In 2014, 22-year-old Lisanne Froon and 21-year-old Kris Kremers decided to travel from their homeland in the Netherlands to the lush tropics of Panama to volunteer at a local school. Inspired to travel together and do some good, the duo arrived in Panama excited to immerse themselves in the local culture for six weeks. But their trip had barely started when it ended abruptly. The two Dutch women went hiking and never made it home. To this day, no one is sure about what happened, and speculative theories have developed based on the sinister findings, which included their camera and all the chilling photos. What exactly happened though?
The Original Plan Got off to a Shaky Start
When they arrived on March 14, 2014, they learned that they were too early to begin their program. Kris described the miscommunication in her diary as “rude and not at all friendly.” She continued, "Tomorrow they will try and get ahold of the [head teacher]... This was a real disappointment.”
The ladies decided to make the most of their early arrival and planned to go for a hike. At the time, they were staying with a local family with a pet dog named Azul, and they took the pooch with them. Although the pair had a hike planned for the next day, they decided to see what they could do on their own. This decision would be a fatal one.
Only the Dog Returned
The girls decided to explore the area surrounding Baru Volcano on their own; the three-mile stretch of land is usually easy to explore. A few tourists have got lost in the area over the years, but almost always managed to find their way home on their own.
Deciding that the trail would be a good warm-up for their planned hike the following day, Lisanne and Kris packed a single backpack and started on the Pianista Trail at around 11 am. The dog, Azul, was hot on their heels, excited about the adventure, but he would return to his family alone.
The Initial Concern Was Touch and Go
The host family knew that the girls planned to do the hike, and expected to see them back within five or six hours. When they never returned, the family knew that something was off. They contacted Lisanne’s mother in the Netherlands, asking if she had heard from her daughter - which she hadn’t.
Although skeptical, the host family determined that the girls were simply out having fun somewhere. After all, they were on vacation. So, they never reported them missing to the police.
Panic Started Rising About the Missing Tourists
The next morning, Lisanne and Kris were still missing and people started to panic about their well-being. First, the tour guide for their planned hike arrived, but the girls failed to show up. Then, they missed a usual check-in call with their families. After two days of the girls being missing, the host family contacted authorities.
A small area search party was organized and their route was mapped. The only contact made was with a local innkeeper who remembered them asking for directions - and he advised them to take a taxi back to town. When no progress was made, both of the girls’ families flew to Panama along with Dutch special units. After 10 days of searching and offering a reward of $30,000, they still had nothing.
Nerves Increased As Days Passed
Days followed without any results. Helicopters searched from the sky and groundsmen trooped through the forested area, but all efforts proved fruitless. Even once the Dutch families arrived in Panama and increased the search efforts, the location of the girls remained a mystery.
As days passed and bled into weeks, different theories started to emerge. With no sign of the girls (dead or alive) on the mountain, people started to whisper that they were a victim of crime in the town. After ten days of intensive searching, the efforts eventually scaled down. Even so, the hunt continued for ten weeks when a hopeful discovery was made.
Local Tribeswoman Made a Sensational Discovery
Weeks passed with no sign of the girls, and not a clue suggesting what could’ve happened to them. Then, ten weeks after their disappearance, a local woman from the Ngäbe tribe discovered a strange blue backpack along the bank of a river more than 90 miles from the host family’s home.
The native woman turned the backpack into the police. Inside, authorities discovered a pair of sunglasses, money, two bras, Lisanne’s passport, a water bottle, two cell phones, and a camera. The digital items, in particular, would share valuable insight into the mystery moments. But rather than provide any answers, the items raised more questions.
The Girls Were in an Emergency Situation
When police took a closer look at the cellphones, puzzle pieces started to fall into place. The call records showed that both girls had called 112, the emergency number for the Netherlands. They also repeatedly dialed 911, the emergency number for Panama. The first emergency call was made a few hours after they left for the hike. Unfortunately, the bad signal in the forest prevented any of these calls from going through. There was only one that managed to connect - but it dropped two seconds later.
