San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, is a fishing-and-tourist town of colorfully painted wooden homes laid out on lazy Pacific-coast streets where bicycles outnumber vehicles, where kids set up goal markers out of rocks for afternoon games of fútbol, where locals pass the evenings exchanging gossip on their stoops or attending mass. Always now, too, half-clad gringa girls stroll past in flip-flops on their way to Marie's Bar, where the party on the weekends spills out the door, or Big Wave Dave's, where expats line the counters trading notes on the day's sailfish catch, on the going price for laborers, on the quality of the local beauties, of which there are many.
Los Años Ochentas, as the Sandinista contra war of the 1980s is carefully referred to here, is long over, though the memories of it remain. The men go out in their narrow pangas for tuna, for roosterfish, for bonito, for whatever they can pull in on their handlines. The women hang up their laundry to sun-dry.
I'd come, like others before me, looking to pitch a hammock on a stretch of untrammeled beach. Hearing reports of Nicaragua's beauty and safety from a fellow former Peace Corps volunteer, I'd left Florida in my Ford Ranger in early October with a couple of fishing poles, driven slowly through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and arrived in San Juan del Sur on a dusty Sunday afternoon six weeks, five border crossings, and 4,000 miles later. I'd been disappointed before by tales of paradise that turn out to be tourist traps, but my first view of the bay, hemmed in by two sets of cliffs like the Pillars of Hercules, left me diving into the surf as the sun set, wearing a smile as warm as the water around me. By noon the next day, I had a little house with a view of the Pacific for $250 a month.
San Juan is small. Officially, 20,000 people live here; according to the local barber, Roberto López Mora, it's really just a few extended families Lópezes, Chamorros, Calderons, Sanchezes, Danglas tracing their roots to the time "before records." It doesn't take more than a day to start recognizing faces: the oldest beer-bellied expat with his young Nica girlfriend, the Rastafarian trinket hustler who promises he can get you "any-ting, any-ting." But also, the carpenter who makes furniture across from the park and the expat and his local wife taking their tawny-haired kid down to the beach for a swim.
Nine days after I arrived, on Tuesday, November 21, I walked down the hill into town in the evening to buy a few cans of beer. In the street outside the Miscellania Calderon, where I'd buy all of my sundries over the next three months, a huge crowd had assembled, everyone hushed and looking at something I couldn't see. Gatherings like this are ubiquitous in Central America; I passed it off as a religious event, a Purisima procession of a statue of the Virgin. Then I saw the cops. They came in and out of the doorway of the Sol Fashion boutique in their neat blue uniforms, taking notes.
In the coming days, the shocking details of what was alleged to have happened were splashed in tawdry headlines in El Nuevo Diario, the left-leaning national paper. Doris Ivania Alvarado Jiménez, 25, a pretty, popular San Juan native, was reported to have been raped, sodomized, and strangled with a ferocity that spoke of specific hatred. It was an audacious crime. Last seen alive in front of her shop at 11:30 that morning, Jiménez was found shortly after 2:00 p.m. when the building's watchman, noticing that the boutique was closed, let himself in with a key. What he found inside has threatened to boil resentments between locals and expats into open hostility: the woman's body, hog-tied with bedsheets, asphyxiated with wadded-up paper and rags.
The first newspaper reports pointed to a robbery gone wrong, that Jiménez had happened upon and recognized the criminals, that they'd killed her because of it. That premise quickly fell apart as the police issued warrants for four men. Two of them, local surfers who ran in the same posse, were picked up soon after the murder: Julio Martín Chamorro López, 30, better known as Rosita, was nabbed after a policeman remembered seeing him wandering near Sol Fashion shirtless, bearing what appeared to be fresh scratches and "acting nervous." Nelson Antonio López Dangla, 24, who goes by the nickname Krusty, was arrested shortly after Chamorro. The third man, 20-year-old Armando Llanes, had been casually dating Jiménez, her friends said. A student at Ave Maria College of the Americas, near Managua, whose family has ties to both Nicaragua and South Florida, Llanes was never taken into custody. He was dropped from suspicion when he produced a statement from his university registrar accounting for his whereabouts during some of the time of the murder.
But what made this case so dramatic was the fourth suspect: Jiménez's ex-boyfriend, a 28-year-old expat from Nashville, Tennessee, named Eric Stanley Volz. Bilingual, with a degree in Latin American studies from the University of California at San Diego, Eric had moved to San Juan del Sur in 2005 and become a Nicaraguan resident. Until his bio was removed from the Century 21 Web site several weeks after the murder, he was listed as associate manager of the company's San Juan office, and had also made a name for himself publishing a glossy new bilingual lifestyle magazine called EP (short for El Puente, or "The Bridge"). Eric and Doris had dated for a little over a year, but by the summer of 2006 they'd split: He moved to Managua to devote himself to EP, while she remained in San Juan to run her business. After her death, Volz canceled a Thanksgiving business trip back to the States to attend her funeral. Police arrested him shortly after the ceremony.
Local opinion convicted Eric Volz immediately. YOUNG BUSINESSWOMAN VICTIM OF JEALOUS GRINGO, blazed the Diario. US EMBASSY ADVISES ACCUSED GRINGO TO KEEP QUIET. As reported in the paper and as I later read in court documents, what Rosita Chamorro told police in an unsigned statement one that he and his lawyer would later insist to me had been coerced through torture was that Volz, apparently jealous of Jiménez's new relationship with Llanes, had offered Chamorro $5,000 to go with him around noon to Sol Fashion, where the American attacked Jiménez, then raped, sodomized, and killed her. Krusty Dangla, who would become the prosecution's main witness, said Volz came out of the shop at 1:00 p.m. and paid him 50 cordobas (about $2.75) to put two garbage bags full of what felt like clothes in a white car.
Volz's family quickly disseminated detailed accounts of his alibi that at least ten witnesses placed him two hours away in Managua the whole time on a Web site for supporters called FriendsofEricVolz.com. But the people of San Juan had made up their minds: At Big Wave Dave's, the long-haired beauties tending bar began casually rebuffing expat advances with the simple and musical refrain "Gringos son asesinos." Gringos are murderers.
