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Loyal Doberman led police to body of former Pinellas woman in Panama

The dog wouldn't stop barking.

It was mid July, on a property in Panama owned by a man named "Wild" Bill Cortez. Cortez was suspected of having an illegal gun, an AK-47. Authorities were there to search the home.

But as they worked, a chocolate Doberman named Jackie wouldn't stop pestering them.

Jackie belonged to a woman named Cheryl Lynn Hughes, a 53-year-old American expatriate who had a house about a mile and a half away. Hughes, who moved to Panama from Pinellas County 10 years ago and founded a hotel business, had been missing for three months.

Cortez was suspected of having something to do with her disappearance.

"It was like something out of a … movie," said Don Winner, who was hired by Hughes' family to help find her. "The dog would come out, bark at them and then go back into the woods."

Eventually, authorities decided to follow the dog, which led them to a mound of dirt.

They started digging. They found a body.

It was Hughes'.

• • •

Judy Barber last heard from her sister in March.

The two women, both blond and blue-eyed, were close. Hughes, known to most as Cher, was the oldest of five kids who grew up in St. Louis.

The pair moved to Pinellas County 25 years ago, and Hughes opened a sign business in Gulfport. Hughes at one point took a trip to Panama with friends and fell in love with the country. An adventurous spirit, she later decided to move there.

Barber planned to visit her sister's island home in Panama for the first time this summer.

"She was going to show me all the sights," said Barber, 47, a loan processor who lives with her husband in St. Petersburg. "We talked, texted, e-mailed, all the time. … And then she just didn't call."

Hughes' family and friends filed a missing person's report, tried to reach her on her cell phone and through her Facebook page.

Eventually, they heard from Cortez, who claimed to be an investor and a Realtor.

Cortez told the family Hughes had sold him all her property, then left Panama to go sailing.

"I didn't believe it," Barber said. "She was adventurous, but she'd never go for more than a few weeks without calling."

Prosecutors in the area where Hughes disappeared never opened an official investigation, even though locals started to suspect foul play.

Friend Joe Bonerigo, a 48-year-old expat, decided to swing by her place to take a look.

He saw three of her four dogs, including Jackie. It gave him a bad feeling.

"Cher would not leave her dogs," he said in a phone interview from Panama. "Her dogs were her babies."

• • •

After official channels failed to find her, the family turned to Don Winner, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who lives in Panama and runs a website about the country called panama-guide.com.

Winner started investigating in June.

He found that another American expatriate, Bo Icelar, also had disappeared recently. His property also ended up in the hands of Cortez.

Just like Hughes'.

Using government sources, Winner discovered neither Icelar nor Hughes had left the country through the airport using passports.

"It was highly unlikely that two separate individuals are both going to exit the country illegally," Winner told the St. Petersburg Times by phone from Panama. "One person, maybe. Two people? No way."

Winner suspected both were killed by Cortez. He took the information to the attorney general's office and walked them through what he discovered.

The next week, Hughes' sister and aunt went to Panama and met with Winner and authorities.

With a tip procured by Winner that Cortez may have an AK-47 on his property — an illegal weapon in Panama — authorities issued search warrants. By the time they showed up, Cortez was gone.

But the dog, Jackie, was there, refusing to leave.

Authorities and media reports have backed up Winner's story about the Doberman leading officials to the body.

A friend of Hughes' in Panama is now caring for Jackie and the other dogs.

• • •

Cortez is an alias. His real name is William Dothan Holbert. He is a 30-year-old born in North Carolina. He ran a landscaping business about six years ago before filing for bankruptcy and divorcing his wife.

North Carolina authorities say he once ran the Southern National Patriots, a white supremacist group. He's wanted in that state on charges that he sold a house he didn't own for $200,000. Authorities are now looking through cold cases to see if Holbert could be involved in any North Carolina murders.

Before Panamanian authorities searched his home, Holbert went to Costa Rica with his wife, Winner said. After the bodies were found, his face was plastered all over Central American newspapers and television.

Authorities caught him and his 27-year-old wife, Laura Michelle Reese, on July 26 as they were trying to cross the Nicaraguan border.

Panamanian officials told the Associated Press that Holbert has admitted killing five Americans, including Icelar and Hughes. The three others were a family: a husband, a wife and their young son. Authorities found the bodies.

In all the deaths, authorities said, Holbert got close to people with money or property, killed them and took what they owned.

• • •

Hughes' family has struggled to cope with her death, though they take comfort in the fact that Holbert has been caught.

"It's all so surreal. She was taken away so ruthlessly," said Doug Barber, Hughes' brother-in-law. "He's a sick man. There aren't words. … There'll never be enough justice."

This evening, Hughes' family and friends will gather at the Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach. They plan to share stories, celebrate her life and release balloons on the beach, her sister said.

"I'm blessed to have had a sister like her … one who lived life to the fullest."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643. Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8087.

Loyal Doberman led police to body of former Pinellas woman in Panama 08/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 12:23am]

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