The Jolly Roger Social Club by Nick Foster is the true story of a series of bold killings which took place in a shadowy American ex-pat community in Panama (Available today!).
In the remote Bocas del Toro, Panama, William Dathan Holbert, aka “Wild Bill,” is awaiting trial for the murder of five fellow American ex-patriots. Holbert's first victims were the Brown family, who lived on a remote island in the area's Darklands. There, Holbert turned their home into the “Jolly Roger Social Club,” using drink- and drug-fueled parties to get to know other ex-pats. The club's tagline was: “Over 90% of our members survive.” Those odds were not in his victims' favor.
The Jolly Roger Social Club is not just a book about what Holbert did and the complex financial and real estate motives behind the killings; it is about why Bocas del Toro turned out to be his perfect hunting ground, and why the community tolerated-even accepted-him for a time. Told through the fascinating history of the country of Panama, a paradise with sinister ties to the political and economic interests of the United States, journalist Nick Foster brings this uniquely bizarre place to life; shedding light on a community where many live under assumed names, desperate to leave their old lives behind-and sometimes people just disappear.
1. The Tipping Point
The year was 1989, and the world was about to change. In June, the Chinese government took an iron fist to protesters by sending tanks into Tiananmen Square. By November, ecstatic East Germans had breached the Berlin Wall, signaling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. George H. W. Bush was in his first year of what would be a one-term presidency. In Beechwood Lakes, a middle-class subdivision in Hendersonville, North Carolina, family life went on, as it did everywhere. You could switch on your television and listen to national news anchors sent to a frosty Berlin to make sense of the hard, swift changes to the established global order, or you could look out your window and watch the squirrels scurrying over the moist carpet of leaves and the ducks floating on the still pond.
William Dathan Holbert, now ten years old, was an only child. His mother, Karen Moore, who was considered kind and pleasant by neighbors, had had him young. William Holbert, Dathan’s father, worked in a farm machinery business and was seen around Beechwood Lakes a lot less frequently than Karen. The Holberts’ two-story house—rec room, big garage, vast yard—occupied a corner plot on Mallard Trail. Outside, Dathan had plenty of tracks to explore on his quad bike. The house is still there, although the Holberts are long gone from Beechwood Lakes. William and Karen divorced many years ago, too.
He was not gifted academically, but Holbert threw himself into sports when he started high school, and soon bulked up. His arm and chest muscles expanded, his neck grew thick. In particular, Holbert got serious about football. North Henderson High was a new facility back then, and the school wanted a big, successful football team to announce its arrival in the county. Holbert also got a girlfriend named Ryan Dunlap, a year above him, tall and slim with short dark hair.
William Dathan Holbert and Ryan Dunlap married on August 8, 1998. Holbert was eighteen and only turned nineteen the following month. A year after their wedding, the young couple became parents. Two more children followed in the space of four years.
With William and Karen Holbert divorced and gone their separate ways, the young married couple moved into William and Karen’s old house on Mallard Trail. Holbert bought and took over an existing landscape gardening business. Ryan, meanwhile, stayed home and looked after their young children, later finding work as a bank teller in Hendersonville. One of Holbert’s early landscaping jobs was in Beechwood Lakes. Often driving a large truck, he spent part of each day working in the subdivision he called home. His big truck also helped out with clearing people’s driveways in the short but snowy North Carolina winters. There was money to be made pretty much year-round. Holbert was never short of the right landscaping tools and this prompted people to think that his business was flourishing. Some of the neighbors would look at the couple and think they were maybe a little too young for the responsibilities of parenthood. But, then, hadn’t Karen had Dathan young, too?
One day, the Holberts’ neighbor, Dianne Prohn, got an anxious phone call from Ryan about the Holberts’ dog, a chow mix called Dax with a black tongue and lots of fur. “Ryan knew that I was fond of Dax,” said Dianne Prohn. “She [Ryan] was worried that [Holbert] wanted to have the dog put down.” The dog was healthy; there was no reason to put the animal to sleep. Looking back, she thinks maybe Ryan’s call was a muted cry for help. Soon afterward, Dax disappeared and was never seen again.