Things have been changing quickly in San Juan over the past five years. Sixty major housing developments are either under construction or soon to break ground, from the Costa Rican border, a half-hour south of town, up to and well beyond the fabulous Popoyo reef break, an hour north. More than $400 million in foreign investment has poured in. Land that was next to worthless as recently as 2002 is now flipped with ease; third-acre oceanview lots go for hundreds of thousands. The franchises have followed: The first Subway opened three weeks after I arrived.
An estimated 78 million Americans will retire in the next 20 years, some of them dreaming of deals down south. On the higher end, this could mean a $500,000, 2,500-square-foot house in a gated community overlooking one of these stunning beaches, with its own restaurants, swimming pools, shops, clubhouses, DirecTV, wireless Internet, and full security. The expats need not speak Spanish or even notice much that they are in Nicaragua. All the while, the real estate ads promise, their investments will increase at rates that would make the stock market look silly.
A quick scan of back issues of Between the Waves, a local quarterly English-language magazine geared toward tourists, reveals three things nearly all these ads tout: investment potential, concern for the environment, and sex. Between the Waves covers feature lovely, light-skinned young Nicaraguan women emerging like Venus from the Pacific foam, some of the shots proving so popular they've been reprinted as local Re/Max ads: a tall girl stepping from the sea in a bikini and hoop earrings, smiling at someone off-camera, no one else on the beach. Other developers take the green approach. One outfit, Nica Dev, promises that they "develop with a conscience," advertising green communities built around ecological reserves, and Century 21's ads exhort readers to "preserve the beaches."
It's not hard to see why there's an air of expat guilt about what's going on here. In December, I drove out to one of the bigger new projects, Cantamar at Playa Yankee. While many developments can't be seen from the gatehouses where guards stop prying visitors, this one is too big to hide. Carved into the forested hills overlooking an untouched beach are clear-cut terrace after clear-cut terrace, heavy machines at work, the ground rumbling beneath their weight. When Cantamar is eventually finished, it will be a sprawling community of luxury homes, but when I went back in March, it still looked like what it was: deforested land.
Nicaragua is a World Bank and International Monetary Fund designated "heavily indebted poor country," with little legal ability to control its economic future: Everything is for sale. And once Nicaraguans decide to cash in and sell their houses or farms, they have to look far inland for anything affordable. Many who sold four and five years ago realized less than 5 percent of what the same properties sell for now. A prominent development appraised by the owner at $26 million was built on land bought for $80,000, according to a son of the family who sold it.
Some of these sales are contested. "The foreigners come here knowing the titles are in disarray," one San Juan man told me late one night at L'Mche's Bar, where the local restaurant and hotel staff unwind after work. He was home for the holidays from the job he held, legally, in Texas. "They have the money to win any lawsuit. We can't afford to fight them in court. And do you know how we are treated when we go to the U.S.? We can't even jaywalk without being harassed by the police."
This huge and growing disparity in wealth has begun to reveal itself in ugly ways. Though Eduardo Holmann, San Juan's Sandinista-party mayor, dismissed a Diario report that local fishermen have been shot at when they drop anchor in bays fronting private developments, he admitted that new laws have to be written to protect beach-access rights, which some foreigners have been trying to deny. Petty theft is a persistent annoyance. Crack is a growing problem. One Wednesday night late in January, a block from Big Wave Dave's, a celebrated local hustler and avowed user stabbed a prominent expat twice in the stomach with a pair of barber's scissors, the culmination of a long-running feud. The expat recovered after surgery; the hustler was arrested and released, and a few weeks later he left town.
Meanwhile, the boom continues, despite foreign anxiety surrounding the November 2006 reelection of former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega. Ortega, after all, led the nationalization of private property following the 1979 revolution, which overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Ortega of today is not the Ortega of the past; he has been actively reassuring investors that the favorable business climate here will not change. Still, few deny it comes with a price. "You've seen these developments," said Mayor Holmann. "Where is that sanitation going to drain? We are trying to support all of this with the same infrastructure that we had 30 years ago. If we don't get help from the national government, we are going to have critical situations with drainage and electricity."
The mayor is not anti-development. "If the foreign investors behave with social responsibility," he said, "community relations will turn out OK." But, he cautioned, "what we don't want to see is a San Juan del Sur of America."
Into the fray of this fevered market came Eric Volz. Speculation had become so rampant by 2004 that Internet investors who'd previously never left the States were visiting regularly on real estate tours, getting the hard sell while enjoying the delights of the bay, the 70-cent beers, the heady idea of financial windfall, the sight of all the pretty girls. Everywhere, the air was full of the sounds of construction, the money crashing in like the big breakers rolling onto shore. It says a lot about San Juan's unregulated, unlicensed real estate market that it could not only make room for the youthful and inexperienced Volz but also allow him to thrive. By all accounts, he had a knack for closing the deal; he was gathering capital, more than $100,000 of which he'd use to fund EP.
According to friends, Volz is a diversely talented individualist, a traveler and outdoor enthusiast. When he was ten, his family moved from Sacramento to Nashville, where his divorced parents both still live. Volz's father, Jan, is a country-music-tour organizer and founding member of an alternative Christian band called the 77's; his mother, Maggie Anthony, is an interior decorator. He has a younger sister, plus a stepsister from his mother's second marriage. His mother's side of the family is of Mexican descent, and it's from them that Volz became "receptively bilingual," as he put it when I spoke to him in March. "I understood what they said, but I only produced English."
Volz took up climbing at a local gym when he was 11, as a way to deal with his parents' divorce. "It really began to mean something about freedom, learning my limits, learning to trust myself," he told me. After high school, he moved to Meyers, California, near South Lake Tahoe. He worked in carpentry, took classes at Lake Tahoe Community College, DJ'd at a local bar, and built a reputation as an exceptional free climber.
While many of his Tahoe friends remained in the mountains, Volz chose a different path, ultimately pursuing Latin American studies at UCSD. "I reached a point where I was ready to be a little more responsible socially," he says. "I realized that hanging out in the mountains and staying in shape was great, but I wasn't really doing much."
Volz's climbing friends would be among the first to come to his defense after his arrest. "He had a view you don't see as much in mountain towns," Chris McNamara, a Tahoe climber who made bouldering films with Volz, wrote me in an e-mail. "He was concerned with global issues and was looking for the opportunity to address them. He thought Nicaragua was the place to do this. And that's the incredibly tragic irony of this case. Eric was working to get beyond those divisive cultural and political relations. Everything that he now seems to be in the middle of."