Eventually, Kris’s phone locked after someone tried to enter the wrong PIN several times, and then the phones dropped off of the grid entirely. The last time that either phone was registered as being online was on April 11. Based on these records, police determined that at least one of the girls had managed to survive for five days after going missing.
The Camera Exposed a Few More Sinister Clues
The phones had revealed critical information to help authorities form a timeline on what happened in the forest. Also in the backpack was a camera, and it was equally as valuable - if not more. The girls had captured more than 100 photographs on the camera. The shots started off as normal tourist pictures, filled with smiles and posed positions, but quickly transformed into sinister and bizarre pictures.
There was even a shot of Kris’s concerned face around the time of placing the emergency calls. Toward the end of the library, random objects were captured on the device, such as a stick with plastic, canyons, and a bridge. What did these pictures mean?
Experts Share Their Opinion on the Photographs
Of the many photographs on the camera, at least 90 were taken after April 8 starting at 1 am. At one point, a series of flash photographs were taken with two-minute intervals, none of which seemed to show a specific image. Experts have studied the photographs and presented various theories about what could’ve happened.
Some believe that the clear shots were taken with steady hands as a way of marking their trail. Others believe that the camera flash was used as a light source or to scare away wild animals. More dramatic experts speculate that neither Kris nor Lisanne took the photographs and that the shots were captured by someone who had abducted the women. To date, all of these photographs have been shared only with select individuals.
The Images Are Leaked by the Press
The majority of the pictures have remained within limited access circles. The family of the girls specifically requested that the photographs be kept away from the public eye as the images expose the girls in a vulnerable state.
Unfortunately, both a Panama-based TV program and a Dutch production accidentally leaked some of the photographs, giving people the opportunity to add their own speculative theories. One image, in particular, appeared to show an injury on the back of Kris’s head, possibly with blood mottled in her hair.
Could Kris Have Sustained An Injury?
Most of the photographs on the camera were strange and confusing, raising more questions than before. While the photograph of Kris’s hair was abstract, it inspired the opinion that Kris had been injured.
It’s unclear whether the picture has captured the back or front of her head, but it did offer a clue to the condition of their health. It also suggests what could’ve inspired the initial emergency calls. No one is really certain why Lisanne chose to take a picture of Kris’s hair, and dark skeptics believe it was to capture how she died. But authorities were about to make another discovery...
More Belongings Are Discovered
The discovery of the backpack was a major breakthrough in the case, and the search picked up again with renewed enthusiasm. This time, in the area where the backpack was found. The majority of the search was conducted along the Serpent River near the village of Alto Romero. The destination was further from the trail than initially suspected, and people suspected that the tourists either got lost or changed course.
When searching in the new area, about a half-mile from the location of the backpack, police found something truly bizarre. Along the water’s edge, Kris’s clothing was found neatly folded and placed on top of a rock. Nearby, authorities made another, heartbreaking discovery.
A Severed Foot Led Searchers to the Bodies
By now, there was little hope that the girls had survived, but there was no proof of their death. When the search party found Kris’s clothes neatly folded, there was a glimmer of hope, but it was quickly shattered with the discovery of a nearby boot with a human foot still inside.
The tragic finding quickly led to the rest of the human remains, and investigators uncovered up to 33 skeletal fragments as well as bits of skin. DNA testing proved that the remains belonged to Kris Kremer and Lisanne Froome. Investigators now had the daunting task of determining a manner of death. With such fragmented scattered remains, the job would prove to be more difficult than they realized.
The State of the Remains Raised Questions
Overall, investigators discovered a pelvic bone and 33 other pieces of human bone. However, there was no indication of how the girls died. The only evidence of injury was broken foot bones, however, it’s unlikely that a broken foot led to death.