Holbert apparently hadn’t contacted a vet to have the family pet put down. It became a kind of open secret in the subdivision. “My understanding was that he [Holbert] shot Dax,” said Ken Prohn, Dianne’s husband. In fact, most people who wondered about the fate of the Holberts’ chow mix were convinced that William Dathan Holbert had taken a firearm to the family pet. At around that time, his neighbors at Beechwood Lakes whispered about steroid abuse.
It was a perfect moment to get into the landscaping business in Hendersonville. Not only did Holbert have the advantage of family connections to procure vehicles and professional gardening machinery, Henderson County was buzzing with newcomers. The population of the county grew from around seventy thousand in 1990 to some ninety thousand a decade later. Some of these new arrivals were the so-called half-backs. These were retired folks from the Northeast or from the Midwest who had moved to Florida, found it too hot and humid, and so moved halfway—so to speak—back home. They discovered the picturesque valleys and plateaus of the southern Appalachians, with their long summers, falls bursting with red and gold, and relatively mild winters. Nature was bountiful here: the county’s orchards sagged under the weight of fresh fruit, crates of vegetables crammed tables at farmers’ markets, forest trails reeked of sap. Golf courses opened; lifestyle magazines advertised new gated communities. Bit by bit, Hendersonville—traditionally a genteel place—became more urban. The half-backs bought houses with yards that needed landscaping crews. The men of the Mexican community who traditionally picked the apples in the orchards were a reliable source of labor and stepped in willingly. For a young landscaping entrepreneur like Holbert, opportunities for lucrative contracts were all around.
But Holbert was “always looking for something easier,” said one man operating another landscaping firm in Henderson County in the early 2000s. “He always wanted to make serious money. But he wasn’t willing to make it work.” Holbert’s landscaping business, the man said, “kind of fell apart.” Also, rumors started to spread about Holbert’s behavior. A guy once owed him some money for a job. It was a recent debt in the low thousands of dollars, and Holbert, pumped up, weighing well over two hundred pounds at this point, went to the guy’s house to see him about it. The guy opened the door not properly dressed, a shirt over his shoulders, underwear on. Holbert didn’t get his money immediately because the guy told him that he’d only just gotten up. But when Holbert threatened to harm him, he soon handed over the cash.
With the debt settled, Holbert beat him up anyway. “You’re lucky I didn’t take all your money,” he told the guy. Holbert—described by an acquaintance as the “ultimate jock”—started buying suits and ties. He wanted to try out other business ventures. In November 2001, he moved his family out of Beechwood Lakes and to a house in Saluda, twenty miles southeast of Hendersonville, where his father’s family owned some land named Walnut Drive beyond the fire station. Saluda had a population of about seven hundred—it still does—and owed its very existence to the railroad. The railway up Saluda Mountain, close to the border between North and South Carolina, opened for business in 1878. But before the track up the Saluda Grade was constructed, people in the railroad community wondered how a grade as steep, in short stretches, as 5.1 percent could be tolerated by locomotives and wagons when any grade of over 2 percent is considered a challenge. Runaway trains became a regular occurrence, and the name Saluda would be forever associated with trains hurtling off their tracks.1
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In Saluda, Holbert would spend time in the cafés on Main Street at breakfast time trying to strike up conversations with the local bigwigs. He had political aspirations, telling friends that he wanted to become mayor. Each time he pulled off Interstate 26 at the Saluda exit, there it was, as soon as he got off the ramp: a sign for Holbert Cove Road, named for his ancestors, an artery connecting downtown Saluda with the cabins and farms on the town’s eastern flank.
But the atmosphere at the Holberts’ house was often tense. One winter Holbert had an accident while sledding and hurt his leg. He blamed Ryan immediately. Friends invited for dinner saw Ryan cringe in embarrassment when he took to calling a pet cat “Nigger.” Another dog the family owned met the same fate as Dax, the chow mix the Holberts had owned back in Beechwood Lakes. Depending on the source, the dog fell out of favor because it barked too loudly every time the postman came by or it growled at Holbert the wrong way, earning its master’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the second dog disappeared, too.