In 2004, Volz joined his father for a ten-day trip to Iraq, photographing country singer Chely Wright's tour as she entertained the troops. He met Iraqis, interviewed soldiers, and flew in Blackhawks. He soon finished his degree. In early 2005, having visited San Juan off and on for six years, he decided to move to Nicaragua. In the waterfront Rocamar Restaurant, where he often ate, Doris Jiménez was a waitress. Volz's résumé was already filled with travels; she was a local girl of very modest upbringing. "Her dream, from when she was 15 years old," says her aunt María Elena Alvarado, "was to have a shop." Jiménez studied business administration at the UPOLI University in nearby Rivas, taking computer and English classes. While Volz, as one friend puts it, "had the world by a string," Jiménez, according to everyone, was the prettiest girl in town.
Just one year later, Jiménez would be running Sol Fashion, while Volz focused on the launch of EP. The magazine, as he wrote in his first publisher's letter, would be devoted to everything from "the explosion of surf culture" to local anxiety over the "oncoming waves of foreigners, construction, and the almighty dollar." Professional, bilingual, and printed on expensive paper, the premiere edition appeared in July 2006, boasting a 20,000-copy run, a viable presence in five countries, and a look to rival Vogue. That first issue includes a nine-page "fashion-documentary" called "Maria's Journey," following Nicaraguan model Maria Mercedes in various states of dress and undress in Victoria's Secret, Prada, and Benetton beginning as she wakes with a yawn and a long tumble of black hair in what is clearly a campesino shack and ending with her posed outside a modern office building, a powerful CEO. "Where you come from," the text reads, "does not determine where you can go." Doris Jiménez appears on page 59, standing in the countryside in a traditional skirt, the wind in her hair. The words beside her read, "We are rising in the ranks of power, breaking new ground. Women of Central America."
Before EP's glossy incarnation, Volz had produced two issues of a community newsletter called El Puente, in March and October 2005, with Jon Thompson, an Atlanta native who began going back and forth to San Juan in 1999. Earnest and crew-cut, with fluent Nicaraguan-accented Spanish, Thompson, 32, now directs the upscale Pelican Eyes resort's A. Jean Brugger Foundation, which provides educational opportunities to students. The original El Puente was Thompson's idea, his ticket to moving here full-time. "Let's say I come to San Juan and I don't know there's an eco-stove project going on," he said in December. "That's what El Puente was going to be for to connect resources and interest with local leadership and sustainable projects."
Thompson and Volz met here in 2001, when they were both still visitors. "He told me about his films, that he'd been a DJ," Thompson said of his onetime friend. "I told Eric, 'I'll hire you to come down, take pictures.' " Their close partnership lasted well into 2005. "Then Eric wanted to grow," said Thompson, who clearly regrets the loss of his project. "San Juan wasn't big enough for him. His Century 21 money poured in, and eventually it grew beyond a local newsletter and became the international EP magazine."
When they first started El Puente and money was tight, Volz shared a house with Thompson and his local girlfriend, Arelis Castro López, now his wife. Volz and Jiménez began dating; Jiménez moved in, too. The arrangement lasted several months, and both Thompson and his wife say they didn't see anything that would make them think Volz is a murderer. Thompson knew Jiménez three years longer than he knew Volz; he says what everyone says that she was nice.
Though sentiment in San Juan is unanimously positive concerning Doris Jiménez, opinion about Volz is mixed. People close to her family invariably say that his foreign ways led her into behaviors considered shameful here. Her mother, Mercedes Alvarado, who sold her San Juan home in 2006 and moved inland to Rivas with Doris's two younger sisters, says she took exception to what she describes as Volz's lack of communication with the family, to her daughter's willingness to leap out of bed "when he would call in the middle of the night." Jiménez's grandmother Jacinta Lanzas told the Diario, "With these people you have to be very careful, because you don't know anything about them, nothing of their past, and in this case I always sensed something bad. I never felt good about this guy." Volz, for his part, says Jiménez was never close to her mother.
Volz's business associates insist he is "a great guy," that he couldn't possibly have done this. A few other expats, people who had unsuccessful real estate dealings with him at Century 21, readily vilify him in open anger. Many others simply say that he seemed aloof. "A lot of the expats in San Juan," Volz explained, "quite frankly, I don't connect with them. So I could see how they could see me being an arrogant person. I wasn't your normal expat. I worked pretty much all the time."
Volz and Jiménez's split, both he and Thompson insisted, was amicable. "I had a lot of love for her," said Volz, who says that he ended things around June 2006. "It wasn't like I moved to San Juan del Sur and was just, Oh my God, a Latina sexy. I knew I wasn't going to be in Nicaragua forever, and I was always very up front and honest with Doris about that."
"Doris was Miss San Juan a couple years ago," Thompson said. "Eric wasn't even her first American boyfriend. Eric is innocent. The town didn't know him; that's why they were so quick to condemn him."
"Have you heard the expression 'Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande'?" he asked. " 'Little town, big hell.' There is a lot of jealousy here. Who knows what's really going on?"
Two days before Volz's December 7 arraignment in Rivas, a car with loudspeakers circled through San Juan exhorting people to "bring justice to the gringo!" A huge crowd jeered as he was escorted into the courthouse; during the hearing, a woman outside could be heard shouting, "Come out, gringo, we are going to murder you!" Expecting the worst, Volz and the U.S. Embassy regional security officer, Michael Poehlitz, exchanged clothes while Volz's father, Jan, who'd flown in from the States, looked on.
As Volz left the arraignment, the mob saw through the ruse and rushed him. "A couple punches flew out of the side," Volz told me. "I don't know if I dodged them or if they just missed me. I felt a rock fly by my head." He ducked into a nearby gymnasium and hid in an office. With the mob surrounding the building, Poehlitz ran in behind him, making calls on his cell while Volz frantically stripped off one of the handcuffs and kicked through a wall into a room where they would be more secure. An hour later, police retrieved them.
"It was utter chaos," Jan Volz told me this spring. "Eric had said to me, 'Dad, do not come over here; there are guys with clubs.' I was not going to leave my son. They were taunting and jeering." As Jan left with two legal advisers, he recalled, "people were pounding on our car, hitting it with clubs. I'm convinced that if they had caught any one of us, they would have killed us."