After looking closer at the bones, it was determined that there was no obvious damage (other than the broken foot). However, it was concerning that some of Kris’s bones appeared to be bleached. While Lisanne’s bones still had flesh attached, Kris’s bones were clean. As the weather conditions couldn’t have caused the condition, people believe that it was done with chemicals, later determined to be phosphorous or lime. The practice was common among the Mexican cartel to get rid of evidence. Could the girls have been victims of a violent crime?
Suspects on Police Radar
Once the bodies were found, police had to determine whether there was foul play involved, or whether the hikers died from injuries obtained in the forest. A larger investigation led to the interview of potential suspects, including two Dutch men and the host family.
First, police investigated the host family. They found that all of the girls’ belongings were still at the house, but didn’t find anything else amiss. Police then realized that Kris and Lisanne had met up with two young men before they went missing. The pair had shared brunch with two Dutch men on their final day before going missing - but nothing ever came from these clues.
The Death Was Determined to Be an Accident
The case dragged on for almost a year as investigators studied the evidence and the various findings. In the end, they determined that the girls had suffered from an accident while exploring along the trail. They then got lost and died near the river. Based on the photographs and attempts at reaching emergency services, authorities suspect that Kris suffered an injury and that the pair got lost in the dark. Lisanne tried to escape the forest but didn’t get far.
As the pair died nearby the river, their remains were dispersed and quickly decomposed. Finally, the families had answers - but would the official theory suffice? People following the case started to get angry as the case was assigned to a national civil protection agency, instead of the criminal technicians.
Panama Authorities Came Under Fire
While the Panama authorities presented a theory, there was a lot of criticism about how the investigators handled the case. A reporter for the Panama paper La Estrella described the case as a mess. She claimed that there was no chain of custody for the evidence, and nothing came of the 30 fingerprints found on the backpack.
The reporter also expressed concern about discrepancies with the electronic evidence. For example, the condition of the devices didn’t align with the expectations based on where they were found. Rather than water-clogged cellphones and damaged cameras, the electronics were found in decent condition. Police also failed to dig deeper into an image that was deleted off of the camera. The Kremer’s family lawyer, Enrique Arrocha, also expressed concern. He claimed that there was no proper forensic investigation at the crime scene and that key body parts are still missing.
Could There Have Been a Cover-Up?
The mishandling of evidence and subsequent conspiracy theories were difficult to ignore. Eventually, people started to whisper about a potential cover-up. Some believe that indigenous people from the area killed and ate the tourists before handing over the evidence as a gesture of cooperation.
Others speculate that Kris and Lisanne found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and crossed paths with the cartels or organ traffickers, explaining why their body parts were so dispersed. Regardless of what really happened, people seem certain that authorities in Panama are intentionally keeping quiet, hoping to avoid a negative impact on tourism.
The Mysterious Happenings in the Forest Remain Unknown
Since Kris and Lisanne went missing and their fragmented remains were found, another 24 tourists have gone missing in the area (or turned up dead). The lack of answers and speculative theories have inspired investigators to revisit the case. Could there be a serial killer in the area?
The investigation has spread further than the authorities in Panama, and internet groups are getting involved too. While the official cause of death may be recorded as accidental death, many believe that the case remains unsolved - and continue to investigate for the sake of justice.
Up next, read about how Kristin Smart would go missing without a trace and how, many years later, the actions of a podcaster helped authorities.
Kristin Smart: The Fight To Locate the Missing Student 25 Years Later
For young adults across America, going to college is a truly thrilling experience. In between all of the parties, sports events, and timeless memories with friends, students also have a prime opportunity to begin paving the path to the future they always dreamed of. Among these bright young minds was Kristin Smart.
As Kristin's mom Denise recalled, the 19-year-old couldn't have been happier when she began studying at California Polytechnic State University, soaking in all the sights and sounds that she encountered. The night of Friday, May 24, 1996, seemed to be no different. After an academic quarter of hard work, she was about to go out with friends, hoping to find a party to kick off the Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, this party would be her last, as this was the night Kristin would go missing without a trace. While gone for 25 years, the actions of a podcaster helped the authorities to make an arrest that may finally help them to unravel the mystery behind a case that has haunted them for a quarter of a century...