Holbert opened a pool hall in a small town in Polk County, downhill of Saluda. As a gesture of his ambition for the new business, he got some buddies to drop by the pool hall and paid to have a TV ad filmed. Everyone had fun racking up the balls and fooling around with the cue sticks, the cameras rolling. Holbert was a larger-than-life host with a commercial ready to air, so there was every reason to be optimistic. But the business fizzled out after a few months.
It was in 2003, at around the same time as the ill-fated pool hall venture, that William Dathan Holbert entered the lives of Marie and Kevin Hoover.
The couple first met Holbert when he took out a membership at their Body Shop fitness center in nearby Hendersonville. Marie Hoover still has the application form that Holbert filled out, kept in a drawer in her office in the Arden, North Carolina, branch of what is now a chain of Body Shop gyms. On the gym application form, Holbert wrote Me under “Employer,” and Lazy Ass where it said “Occupation.” Holbert stood out in that he was loud and brash, but it was a relative thing. Marie met a lot of people who filled the room and appeared superconfident at all times, the life and soul of any party that might kick off. At the gym, it kind of came with the territory.
Holbert and Kevin Hoover both liked working out and pumping iron and soon became buddies, hanging out together in the Body Shop in Hendersonville. Marie, a trim, soft-spoken woman who wears her blond hair tied back, said there was no surprise about that, since they were both “Alpha males.” Holbert might have described himself as a “Lazy Ass,” but in the weeks after signing up for membership in the Body Shop he talked big about his landscaping business, which then was barely scraping by. In the end, he discarded the yard work altogether. Kevin and Marie Hoover met the Holberts for occasional dinners. Everyone was struck by how likeable and decent Ryan was.
Kevin Hoover was already a successful businessman, and there was every indication that Holbert, a younger man, was headed in the same direction, even if one of his many planned business ventures—opening an escort service—raised a few eyebrows. One other time, Holbert rented a building in Asheville to accommodate another in a long line of business ideas. But Holbert didn’t pay the rent on the building and one day a man came to the Hendersonville gym looking for his money. Holbert stepped out of the gym into the parking lot to talk to the man. With the door closed, Marie couldn’t hear what words were exchanged, but she saw the man swiftly turn around and leave the parking lot. “The guy looked pretty shaken up,” said Marie Hoover.
The Hoovers’ relationship with Holbert intensified when Kevin expanded and bought another gym in a strip mall off Hendersonville Road on the south side of Asheville early in 2004. This time, it was a gym that was already open, but its owner wanted to sell up. It appeared to be the chance that Holbert was looking for: the opportunity to learn the ropes of running a business from a man with a proven track record who knew exactly what to do. Kevin Hoover agreed that Holbert could help out managing the new Asheville branch, the third in his Body Shop chain. It was a loose arrangement, and the understanding was that Holbert might eventually operate the Asheville gym in partnership or as a kind of franchise, provided he could secure the required financing. In the meantime, Holbert was not going to be paid a salary for the time he spent running the new Body Shop in Asheville.
Acquiring the gym meant making a number of quick decisions, notably the question of whom to hire. Kevin and Marie were tempted to start afresh and take on some new staff at their new Asheville branch. For instance, they briefly wondered what to do with a young woman with long, dyed-blond hair from Greensboro, North Carolina, named Laura Michelle Reese. She was tasked with cleaning up at the gym and doing light administrative work. Her colleagues knew little about her, other than that she had been adopted as a child. It looked like Laura Michelle, who was twenty at the time, might be let go. On the other hand, she was quiet and unremarkable and had, in truth, all but passed under the Hoovers’ radar. But Holbert insisted that hiring matters were within his remit as branch manager.
“[Holbert] said, ‘She’s good, she’s fine,’” recalled Marie Hoover. And so Laura Michelle Reese stayed.