Under Nicaraguan law, the defense may choose between a trial by judge or jury. With sentiment tilted so heavily against Volz and because a jury trial rules out the possibility of appeal, the defense opted for a judge; the trial was set for January 26. Meanwhile, Volz was held in various jails and penitentiaries. According to his parents, he wasn't fed for a five-day stretch; he spent a week in a medical ward; he was repeatedly threatened. Then, at a special hearing on January 16, the pre-trial judge, Rivas district judge Dr. Edward Peter Palma Mora, ordered Volz released to house arrest. If he'd had all the facts at the arraignment, Palma stated, he would have thrown the case out due to lack of evidence. As it was, the trial was postponed until February 14, with a designated trial judge, Dr. Ivette Toruño Blanco, officiating. Until then, Volz would remain at a friend's house in an undisclosed location.
Middle-class by U.S. standards, Volz's parents say that they've spent their life savings defending their son. In January, friends brought a host of Nashville musicians together for a benefit concert. Dane Anthony, Volz's stepfather, has left his 18-year career at Nashville's Belmont University, where he was an associate dean of students, to focus full-time on the case. Volz's team would eventually include Jacqueline Becerra, a lawyer with the multinational firm Greenberg Traurig and president-elect of the Federal Bar Association's South Florida chapter; Simon Strong, of Holder International, a company specializing in risk management; Melissa Campbell, a music-industry publicist and family friend; private security from multinational Corporate Security Consultants (CSC); and Ramón Rojas, a prominent Nicaraguan lawyer who successfully defended Daniel Ortega in a civil case in 2001.
From the first days, the family seemed out of their element. Early comments they made about the legal system were used by the Nicaraguan media to ill effect, and local coverage was so one-sided with the people of San Juan relying on the Diario and an incensed Mercedes Alvarado for most of their information that Volz's parents would finally pay to run his side of the story as an ad.
Sometime in the second half of December, Volz's defense team called a meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Managua to give San Juan mayor Holmann Volz's account of his whereabouts on the day of the murder, hoping he could intervene with local reporters. What quickly transpired, however, was anything but positive. Holmann expanded the invitation to include Krusty Dangla's lawyer, Cesar Baltodano, and commissioner Yamil Gutiérrez, of the Rivas police. Agreeing to try to arrange a tête-à-tête between Jiménez's mother and Volz's defense lawyers, Baltodano invited Mercedes Alvarado to lunch at the Gran Diamante restaurant, near Rivas on Lake Nicaragua. According to Alvarado and her lawyer, Erick Cabezas, who was also present, Baltodano told the woman, "Your daughter is dead. She's not coming back. How much could she have earned in her life? Fifty dollars a day? Over 40 years?"
Cabezas alleges that Baltodano told Alvarado that if she would make a public written statement attesting to Volz's innocence, a cash settlement of $1,000,000 would be placed in her bank account, to which Cabezas, as her lawyer, would be entitled to 20 percent. While Baltodano denies offering a settlement, he admits the subject came up. "You know," he told me, "this sort of thing exists everywhere in the world. I said to her that her daughter would never live again, maybe we could do something." Volz's family, his defense team, and Holmann all emphatically deny having suggested a settlement.
Nevertheless, Alvarado went to the press. "I don't need a million dollars," she would cry in every subsequent radio and print interview. "I need my daughter!" Local sentiment turned darker. "He's rich! His powerful family is trying to buy him out!" became a local mantra.
The Volz family seemed totally confused. "I'm a guy who makes a salary," Jan Volz said. "I'm broke now. Doris's life was worth a lot more than a million dollars. I'm deeply sorry that she's gone. I want justice, too. If Eric was guilty, I'd tell him, 'You'll pay in here because you made a choice.' Had I a million dollars, I wouldn't have given it to her. Eric is innocent I'm not trying to buy his innocence."
Meanwhile, they kept up their vigil. "Today is day 23 for Eric in jail," his mother, Maggie Anthony, wrote from Nicaragua on the Web site on December 16. "That is the way I start each day. I've been waking up at 5:00 each morning wondering how many days has it been, and if Eric is sleeping. I then quietly go downstairs to check my e-mail for any news from our attorneys or a message from someone who is sending us love or support."
Volz was able to contribute one posting himself, on January 4. "I still don't know exactly why I'm being forced to walk this path," he wrote. "Some have mentioned 'karma' I say bullshit. This is me being formed through a heavy spiritual and physical journey. The ultimate purpose is not yet clear, but in the meantime I have become a lightning rod for politics, compassion, prayer, and love. A campaign and a movement have emerged."
Surfing is a good way to escape the complexities of the world, especially on the empty waves of Nicaragua. When a swell rolls in, there are double overheads, left breaks, right breaks, beach breaks, reef breaks. The water is warm and clean, the sand soft. Looking south, you can see the dense mountains of Costa Rica; just offshore, islands rise out of the ocean like the buttes of Monument Valley. Fish leap from the water in schools. Humpback whales breach in the distance.
Playa Madera, four miles north of town, is where they all surfed Volz, Chamorro, Dangla. During the rainy season, the road is an axle-bending, suspension-wrecking gash through the rainforest, but, to be fair, once the rains stop and the government grader comes through, you can get into third gear. Here and there are the signs of development tarmac-long clear-cuts and completed gated communities along with modest truck-shed fincas with chickens and pigs in the yard, the municipal dump crowded with turkey vultures, and long swaths of forest resplendent with parakeets, butterflies, and monkeys.
My truck made me lots of "friends" in Central America, and among my more regular passengers out to Playa Madera were Roque and Rex Calderon, the half-dozen members of their entourage, and everyone's surfboard. Roque, 21, and Rex, 14, are two of Nicaragua's best surfers Roque led the national squad to second place at the Central American Championships in Costa Rica last July so that at any given time, I'd be driving the majority of the Nicaraguan national surf team to the beach. Day after day in the months leading up to Volz's trial, the Calderons, their friend Juan, and I waxed our boards and paddled out to the four-footers. Duck-diving back out through the set, I'd get to watch Roque's surgical dissection of the whole line, Rex's skateboard aerials.
