Produced by Chris O’Connell
Yvonne Baldelli disappeared from a tropical Panamanian island in 2011. The last person to see her alive was her ex-Marine boyfriend, Brian Brimager.
Her family began to suspect foul play and eventually murder. “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant has been reporting on this case for five years -- from the jungles of Panama to the beaches of Southern California - - and reveals the stunning conclusion of an international mystery.
In the spring of 2012, Brian Brimager was living the high life in Southern California. Just months removed from a decorated Marine Corps career, Brimager was happily married and living in the suburbs.
“When I look at the pictures of Brian and Kristin I just see a couple in love and -- and super sincerely happy and just enjoying the day at the beach in La Jolla,” said photographer Jack English.
The joyful newlywed photos of Brian and Kristen Brimager were a shock to Yvonne Baldelli’s family. They expected her to be in the picture.
“…they came in their wedding attire, in a limousine and champagne flowin,” said English.
English had no idea of the intrigue behind the happy images -- that Brimager had proposed to Kristin just days after Yvonne disappeared in Panama.
“She looked very happy, very in love, as if she found her Prince Charming,” said English.
Prince Charming? A man who had just left Yvonne Baldelli in Panama two weeks earlier? How could this happen? “48 Hours” travelled to the remote islands off Caribbean coast of Panama to find out.
Yvonne Baldelli and Brimager, who the locals called “Brim,” came to live in the island of Carenero in September 2011. It’s a place, where they could chase their dream.
“Why did they decide to go to Panama?” Van Sant asked Yvonne’s sister, Michele Valenzuela.
“She liked the fact that they could live on the beach ... you know, it’s -- pretty reasonably priced down there,” she replied.
Valenzuela says Brimager wanted to become a singer, performing in bars and clubs. With her beloved dog Georgia Mae in hand, Yvonne brought two sewing machines in hopes of starting a clothing business.
“She was gonna make bathing suits and sell ‘em to tourists. ... I knew she was excited. ... And she ... didn’t have any reservations,” said Yvonne’s stepmother, Lillian Faust.
“It sounded like she had a real plan for the future,” said Van Sant.
“She did. And she thought that she found her paradise, her perfect place,” Lillian Faust replied.
Valenzuela recalls how her younger sister Yvonne, recently divorced, was smitten with Brimager when they first started dating in 2009 in Southern California.
“I think she was physically attracted to him. That was a big part of it,” she said.
And while Yvonne seemed to be falling in love with Brimager, big sister Michele wasn’t so sure.
“As far as -- emotionally for my sister ... Yvonne would put 100 percent into you. And she would expect that back. And I didn’t get that impression that she was receiving that. And that concerned me,” Valenzuela explained. “She deserved that.”
After Yvonne was laid off from her management job with Proctor and Gamble and Brimager ended his career in the Marines, the two decided to make a fresh start and reinvent themselves in Panama. They found a house to rent and quickly fell in with the local expats.
Joan and Steven Crabtree own the Cosmic Crab -- a funky resort and waterfront bar where Brimager would sing for his supper. They said the couple seemed to be in love.
“He played here at the Cosmic Crab -- a couple a nights a week. And they were frequent visitors here,” said Joan Crabtree.
Penny Tom, owner of another waterfront bar, also let Brimager play for food and free booze -- lots of booze.
“Oh. They were very nice people,” Tom said. “They used to drink a lot. So they were always happy.”
“What’s a lot?” Van Sant asked Tom.
“A lot,” she replied.
Jim Mertens said Brimager’s drinking may have gotten in the way of his singing.
“He played the guitar good, but when he started to sing, that’s when it went away,” said Mertens.
Asked what it sounded like, Mertens told Van Sant, “Like a hound dog on a porch.”
For Yvonne’s father, Jim Faust, the constant stream of joyful phone calls and emails describing the couple’s Panama adventures was reassuring.
“She looked very happy in the pictures and she was really enjoying herself there. And I -- I knew it would be a place that she would like,” he said.
“Yvonne’s e-mails were stories of exactly what her life was like down there. And I could picture it,” Valenzuela said. “And I could close my eyes, and it -- it was like I was there. I could imagine the whole thing.”
E-mails like this one: “’Hi sis ... Brian already working at local restaurants and bars,’” Valenzuela read aloud. “We love it! We wake up and go running then swim in the ocean every morning.”
So Yvonne’s family thought all was well in paradise and that Brian Brimager might be the one for her.
“I believed that they were gonna get married. That’s what I thought was gonna happen when they got down there,” said Lillian Faust.
But then, right around Thanksgiving 2011, three months after they arrived in Panama, the happy e-mails and calls from Yvonne started to drop off. For Valenzuela, a sisterly instinct started to kick in.
“That’s what set me off ... was the fact that -- they were coming less frequent, the e-mails from her. And then they stopped completely,” she told Van Sant.
Two weeks passed. Then, on December 14, Valenzuela finally got a text. But it wasn’t from Yvonne.
“There was a number I didn’t recognize, and a text message on there said, ‘This is Brian. May I make arrangements to pick up my truck?’” she said.
Valenzuela was shocked. Brian Brimager was back in the U.S.?
“I sat up, called that number. The -- only thing outta my mouth was, ‘Where’s my sister?’” Valenzuela said. “He says, ‘Didn’t you get my e-mail?’ I said, ‘I haven’t received any e-mails from anybody. It’s been a few weeks.’ I said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ So I went to my computer.”