The Body Shop in Asheville was a forty-minute drive from Saluda. Holbert rented a small apartment nearby to save commuting up and down I-26 from his family home in Saluda every day. Meanwhile, when Marie Hoover drove up the highway to Asheville to check out how the new operation was going, she sensed that Holbert and Laura Michelle had become very close. Holbert didn’t yet own a single exercise bike or dumbbell at the Body Shop in Asheville and Laura Michelle was a low-level employee, yet Marie said, “It was like the gym actually belonged to them, like it was their gym.” Marie told her husband that something was up. There was another development, too: without any prompting, Holbert started to send Marie brief, handwritten notes. This was unusual in itself, but it was the content of the notes that was really unwelcome. The notes informed Marie of something to the effect that she should be proud of her race, proud of being a white woman. Marie stashed the notes at the back of a drawer in her office and later threw them out. “He was getting weirder,” recalled Marie. Holbert had been given—or had grabbed for himself—a position of authority and control, “and it just went to his head.”
Still, the Hoovers and the Holberts found some time to laugh and share a joke together. The Sopranos was a hit TV show at the time and at the water cooler Marie and Holbert would casually discuss the latest episode, with its story lines of glamorized violence and Mafia killings. “He said that he was going to become a Tony Soprano,” said Marie Hoover, referring to the principal character in the show, an Italian American mobster. “At the time I took it to be a respect thing, that he wanted money and power.”
One day Kevin Hoover was riding in a car with Holbert at the wheel and they got pulled over by a traffic cop. Holbert had to show the cop his driver’s license. Kevin spotted the date and told Marie about it. “He had always claimed he was three years older than me,” said Marie. “But he’d been lying.” Holbert, it turned out, was really a year younger than Marie. On the application form where Dathan had given his occupation as “Lazy Ass,” he had also written his birthdate as September 12, 1975—adding precisely four years to his age. Although this was undoubtedly odd, you could laugh about it, too. But much worse was to come: Kevin got a call from his banker in Hendersonville alerting him to some unusual spending patterns at the Asheville branch of the Body Shop. Gym managers routinely buy such things as vitamin supplements wholesale that are offered retail to members. But here was Holbert writing checks for a mattress, a television, and a bunch of other things. Taken together, the value of the checks that Holbert had written amounted to around $20,000. Kevin Hoover confronted Holbert about it.
At this time, things were coming to a head between Holbert and his wife, Ryan. The mattress and the television had been bought for the apartment on Turtle Creek Drive in Asheville where Holbert was supposed to crash during the week to avoid the long drive back to Saluda. But Holbert wasn’t living there alone. He had set up a parallel home in the apartment with Laura Michelle Reese, spending weeknights with her. In the spring of 2004, Ryan found out the truth about her husband’s setup with Reese. It came about when Holbert called a cable TV company to get a connection and—coincidentally—the technician sent by the cable company was one of Ryan Holbert’s relatives. The news was passed on to Ryan, who was understandably distraught to find out that her husband had been living a double life. Dathan and Ryan Holbert officially separated on May 21, 2004.
Holbert and Reese decided it was time to move on from Asheville. They left behind a city that was in the throes of change. John Boyle, a reporter for Asheville’s Citizen-Times, originally from Virginia, moved to western North Carolina in 1995. “There wasn’t much here,” said Boyle of Asheville in the mid-1990s, “just three or four nice restaurants for lunch.” The Grove Arcade, the city center’s landmark shopping mall that had first opened its doors in 1929, was bricked up. Asheville’s fortunes started to change at about the turn of the millennium, when the Grove Arcade was restored to its period glory. The years that followed, said Boyle, were “explosive.” Asheville started to attract cool, fashionable young folk from all over America. There were new eateries advertising farm-to-fork meals; brew pubs were set up; art galleries appeared. Here and there in the downtown you would catch the smell of incense sticks. It was all hippy-chic, self-consciously progressive.
Later, the Hoovers discovered that not only was Holbert writing Body Shop checks for personal use, some of them bad, he had also contacted a broker a few short weeks after he started running the Asheville gym. He had claimed to the broker that he owned the business. Holbert had wanted the broker’s help to sell the Asheville Body Shop—the gym that Kevin Hoover owned.
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Copyright © 2016 Nick Foster
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Nick Foster was born in Liverpool, UK in 1966, and educated at University College London. He worked for several years as a European Union diplomat, and as a stringer working out of Caracas, Venezuela, filing news stories and research to the UK’s broadsheets. He now writes features for the Financial Times and the International New York Times, among other outlets. He is also producing a documentary film on France's highest-profile cold case. Foster is married with two young sons and lives in Belgium.