own, eventually killing a number of fellow American expatriates for their cash and real estate. On the property of an early victim, he opened a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club (“over 90 percent of our members survive”), where he groomed future victims. Holbert and Reese still await trial in Panama.
The Jolly Roger Social Club intersperses Holbert’s crimes with Panamanian history, from the building of the Canal to Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship and its ties to United States politics and economics. With this broader perspective and interviews with expats in Bocas del Toro who knew “Wild Bill,” Foster explores the factors that provided Holbert with the setting where his crimes went undetected for years: a remote corner of the Caribbean where people sometimes simply… disappear.
This review originally ran in the July 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.