One Saturday night in early December, Roque and I had a drink on the rooftop of the La Dolce Vita Hotel, getting started on what usually wound up at four in the morning in the low-key and hidden L'Mche's Bar. Roque has begun to appear in the surf magazines; his mentor, American board shaper Tom Eberly, believes in him so much that he quietly paid for Roque's initial English lessons, getting him ready to succeed on a larger stage. As we looked down at San Juan's central intersection, where European and American girls in sarongs passed in pairs and threes under the yellow streetlight, Roque told me, "Thanks to surfing, lots of people here are making a living: hotels, restaurants, the beach taxis, the surf boats. It's expat surfers who are building many of the developments here. Twenty percent of tourism in San Juan depends on surfing." For himself, he'd like to open a surf shop.
About the murder? "Rosita is my cousin. I used to see Eric surfing."
In other words, Roque didn't want to talk about it. Nobody does: Fear of blood feuds looms large in San Juan, and Chamorro's and Dangla's extended families are enmeshed in everything. One shopkeeper took me into a back room so she could cry and tell me how awful she feels for Volz; she wouldn't let me use her name. "[My store] is a public place," she said. "I'm afraid."
"The people in town they're angry," another echoed. "Eric didn't do it. I am afraid of people here. Of vendetta."
Meanwhile, the sidewalk in front of the Arena Caliente hostel and board shop is busy night after night with the local surfers and the twenty-something backpacker girls who hook up with them.
" 'Do you think he really loves me?' " mimicked American ESL teacher Mara Jacobsohn, rolling her eyes at the foreign girls the surfer guys go through like soap. Jacobsohn has taught hundreds in the town; she lived with a local family so long that they still get approval over whom she dates. While Nicaraguan attitudes don't seem to condemn casual encounters between local men and female tourists, the reverse situation, she noted, isn't viewed in the same light. When it came to this case, she said, "It's been very important that it must be someone not from here. What's most important about Eric is that he lacked a community; it seemed to me like he was one of those people here to make money. At the same time, I don't think he did it. Even with Doris, although pleasant and nice, she was rewritten. She was beatified. It's disgusting to see Krusty as a witness. A parasite on the whole community."
A few men in the surfer crowd, I noticed, had turned to hustling, befriending tourists and intimidating them into paying for the night's drinks or staging phony drug deals in which the tourists got burned. One expat woman, who would not allow her name to be published, told me that she once pursued a restraining order against Chamorro after a violent encounter; when I asked him about it, he said that she'd hit him first. Chamorro's lawyer, Geovanny Ruiz Mena, denies any history of violence on his client's part, aside from a bar altercation four years ago.
Down on the street when Roque and I left the Dolce Vita, four young men in blue shirts, all bouncers from the Otangani disco, at the edge of town, were passing out photocopies of Jiménez's picture. "We are friends of her family," they explained. "We want these tourists to know that this happened." One shouldered past the others and said in a low voice, "When Eric is convicted and sent to the real prison, he will be killed there for sure." He drew his finger slowly across his throat. "But I hope they rape him first."
In early February, after repeatedly and persistently being turned away, I was finally given access to the Doris Jiménez murder-case file in the Rivas courthouse by Judge Toruño herself. For 40 minutes, she allowed me to sift through the nearly 400 pages of documents while two of her staff looked on. I have to admit that all the rumors, coupled with the Diario articles, the number of people who said they didn't know or like Volz, and the certainty of Jiménez's family and friends, had led me to have little doubt of his guilt. But when the clerk called time, I closed the file sure that, whoever he was or wasn't, Eric Volz was innocent.
In the file were the original charges against Volz and Armando Llanes for the rape and sodomy of Jiménez, as well as murder charges against Volz, Llanes, Chamorro, and Dangla. These were amended on December 6, and what was read at the December 7 arraignment was that Eric Stanley Volz and Julio Martín "Rosita" Chamorro López were accused of killing Doris Jiménez. Charges against Armando Llanes and Nelson Antonio "Krusty" López Dangla had been dropped. Dangla was now the prosecution's principal witness.
As I'd already read in the papers, Dangla's police statement alleged that at 10:00 a.m. on the day of the murder, he was standing outside the Costa Azul hotel when Volz stopped in a low, white car with another man in the passenger seat and told him to come to Sol Fashion at 1:00 p.m., where Volz allegedly came out of the shop, handed him two black garbage bags full of what felt like clothes, and told him to put them in the car. Dangla said Volz gave him 50 cordobas and sped off in the direction of Managua.
The police statement attributed to Chamorro was also in the file. Volz, it alleged, had offered Chamorro $5,000 to go to Sol Fashion, where the American hit and kicked his ex-girlfriend, then raped, sodomized, and killed her. It wouldn't be until after the trial that Chamorro's lawyer told me the statement had been coerced.
Then there were the crime-scene photos: Jiménez's body, bound at the ankles and wrists; her mouth, forced open so wide from being stuffed that it seemed frozen in a perpetual scream. A first forensic exam by the "supplemental" examiner in Rivas, Dr. Isolde Vanesa Arcia Jiménez, described vaginal and anal scratches. A second examination, by Dr. Óscar Bravo Flores, the official forensic examiner, found none. Toxicology put Jiménez's blood alcohol content at 0.3, a bizarrely high level. In the photos, her belt is unbuckled and the first two buttons of her fly are undone, revealing the waistband of her underwear. The official police report states that the perpetrators undressed her to rape and sodomize her, then put her clothes back on because of a "sentimental" attachment, and finally hog-tied her the way she was found. Volz's blood type was entered as O, then as A, which is what he is. (Jiménez was also A, while Rosita Chamorro is O.) The Nicaraguan criminal-justice system does not yet test for DNA, and I found no fingerprint evidence against any of the defendants.
In official physical exams recorded in the files, the police say that both Chamorro and Dangla bore "fingernail" scratches on their arms. According to these files, Krusty Dangla was scratched on seven different parts of his body, including the head of his penis. Volz, the reports noted, had a number of thin, straight lines, one more defined than the others, on the unbroken skin of his right shoulder.