The Last Goodbye
The last time that Denise Smart heard her daughter's voice was the evening of Friday, May 24 - just before Kristin made the fateful decision to go partying with her friends.
By rights, that Friday night should have been a cause for celebration - after all, Kristin had just received the news that she would be able to retake a biology test that she had not been able to take earlier that quarter. She excitedly phoned her parents, only to be greeted by the answering machine. Still, this didn't bother Kristin, as she simply explained in her voice message that she would catch up with them on Sunday as she always did. Tragically, this would not happen. Not that Sunday or any Sunday after that.
Kristin's Evening Out
Since childhood, Kristin proved to be an intelligent and likable girl. A writer of poetry and former lifeguard in her hometown of Stockton, Kristin found it easy to make new friends. It, therefore, came as no surprise that she would attend all sorts of parties.
According to first-hand accounts, Kristin and three of her friends all left for a party at 8:30 that Friday night. After walking across the university campus grounds on foot, the group climbed into another friend's truck. They drove around the area for a few hours, after which Kristin suggested that the group attend a birthday party being held at a fraternity house nearby. While her friends were unwilling to go to the party, Kristin remained adamant, disembarking and parting ways with her friends as she made her way to the party on her own. For her friend, Margarita Campos, the moment that Kristin bid her farewell would forever be ingrained in her memory.
A Fateful Error
"I can still see her standing there after we dropped her off, a little mad I think that I wouldn't go with her," Margarita emotionally recalled.
As a highly independent young woman, Kristin was not deterred from going to the party just because her friends did not want to accompany her. In fact, Margarita is sure that it is this independence that enabled Kristin to take the risk of going to a party with an unfamiliar crowd. Before leaving, Kristin asked Margarita several times to accompany her. After Margarita declined her on each occasion, Kristin decided to go to the party anyway. Just before Kristin left her side, Margarita warned her to be careful, to which Kristin replied that she would be fine. Little did anyone realize how relevant Margarita's warning truly was.
Once she arrived at the party, accounts of Kristin's actions became conflictory and, frankly, misleading.
While some partygoers said that Kristin seemed intoxicated at the party, others said that she had not consumed a sip the entire night. One person claimed that she had been drinking vodka, while another account stated that Kristin had been downing tequila. While the truth about Kristin's activities at the party remains a mystery, there is one fact that the police would later use as a major lead in their investigation - the last sighting of Kristin after the party.
Over the course of Saturday, Kristin's friends scoured the campus to see where she had gone.
They knocked on doors around the campus, however, there was just no sign of Kristin anywhere. That Monday, Kristin's roommate Crystal Calvin returned to the university after spending the weekend away. She noticed that Kristin's purse, as well as other personal items around the room, were left in exactly the same position as they were before Crystal left on Friday. Instantly, it became clear to Crystal that something was amiss. With the help of fellow student Jennifer Phipps, the Cal Poly police were called. This was just the start of what would be a truly harrowing journey for Kristin's family and friends.
After speaking with the university police department twice, Crystal decided to contact Kristin's parents to see if they had received any word from their daughter.
"When they first contacted us, like any parent, I was frustrated to think that she'd done something embarrassing," Kristin's father Stan recalled. But soon enough, they realized the urgency of the situation. Seeing as the Cal Poly police didn't seem to have a grasp on the situation (a report was not even filed), the San Luis Obispo Police Department were contacted. This time, the police would not waste any time in the search for Kristin.
Retracing Kristin's Steps
According to one of Kristin's friends, it was not uncommon for Kristin to act tipsier than she actually was, or to adopt another alias when she went for a night out.
