He was known to his friends as “Wild Bill Cortez” on the small islands of Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean enclave in Panama popular with tourists and expats. But what no one knew was that “Wild Bill” was actually a fugitive from North Carolina who had found the perfect paradise to fund a lifestyle he felt he deserved.
In reality, the man was named William Dathan Holbert and he grew up in Hendersonville, N.C., where he played football at North Henderson High School, started up his own landscaping business after graduation, got married and fathered three children.
In 2004, while working at a fitness chain in the Asheville area called The Body Shop, Holbert became a manager at one Hendersonville branch. Soon after, Marie Hoover, who ran the chain of centers with her husband Kevin, realized they weren’t getting bank statements for the business. When they went to the bank to investigate, they discovered Holbert had been writing himself personal checks from the business accounts to the tune of $25,000. He explained to the Hoovers that he thought the money was part of his salary, to which they explained it wasn’t. This was also when he met Laura Reese, a fellow employee at The Body Shop, and when his wife discovered they were having an affair she filed for the divorce. The Hoovers chose not to press charges against Holbert at the time because they just wanted to terminate the relationship and remove him from the business.
Holbert filed for bankruptcy and he and Reese rented a home for a time in Cleveland County. They also opened a white supremacist bookstore in Forest City. N.C., where they sold stickers, bandanas and swastikas. They later moved on to the coast and in 2006, went on the run after they were accused of trying to sell a property in Oak Island, N.C. that they did not own.
According to this article in the New York Post, the couple ended up in Panama around in November 2007, where Holbert realized the process for buying a home in Panama was much different than in the U.S. To sell your home, no lawyer was required on the spot. As long as you had the certificates and the corporate paperwork, you could sell direct, because whoever physically had possession of that paperwork was legally the home’s owner.
Holbert answered an ad from a man named Michael Brown, who was looking to sell the small hostel he owned. According to Holbert, Brown was a fugitive hiding out from U.S. law enforcement and evading drug trafficking chargers and living under an assumed name. The New York Post reported he was a wanted fugitive from Florida who had more than $100,000 in cash in a Hong Kong bank while he lived a quiet life of seclusion in Panama. Holbert spent three days visiting with the family, including Brown’s wife and 17-year-old son, before he shot them execution style, took over the deed to the house, found the passwords to the bank account and requested a new ATM card for himself. Reese soon moved in with him on the property.
After murdering the Brown family, Holbert claims he turned their home into the “Jolly Roger Social Club,” using alcohol and drugs to lure in other expats who could become potential victims.
Other victims included Cheryl Hughes, a 53-year-old woman who had lived in Panama for 10 years when friends and family stopped hearing from her and reported her missing in March of 2010. Bo Icelar, a gallery owner from Santa Fe, N.M., was also reported missing in November of the same year. Holbert murdered Hughes and Icelar in the same manner as the Brown family so that he could take control of their property and assets. Because they knew and had socialized with him, they thought nothing of it when he invited them to visit the hostel on separate occasions.
In all, authorities located five bodies on the property of the hostel. Holbert and Reese were captured in in July 2012 as they tried to enter Nicaragua from Costa Rica. Reese claimed she had no idea Holbert had murdered anyone, although she also couldn’t answer questions about how she thought they were earning income when Holbert wasn’t working and where the influx of cash was coming from.
The motive? Greed, pure and simple. Holbert murdered them for the cash, real estate property and other assets. Holbert was sentenced to 47 years by a court in Panama for his crimes; Reese received 26 years.
An author named Nick Foster has written a book about the crimes, titled The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror published in January 2019, Holbert claims that’s a “rockstar” in the Panamanian prison, pays cash to get conjugal visits with his new wife, and a slew of other eyebrow-raising claims. He also brushes off his crimes, claiming he’s “not that interesting because he killed a bunch of people for their money.”