In September 2011, Yvonne Baldelli and Brian Brimager moved to Bocas Del Toro, Panama, to start a new life. The recently divorced Yvonne had been laid off from her management job with Proctor and Gamble and Brian ended his eight-year career in the Marines.
A New Life
They arrived on the Isla Carenero ...
A New Life
... and settled into this home with a plan to reinvent themselves.
Brian Brimager, an amateur musician, played his guitar and sang in local bars for food and drinks.
Yvonne Baldelli brought two sewing machines with her and planned to put her fashion sense to good use making her own line of swimsuits to sell to tourists.
She kept in touch with her family, especially her siste,r Michele Valenzuela, through a series of pictures, e-mails and phone calls all describing how happy she was in Panama.
“We love it. ...We wake up and go running then swim in the ocean every morning,” Yvonne wrote in one e-mail to her sister.
A Sister's Instinct
But a few weeks into the couple’s move -- around Thanksgiving -- Yvonne’s e-mails started to come less frequently, before stopping altogether.
Her sister, Michele (above right with Yvonne) became alarmed.
Two weeks later, in mid-December, Michele received a text from Brian who was back in the U.S. without Yvonne.
He said they had broken up, and that he was coming over to pick up his truck.
Brian Brimager claimed the couple fought after Yvonne found out he had a child with another woman, ex-girlfriend Kristin Werkhoven. He said Yvonne dumped him and ran off with another man to Costa Rica.
Although initially doubtful of the story, Michele found an overlooked e-mail from Yvonne confirming Brian’s version of events. Three weeks later, Michele received another e-mail from Yvonne, promising she would be home for a family reunion in January.
She was briefly relieved by the e-mail, the last one she would ever receive from her sister.
A Secret Life
Meanwhile, days after allegedly splitting up with Yvonne and arriving back in the U.S., Brian got engaged to the mother of his child.
Weeks later, he and Kristin Werkhoven were married. They moved into a home in Dana Point, California.
After the January family reunion came and went without an appearance by Yvonne Baldelli, her family began to suspect that something was very wrong.
Michele Valenzuela became convinced that Yvonne had never left Panama, and asked a tech savvy cousin for help tracking down the origin of her sister’s e-mails.
What happened to Yvonne?
Tracing the IP addresses of the e-mails revealed that the last two e-mails from Yvonne Baldelli -- supposedly sent from Costa Rica -- had actually originated in Dana Point, California, where Brian Brimager was now living.
Yvonne’s final reassuring e-mails had been sent from her ex-boyfriend’s computer. Her family filed a missing persons report.
"Wild Bill" Holbert
Eerily, the home where Yvonne and Brian lived in Panama once belonged to American serial killer “Wild Bill” Holbert, who was arrested for the murders of at least five American expats.
He was known for using his victims’ online identities to communicate with their families after their murders.
Family Heads to Panama
Two months after filing a missing persons report, Yvonne’s family went to Panama to start their own investigation.
They reached out to legendary investigator Don Winner, an ex-U.S. Intelligence officer living in Panama for help.
Winner took Yvonne’s father and step mother, Jim and Lillian Faust (pictured), to the U.S. State Department and helped spread the word of the California woman’s disappearance.
FBI Joins the Search
Once in Panama, the family handed out fliers and searched through a swamp near the home where Yvonne and Brian Brimager lived.
Acquaintances began stepping forward to detail instances of Brian’s physical and verbal abuse.
FBI divers joined the investigation, searching the water near the couple’s residence.
Despite the efforts of volunteers and authorities, there was no sign of Yvonne.
Brian Brimager Charged
On June 26, 2013, the FBI arrested Brian Brimager. He was charged with 13 felonies related to covering up Yvonne Baldelli’s death.
Two months later, Yvonne’s body was found in the same swamp combed by her family and authorities in March 2012.
Her remains were in a military style duffel and two trash bags.
Federal authorities are in talks with officials in Panama to have Brian Brimager’s murder case moved to California.
Justice for Yvonne
In April 2015, in agreement with Panama, the U.S. said it would prosecute Brian Brimager for the murder of Yvonne Baldelli -- a crime that happened in another country more than 3,000 miles away.
The charges follow complex negotiations between the U.S. and Panama. The U.S. invoked a rarely-used law -- “Foreign murder of a U.S. national.” It’s so rare, according to federal court records, it has only been used twice before.
Just before the start of his trial in 2016, after the discovery of his DNA on a machete used to kill Baldelli,Brimager pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while the other charges were dropped. And later, at his sentencing, finally admitted, after nearly five years of lies, to killing Yvonne Baldelli.
He is currently serving a 26-year sentence in a federal prison.