As the police scoured through Kristin's emails, they discovered that she had been refering to herself by different names such as Roxie and Trixie. What's more, Roxie was the name that she had used on that particular night out. With this in mind, the police began to interview witnesses to piece together what had happened to "Roxie" at the party. It was revealed that, while still at the party, she had met a 19-year-old freshman by the name of Paul Flores. Once the party was winding down at around 02:00 in the morning, she and Flores left with fellow students Cheryl Anderson and Tim Davis. What happened next would provide the cops with their biggest lead yet.
After leaving the party, Davis parted ways with the group, heading in the direction of his dorm room after Cheryl assured him that the rest of them were okay to walk home.
Once they got to Cheryl's residence, Kristin and Flores were on their own. While Cheryl initially offered to walk Kristin home, Flores insisted that he would be able to ensure that she got home safely. As a result, he happened to be the last person to see Kristin. What's more, Cheryl told the police that Flores had his arm around Kristin for much of the walk, seemingly to keep her upright after drinking a few too many drinks. Once they got to Cheryl's building, however, his behaviour became exceedingly strange as he asked Cheryl for a goodnight kiss. She denied him, instead opting for a handshake. But this wasn't the first time that Flores had crossed a line in his dealings with women.
A Shady Past
As the police began conducting a background check on Flores, they realized that there were several strong causes for suspicion.
A below-average student, Flores was found to have been mired with social problems. When approached by the police, his parents revealed that he didn't have friends in high school and struggled socially in college as well. In December 1995, just half a year before the night of Kristin's disappearance, another female student contacted the San Luis Obispo police after Flores climbed onto her balcony and refused to get off. He fled just before the police arrived at the scene. What's more, Flores had been caught for drunk driving and had his license revoked. Just then, another party goer's testimony would result in an enormous new red flag for the investigators.
Tim Davis, one of the organizers of the party that Kristin attended that Friday night, had quite an alarming account of that fateful night.
"He didn't know if Flores had knocked Kristin Smart down on purpose or if it was an accident," one investigator explained, after Davis revealed that he saw Flores on top of Kristin at one point during the course of the party. Instantly, the police knew that they had to check if Flores was the reason for Kristin's disappearance. Six days after Kristin vanished, the authorities brought Flores in for questioning.
Tracking the Scent
As the police took Flores into custody, they moved to secure Flores' dorm room at Santa Lucia Hall. If there was any chance that Kristin was in his room, the police canines would surely pick up her scent.
Alarmingly, four different scent dogs all led the police to Flores' apartment; a strong indication that Kristin was there. It just so happened that, at around the same time, more evidence against Flores came to light. Two days after Kristin's disappearance, he went to the Arroyo Grande Police Department because of an outstanding DUI warrant. While there, he was spotted with a black eye. When asked about his injury, Flores gave conflicting explanations, thereby raising further suspicion. But what was the actual truth?
Digging a Deeper Hole
On June 19, a little less than a month after Kristin's disappearance, Flores was interviewed at the Arroyo Grande Police Department.
While he initially stated that he received his black eye while playing basketball, another player confirmed that Flores was already sporting the black eye when he arrived at the court. This inconsistency prompted Flores to admit his lie, instead saying that he had received his injury while working on his truck. While he may have then decided to walk out of the interview without answering further questions, this move did little to halt the police's progress.
The Search Party
On June 29, nearly 400 volunteers banded together to conduct a campus-wide search for Kristin. But as campus officials realized, there was also a possibility that Kristin may no longer be on campus grounds.
The university spent $16,000 on the search, ensuring that Cold Canyon Landfill in rural San Luis Obispo was also scoured. Unbelievably, the only place where the police force's canines got instantly excited was in Flores' dorm room, particularly after sniffing his stripped mattress. It was then that prosecutors moved to get people to testify in Kristin's case in front of a grand jury.
In addition to the swarms of witnesses who were called up to testify, Flores and his parents, Ruben and Susan, were also called to the stand.
