Books: Gringo Nightmare

An American imprisoned for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in a Nicaraguan surf town finally clears the air—sort of.

Apr 26, 2010
Outside Magazine
The bay at San Juan del Sur

The bay at San Juan del Sur    Photo: Photograph by Jason Florio

Gringo Nightmare, by Eric Volz

Gringo Nightmare, by Eric Volz

ERIC VOLZ HAS BEEN AN ENIGMA to me ever since I met him in Nicaragua's Modelo prison in early 2007. He'd been convicted of the rape and murder of his Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend, Doris Jiménez, and sentenced to 30 years' hard time. I'd spent months investigating the case for Outside and was certain of Volz's innocence. He knew this when we met, and still he was elusive—referring to himself in the third person, lamenting how much money the situation had cost him, reluctant to express empathy for the dead girl, pitching story ideas about staying fit in jail. With the international press descending on the story, this was a bewildering tack to take.

Volz was eventually exonerated and released after 13 long months of confinement, illness, and abuse. Now, he tells his own story in Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua (St. Martin's Press, $26), a tough tale of survival against long odds. Volz portrays himself as an altruist who went to Nicaragua to help the people and to connect with his grandparents' Central American roots. The truth is more complicated: Though he fell in love with Nica­ragua, he participated in the local gringo real-estate frenzy and turned a gritty community newsletter into a glossy lifestyle magazine. By openly living with Jiménez, he interposed himself into the conservative seaside town of San Juan del Sur in ways few outsiders would dare. After her death, Volz played lead investigator, getting in police officials' faces before they arrested him.

Volz walks us through his ordeal in clear, engaging prose, focusing on the trial and the challenges of daily life in rank Central American prisons. His struggles to carve a niche for himself among actual murderers are tense and awful, and his ultimate release and flight from Nicaragua are nothing short of harrowing. But the memoir is most surprising in what it doesn't reveal: any real change in the author. Volz spills a surprising amount of ink, for example, launching barbs at NBC's Dateline, which ran an unflattering segment on him in 2007. (He calls the host, Keith Morrison, "a blow-dried correspondent in designer jeans.") The vitriol doesn't end there. In obliquely accusing another man of Jiménez's murder, despite a lack of hard evidence, Volz commits an ironic rush to judgment. After all, it was hasty arrow-slinging on the part of the Nicaraguan authorities that incarcerated him. This is the man I met in prison—innocent beyond any doubt, but blind to his own role in bringing this nightmare on himself.