And then I read the evidence regarding Volz's alibi: cell-phone records, a time-stamped instant-messaging log, page after page of statements by the ten people most of whom I would later interview myself supporting Volz's account. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., Volz maintained, he walked into the EP offices from his living quarters the building also served as his home and was seen by the security guard, the housekeeper, and various EP staff. From 10:30 to 11:00, model Maria Mercedes and a friend said they met with him. At noon, Ricardo Castillo, a Nicaraguan journalist who has contributed to the BBC and other news outlets, arrived; he and Volz then initiated a teleconference to Virginia with consultant Nick Purdy, a cofounding publisher of the music magazine Paste. As the conference progressed, Purdy and Volz exchanged instant messages on their impressions of Castillo, a potential contributor to EP. The call lasted nearly an hour. Following it, at roughly 1:15 p.m., Volz, Castillo, and Adam Paredes, EP's art director, sat down to a lunch of curried fish served by the housekeeper, Martha Carolina Aguirre Corea. Castillo left at 2:00. At roughly 2:45, Volz received a call informing him of Jiménez's death; more calls would quickly come in confirming it. Meanwhile, a local hairstylist, Rossy Elena Estrada López, had arrived to cut Volz's and another employee's hair; she found him talking on a cell phone, she said, "afflicted and crying." According to these witnesses, Volz left the office at roughly 4:30.
Volz's cell-phone records precisely match his account of what happened next: that he left Managua and drove to San Juan. At 4:38 p.m. the first call outside Managua appears on the log, the following 11 calls tracing the trajectory of someone driving quickly, arriving in the San Juan cellular area at 6:34. (I've since done this drive twice in the same amount of time. It requires driving fast but not inordinately so.)
Only one document cast suspicion on his alibi: a rental agreement from Hertz. Volz had called Hertz to rent a car to go to San Juan. (His, he said, was unreliable.) The agreement was printed at 3:11 p.m. at the Hertz office. But when the vehicle was delivered, EP assistant Leidy de los Santos, not Volz, signed the agreement. She went inside and returned with a credit-card slip bearing what appeared to be his signature, but the delivery driver never saw Volz himself.
The case for Volz's innocence seemed obvious, irrefutable. The day before the trial, the Volz family asked visitors to their Web site to pray for the "safety of all involved in and surrounding the trial: Eric, witnesses, press, attorneys, bystanders, security, police; Health of one of Eric's key defense team who is sick with the flu; Judge; Doris's mother & family; That the trial is swift and that Eric will be free on Friday!"
At the Rivas exit on the morning of February 14, police searched my truck for weapons. In town, a two-block circumference around the courthouse was sealed off. I was patted again for weapons, given my press pass, and allowed to walk into the deserted heart of the downtown commercial district. Most of the businesses would keep their steel doors shut for the next three days.
The courtroom was small, frigid with air conditioning. The cramped gallery was separated from the prosecution and defense tables by a narrow wooden rail. Black-armored special-operations police blocked the door, while six armed national police were stationed at different points in the room. When Lésber Quintero, the Diario reporter, arrived, I sidled over to him and asked, "Lésber, why do you always use the word gringo instead of norteamericano or estadounidense?" Quintero blushed as everyone around us laughed. But he quickly found his footing. "Gringo, chele, norteamericano for us Nicaraguans it's all the same thing."
Soon enough, Volz and Chamorro arrived, and the cameras began flashing. Volz's lawyer, Ramón Rojas, would always be the best-dressed man in the room, save the three U.S. Embassy observers taking notes in the gallery corner. Volz wore a jean jacket, the outlines of a bulletproof vest visible underneath. Chamorro wore his bulletproof vest over a long-sleeved black shirt.
The proceedings opened with efforts by the prosecution, led by Isolda Ibarra Arguello, to establish the time of the crime. A university student who lived next door to Sol Fashion testified that he'd heard someone knocking on Jiménez's door at around 11:45 a.m., and two loud sounds like something heavy hitting the floor at around 1:00 p.m. Another neighbor said that Chamorro had been hanging around Jiménez recently and that something had happened between them. Five days before the murder, he told the court, he'd overheard an angry Chamorro say, "I don't give a damn about this Doris; she's a gringo chaser. She and her beauty can stay that way." Jiménez's mother and close friends testified that Volz was motivated by his jealousy, which increased, they claimed, when Jiménez told him about Armando Llanes. Mercedes Alvarado waved around a receipt from the Gran Diamante, crying out, "I don't need a million dollars. I need my daughter."
Other witnesses were brought forth to call Volz's alibi into question, including the Hertz delivery driver, Victor Morales, who testified that one of Volz's friends had asked him to say that he saw Volz at the EP office that day when he didn't, at which point the prosecution spoke at length about why Leidy de los Santos would have signed Volz's rental agreement. Chamorro was never called; the statement he would later recant did not factor into the trial in any significant way. Therefore the only witness tying Volz to the crime scene was Krusty Dangla. In testimony that made everyone in the courtroom laugh even the judge the excitable and often confused Dangla again and again couldn't follow simple directions to hold the microphone up to his mouth. The one coherent thing he managed to do was point his finger at Volz and say, "He gave me 50 cordobas."
"I may be an alcoholic," Dangla stood up at one point and said to Rojas, "but I'm not a liar!"
After declining to cross-examine nearly everyone but Dangla, to the groans of the U.S. Embassy observers, Rojas questioned the forensic witnesses. They explained that the misrecording of Volz's blood type was a typo and acknowledged that fluid from Jiménez's vagina and anus revealed no presence of semen. We also learned that, between the two forensic examinations, Jiménez's body had been partially embalmed, at her mother's request.
Court adjourned at 1:00 p.m. Alvarado, dressed in black, rushed outside to lead a mob of a hundred San Juan residents, calling the police "whores of the gringo" for keeping them back. Volz left the court as he arrived, protected by a Nicaraguan detail of Corporate Security Consultants bodyguards, including a Caucasian man carrying an AR-15 machine gun. The Diario would quickly run article after article asking why foreigners were carrying military arms in Nicaragua. That was the last time CSC guards appeared at the trial, though the damage had been done.
Back in San Juan, I found Dangla where I knew he would be: hanging with his friends outside his house. He was jubilant, laughing. On the stand, he had adamantly said that he did not know Jiménez at all beyond seeing her now and again. Now, back in town with his role in the trial over for him, he said something different. "Yeah, I knew her at the beach, when I'd pass her shop. I'd see her every day." Asked how he felt, Dangla said, "Very good. I didn't do anything. I have my version. [Eric] has his version. You'll have to talk to my lawyer."
