Courts & Crime

Charlotte neighbors remember alleged killers in Panama

CASAR — She'd seen their pictures in the news - an N.C. couple jailed in Panama on multiple murder charges.

They looked weary and considerably heavier than Donna Stephens remembered.

In 2005, they'd answered an ad to rent her house in northern Cleveland County.

Stephens met them at her brother's residence in Kings Mountain, wanting to check them out first before taking them to her property about 20 miles away.

The man who gave his name as William Dathan Holbert was big and trim, with muscles bulging in his golf shirt; Laura Michelle Reese - he first introduced her as his wife and later as his girlfriend - was on the skinny side. Stephens thought her skirt was too short.

Holbert, 31, and Reese, 27, the subjects of a recent international manhunt, were arrested last week when they tried to enter Nicaragua from Costa Rica. They were sent back to Panama where a prosecutor said Holbert has admitted killing five other Americans so he could take over their businesses and other properties in a Panamanian resort.

Citing anonymous sources, La Critica, a newspaper in Panama, said Holbert planned his murders well in advance. In one case, the paper said, Holbert invited Cheryl Lynn Hughes to join him in the woods to watch monkeys. He then shot her in the head.

A freelance journalist, Don Winner, helped break open the case. After receiving a call from friends looking for one of the victims, he found Holbert's name on the property records of missing victims.

"You have these missing people," Winner said by phone from Panama, "and then there is this guy Cortez in their house."

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