Due to a lack of hard evidence against him, however, no charges were made against Flores. But Kristin's parents were not about to let him walk away unscathed. A few weeks later. they filed a $40 million wrongful death lawsuit against Flores, even adding Cal Poly as a defendant in the case due to the university's failure to shield Kristin from harm. During his disposition for the civil suit, Flores simply invoked the fifth amendment. But while the defendant remained silent, new evidence came to light that did little to extinguish the accusations against him.
In October of that year, a woman by the name of Mary Lassiter came forward with some new information. She happened to be renting the house belonging to Flores' mother in Arroyo Grande.
Lassiter found a woman's earring in the driveway, which she thought matched a necklace that Kristin was wearing in one of the missing posters. Despite being turned in to the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Office detective, the earring was never marked as evidence, eventually getting lost somewhere down the line. While this prime opportunity to further build the case had been squandered, one vital act was yet to take place - the search of Susan Flores' backyard. Would this search finally provide evidence leading to Kristin's whereabouts?
Facing a Grim Reality
After three searches of Susan Flores' backyard, no evidence was uncovered. Finally, in 2002, Kristin was declared legally dead.
While this decision was heartbreaking for Kristin's family, they refused to give up the fight for their sister and daughter. And while the police had been guilty of incompetence on several occasions, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Brian Hascall explained in 2006 that the investigation was far from over, even declaring that Flores remained an "active suspect". While little progress was made in the years that followed, 2011 was the year that this all changed.
A Change in Leadership
Once San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson was sworn into office, he ensured that no stone was left unturned in the search for Kristin.
Since his appointment, hillsides have been dug up, all of the Flores family's property had been searched and all of Paul Flores' computers, and cellphones had been seized and examined. In fact, Sheriff Parkinson was even able to uncover new witnesses. Despite these great efforts to advance the search for Kristin, no further inroads were made. That is, until, a podcast by a local Santa Maria resident hit the airwaves.
On September 25, 2019, Chris Lambert released a podcast discussing Kristin's disappearance titled "Your Own Backyard."
In addition to raising public awareness and pressuring law enforcement officials to continue the search for Kristin, the information contained in the podcast also provided the police with information that would assist them in keeping the fight to locate Kristin alive. Soon, Denise Smart would reveal some vital new updates regarding renewed efforts to find out what had happened to her daughter.
Taking the Investigation to the Next Level
On January 18, 2020, a local Californian newspaper called The Stockton Record revealed some crucial information obtained during an interview with Denise.
Apparently, Kristin's mother stated that the FBI contacted her and instructed her to "be ready" as a new development in the case was imminent. While this update was later revealed to be fabricated, a legitimate new development would be announced by the Sheriff's Office in the next year. After searching the Flores' property yet again, officials from the Sheriff's Office and FBI agents would soon take decisive action.
The Double Arrest
On February 11, 2021, almost 25 years after Kristin's disappearance, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office arrested Flores on suspicion of Kristin's abduction and murder. But that wasn't the only breakthrough of the day.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow revealed during a press conference the following day that "It is alleged that Mr. Flores caused the death of Kristin Smart while in the commission of a rape or attempted rape." What's more, Flores' father was arrested, being charged as an accessory after the fact due to being suspected of helping his son hide Kristin's body after the murder was committed.
On September 22, a judge ruled that both of the accused would stand trial for their role in Kristin's disappearance and murder. But while the criminal case continues, Kristin's family and her university have taken some positive actions to honor Kristin's memory.
Honoring Kristin’s Legacy
While the Smart family may never fully heal from the pain of Kristin's loss, they nevertheless understood the importance of using Kristin's memory to have a positive impact on the world around them.
The family created a website, kristinsmart.org, where people and organizations can donate to a scholarship fund for women who are pursuing degrees in the fields of architecture, forensic science, and law enforcement. Not only is this a touching way of keeping Kristin's spirit alive, but it is also an effective way for the family to help young women achieve their dreams and impact the world in a way that Kristin would have wanted.