The next day, February 15, Rojas presented the defense. Consensus among the embassy staff and the other two foreign reporters present was that the prosecution's case was too weak to have been brought in the first place. But the judge had tossed out all but three of Volz's witnesses as redundant, allowing him only Nick Purdy, the consultant; Ricardo Castillo, the journalist; and Rossy Estrada, the hairstylist. Purdy went first, testifying through a court translator that he'd been in phone and instant-message conversations with Volz throughout the time of the murder, which Castillo confirmed, testifying that he was actually in the EP office with Volz. A frightened Estrada testified that she cut Volz's hair. In the cross-examination, the prosecution hammered away at the point that both Castillo and Purdy had incentive to see Volz free, as they had business dealings with him.
Then Volz took the stand. He was calm and looked directly at the judge. He discussed his relationship with Jiménez in fluent Spanish. He talked about the competitiveness of the real estate market. When he described the $3 million an average San Juan real estate office made in annual sales, a ripple went through the gallery and a woman gasped, "In dollars?" Volz looked at the judge and said he was innocent. When Rojas asked him why Dangla was lying, he said he didn't know.
Then Rojas asked how he had gotten the marks on his shoulder. Again looking directly at the judge, Volz gave an answer that was wholly in keeping with the telenovela elements of the case: "I got it carrying Doris's casket at the funeral."
In the total 15 hours of the trial, less than 40 minutes would be spent on Chamorro. He wasn't called to the stand in his own defense or Volz's prosecution; when his lawyer demanded that his client be called by his legal name, not Rosita, the judge shook her head and smiled, "But that is how we Nicaraguans refer to each other." Chamorro kept a blank face as he watched his only witness, a bleached-blond surfer named Yamil "Coky" Brook Gonzales, testify that he and his Canadian girlfriend had eaten with Chamorro in the market from 9:00 a.m. to around 11:45 the day of the murder. During recesses, he would come to the rail and exchange hugs with his mother and aunt, who always brought a sweater for him, which he didn't wear. He didn't like his picture being taken, and menaced the photographers the first day. But by the second day, he seemed resigned to it.
Volz spent time during court breaks calmly talking to his lawyers; after the first day, he wore a heavy coat against the cold. No members of his family ever appeared in the courtroom; after what had happened at the arraignment, Maggie Anthony told me in Managua in March, they were afraid. Indeed, a terrified Nick Purdy looked at the door after being dismissed from his testimony and said, "I ain't going out on the street."
In closing statements, the prosecutors summarized their case. Nelson "Krusty" Dangla had seen Volz at the scene of the crime. The Hertz delivery driver's testimony and the rental agreement signed by Leidy de los Santos had called Volz's alibi into question. Blood typing had found both A and O on the sheets used to hog-tie Jiménez; Jiménez and Volz were type A, Chamorro type O. The first forensic examiner found evidence of rape and sodomy. Cell-phone records could not prove Volz was the one using the phone, the prosecution claimed, nor could instant messages. And then there were Volz's injuries. "How can one be scratched by a coffin while wearing a shirt?" the prosecutor asked. The judge looked at the picture of Volz's shoulder, case photo number 21, for a long time.
Rojas presented an impassioned closing statement. Point by point, he went through the prosecution's evidence, highlighting the changes in the original charges, the scratches on Dangla, the conflicting findings about sodomy and rape, the shoddy police-lab work, which included Volz's incorrect blood typing as well as the failure to collect testable material from under Jiménez's fingernails, though her fingers showed signs of defensive injuries. He talked about the credibility of Purdy and Castillo, about the phone records. His voice rose to a crescendo as he slammed the national-police laboratory. About the marks on Volz's shoulder, he said, "Of course that could happen he has white skin." (Later, Mercedes Alvarado would play me a DVD of the funeral. The video shows the sharp edge of Jiménez's coffin resting on Volz's shoulder.)
Just as Rojas was about to finish, there was a sudden commotion, and the special-operations officers barricaded the door with their bodies. A court clerk shouted, "There is shooting outside!"
"Nobody leaves the room," the judge said, and everyone flipped open their cell phones. Jiménez's mother held out hers for us all to hear the shouts of the mob confronting the riot police, which sounded as chaotic as it should. It was amid this tension that the case concluded. Volz's final statement was "Nicaragua has a lot of heart. I believe in her justice." Chamorro said, "God knows I was not there." The judge told the court she'd have a verdict in two hours.
It was hot outside; the street was a shoulder-to-shoulder line of riot police in armor, helmets, and shields. Halfway up the block was another line of blue-uniformed national police, and facing them was an angry crowd of hundreds. I had only two real questions left: Would the judge find a way to convict Chamorro even though she would have to let Volz go? And how violent would the mob get?
Security for the 4 p.m. verdict was tighter than it had ever been. A wooden fence had been placed in the hall upstairs, and the riot police made us wait behind it until the accused had taken their seats. The folding chairs in the gallery had been removed so that now the space seemed like a pen. The judge did not come in until 4:15. Then she sat and began to speak.
What I can say is this: The reading of the verdict was long and theatrical. Judge Toruño went through the charges against the two men in a loud and emphatic way, rolling her r's just a touch longer than necessary, letting the names of the accused settle around us in their length. The cameras rolled; it would certainly play out well on local television, which it soon did. The judge threw out Purdy's testimony, because he was in Virginia during the phone call. She threw out the cell-phone records because she said they didn't prove Volz's physical location. She said Ricardo Castillo wasn't credible; she said Dangla was. She admitted that the police lab had done a terrible job and chastised them for it. And then she said two things to Volz. "You were in Managua at 5 p.m. and arrived in San Juan at 6:30. You want me to believe that you can move around very fast." And as far as the scratches on his shoulder were concerned, she said, "You can't get scratches from a coffin." Volz hung his head. Chamorro was stoic.
Judge Toruño pronounced both defendants guilty. The prosecutor asked for the maximum penalty for both men, 30 years. Alvarado burst into tears and said, "Thank God! Thank God! This is what a mother wanted not a million dollars, but justice," as the cameras flashed and rolled. I passed Chamorro's mother in the hall as I left. "It's better this way," she whispered. "It's better that it's both of them."
Outside on the street, the mob was jubilant. Jiménez's uncle pointed his finger at the sky and said, "This is justice for our small town, for Nicaragua, and for all of Central America!" As Volz and Chamorro were hustled into waiting police trucks, the crowd hung off the walls of the surrounding buildings, whistling and shouting that one word: "Justice!"
Early on the morning of Tuesday, March 27, I sat in a rental car in the parkinglot of the Modelo National Penitentiary, just outside the town of Tipitapa, 30 minutes east of Managua. A half-dozen dusty boys, their hands and faces pressed to the windows, waited for me to get out so they could "guard" my car for a tip. This was my fourth attempt to get into the prison in two weeks; what was different about today was that I finally had a letter from Judge Toruño extending me access to visit Volz, for which I'd had to lobby all the way to the office of a Supreme Court magistrate. Meanwhile, the first international TV crews, from Dateline and the Today show, had arrived in Nicaragua. Outside the warden's office, seven or eight of them were already waiting their turn to see Volz.
I'd been thinking a lot about Doris Jiménez, about what dark thing descended on her that November day. On March 16, her family commemorated her birthday at the San Juan cemetery. A mariachi band played a haunting traditional song, "Very Pretty Doris," as her relatives tearfully decorated her grave with plastic flowers and ribbons. While I still disagreed with Alvarado that Volz killed her daughter, I understood her sorrow, her furious desire to see someone pay for this crime.
Entering the Modelo grounds, I saw industrial penitentiary buildings in need of paint. Barbed-wire-crowned walls surrounded the facility, punctuated here and there with towers manned by armed guards. A line of older women were waiting to enter the grounds, carrying plastic shopping bags of toilet paper, rice, and beans. From somewhere, I could hear the echo of men singing.
I was led into a spartan office; Volz was waiting at the desk. He wore a blue Hurley baseball cap and a black T-shirt with the letters ep embossed in green; he'd placed a small voice recorder on the desktop. We shook hands and sat in folding chairs; a guard observed us from a chair in the corner. Volz was calm and collected. He began our interview with this statement: "I've been misquoted a lot; that's why I'm recording... I have an army of attorneys that are willing to step up in any way that I ask. So it's not a threat, but I just want that to be understood."
Over the next two hours, Volz and I talked about the case, about his relationship with Jiménez, about his hopes for the appeals process and his future. (Ramón Rojas filed Volz's appeal shortly after the verdict; by press time, in mid-April, the Rivas court had sent the paperwork up to the appellate court in Granada, where three judges were expected to rule on the case by the end of the month. If Volz's conviction was upheld, the final decision will be decided by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court.) "The best-case scenario for Nicaragua right now is to undo the injustice, release me, absolve me, continue the investigation, and find the real killers," Volz said. "And ultimately, I should be compensated. I've lost a lot. I've worked for two years really hard, and as soon as I get released, I've got to leave the country."
When the verdict was read, he recalls, "Oh, man, it was a horrible feeling. It's just a dark, dark place that I've gone to on several different occasions. You just have to... you close your eyes, just have faith, and you pray." He has a cellmate. Like all of Modelo's 2,000 prisoners, they are locked in their cells from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. The rest of the time, the penitentiary keeps a guard near him; he worries about his safety. While still in police custody, he told me, he'd been tortured, but he refused to elaborate. The federal pen was better; still, he said that he had told his mother, "If I die in here and they say it's suicide, don't believe it."
Volz rejected the San Juan rumor that if he wasn't the actual killer, then he must have contracted Jiménez's murder. "It's a town that is hurt," he explained. "Collectively they want to fill their heart with somebody who's the culprit. I didn't pay to have Doris killed; I had nothing to do with her death. I'm one of the people that has been most hurt by it."
The experience had, obviously, changed him. "I'm stripped down," he said. "Day-to-day life in prison is just that: day to day. There's days that I feel confident, I feel good, I get exercise, I get to go out in the yard. And there's days that I don't feel good ... Even the strongest person eventually it gets to you." He relies, he said, on the letters he receives from friends and strangers alike. "People tell me they're in the grocery store looking at which kind of juice to buy and they think about me," he said. "They all of a sudden feel very appreciative for what they have... Those are the kind of things that really make me feel this is not all for nothing. Yeah, Eric Volz is a man in prison, but Doris is the one who lost her life. It's been really hard for me that she's been lost in this tailspin of cultural and political this divide."
Finally, the guard told us to wrap it up a film crew was waiting outside. "I'm a warrior," Volz told me. "It's prison, man. Survival of the fittest."
There was one last person I wanted to see: Rosita Chamorro. He was being held in the Granada penitentiary, a facility off the highway that houses 800 prisoners on small grounds. Once the guards approved my papers, I walked past long cement buildings, the barred windows revealing prisoners in hammocks, clothes and towels hanging everywhere. At the far end of the yard, I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by inmates, no guards in sight. I entered a narrow corridor, passing the prison chapel, where 50 men prayed, and came out into an area busy with prisoners. A uniformed guard, the only one there, pointed me down a flight of stairs and into a long, dark room, where I could make out the tall and imposing figure of Chamorro.
Alone in the room, we sat together on a bench. Chamorro seemed much affected by prison life, often to the point of tears. "It's hard to be in here," he told me. "I have a lot of enemies... They steal my money, my food. Right now I have nothing... Thirty years, they say to me: 30 years, 30 years, 30 years."
Indeed, prisoners looking down through the barred door at the top of the stairs whistled at us; one of them barked. Chamorro is being held in an overcrowded dormitory cell; the 53 men of his wing, he said, share two toilets. Again with great emotion Chamorro told me, "I don't know who killed [Doris], but I know that it wasn't me. I can never go back to my town. Little town, big hell... It's like San Juan doesn't exist for me anymore."
As his lawyer had told me, Chamorro recanted the statement that Volz had offered him $5,000 to go to Sol Fashion. "I was tortured by the police," he said. "They hit me and hit me." Does he think Volz is guilty? "I can't say," he replied. "I can't decide justice for another person." What about his friend Krusty Dangla? "A friend?" Chamorro laughed. "An enemy. We were arrested together, he went free. He's laughing out there. He had scratches. Why didn't they put him in jail?" When I asked if he had any message for Dangla, Chamorro nodded slowly. "Walk carefully," he said. "One day I'll leave here... Watch yourself."
When the guards called time, Chamorro and I exchanged a hug. He asked me to say hello to his family, and if I could give him a little money to buy a soft drink, he'd like that. His voice broke again as he told me, "Don't ever in your life let this happen to you."
As I left, I thought back to Modelo and the last moments I spent with Volz. Our time was drawing to a close, and I would soon walk out into the bright day, while Volz would not.
"Do you think this could happen to anyone?" I asked him.
He nodded. "Yeah. Oh yeah. And it has."