Michele Valenzuela discovered an e-mail she had overlooked. It was from Brimager, who had never written before.
“The one from him stated, ‘I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Vonnie and I are no longer together.’ ... I called him right back,” she said. “So I asked him … point blank, ‘What happened?’ And he said they had got in a fight because she had found out that he had a child from somebody else.”
That somebody else? Kristin Werkhoven. The two had a baby girl in 2010. Since Yvonne was unable to have a child because of a medical condition, the discovery must have been earth shattering. Brimager then said Yvonne just up and left.
“I said, ‘Did she leave a note?’ ‘No.’ ‘Has she tried to call you since?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know where she’s at?’ ‘No,’” Valenzuela recalled. “And I said, ‘I haven’t heard from her, Brian.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m sure she’s fine.’”
But Valenzuela had her doubts about that story. And 10 days later when Brimager called and he still wanted to pick up his truck, Valenzuela said she had another plan.
“I said, ‘When you come to pick up the truck, I’ll be here. That’s not a problem. And … I think it’s a good idea that you go with me to the police department, since you’re the last one to see her and we can fill out a missing persons report,’” she said. “’Cause now we’re already to mid-December ... and I haven’t heard anything from her. And that’s not right. Something’s wrong.”
A FAMILY WORRIES
In December 2011, Michele Valenzuela was still worried about her missing sister. So she went back to her computer where she found another overlooked message. This one from Yvonne:
“’Hi sis. Just an update. Brian and I are no longer together,” Valenzuela read aloud. “’I should have trusted my instincts that he is a lying, cheating ass---- ... I’m headed to Costa Rica with a man I met when we first got to Bocas.’”
“What’d you think when you read this e-mail?” Van Sant asked.
“I just wasn’t sure. There’s some things in there that didn’t feel right to me,” Valenzuela replied.
Her head was spinning. Could Yvonne really have run off with another man after learning that Brian Brimager had a love child?
“All Yvonne ever wanted to do was be a mother. That’s all she ever wanted to do was be a mother. And to find out that Brian had a child ... and, you know, she sold everything she had to go to the other ends of the world to be with this man, and he didn’t tell her about that?” Valenzuela told Van Sant. “I’m questioning what her mental state is right now. She’s heartbroken.”
In upstate New York, Jim and Lillian Faust also felt that turn of events was just so out of character for their daughter.
“For her life to change so abruptly, and she’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m going with this guy, and ... to Costa Rica. That made absolutely, positively no sense to me,” said Lillian Faust.
Also making no sense - three weeks had passed since Yvonne Baldelli had e-mailed from Panama. But then, out of the blue, she sent a new e-mail. It was strange:
“’Miss you and everyone at home. ...I’m starting to get a little homesick. I’m working on plans to get home as early as the second week of January,’” Valenzuela read aloud. “I’ve been living with cliffhangers for a while. Love you sis, Yvonne.’”
While strange, the e-mail was also reassuring for her family, who was happy to learn Yvonne would soon return to California.
“So I stopped worrying. I figured, OK. She knows that in January we’re having a family get together. She’s gonna be there,” said Jim Faust.
“Do you feel she’s safe at this point?” Van Sant asked Valenzuela.
“I was still worried but I -- I was satisfied with it for the moment,” she replied.
On the same day that e-mail arrived, so did Brian Brimager -- knocking on the front door of Valenzuela’s L.A. home to pick up his truck.
“What did you see on his face? What was his demeanor like?” Van Sant asked.
“He was just in a hurry. He was calm,” Valenzuela replied. “It was very brief.”
“All business,” Van Sant noted. “Get his stuff, get his truck--”
“Yes,” Valenzuela said. “And leave.”
After Brimager got his pickup truck, Yvonne’s e-mails stopped. Sixteen long days passed until, on Jan. 6, 2012, Valenzuela wrote to her sister. The subject: “Worried.”
“’I just wanna make sure you weren’t kidnapped or someone pretending to be you. Ha ha. There’s my paranoid, suspicious mind or maybe too many ‘48 Hours,’” she wrote to Yvonne.
Asked if she ever heard back from Yvonne, Valenzuela said, “No. That’s the last e-mail.”
Michele Valenzuela was still hopeful that Yvonne would appear at that family reunion. But she never showed up.
“Well, at that point ... When we met up with my dad and I told him, ‘We haven’t heard from her,’ he said, ‘Oh no, something’s wrong. Something’s wrong,’” she said. “And I told my dad ... ‘She did not leave Panama. That’s just my feeling.’”
By now, Valenzuela was convinced her sister never ran off to Costa Rica with another man. So her instinct was to learn where Yvonne’s e-mails were really coming from.
“So I went to my cousin and asked him to please check it out. ...’Cause, like I said -- I haven’t got a clue,” said Valenzuela.
The cousin, a technology whiz, said tracking Yvonne’s e-mails would be easy. All he needed was their IP addresses. So he searched the e-mails Yvonne had supposedly sent from Panama and Costa Rica, as well as that e-mail Brimager had sent from Dana Point, California.
The cousin made a startling discovery.
“The ones from Panama came from Panama ... And then the one that was supposed to be with her being in Costa Rica came from the United States,” Valenzuela told Van Sant. “One of them looked like they were coming from Dana Point, and also Brian’s e-mail was coming from Dana Point.”
Valenzuela said that e-mail originated from where Brimager was now living near Dana Point, California. It was the evidence she had been looking for.
“They were sharing the same IP address,” she said.
“So Yvonne’s e-mail is coming from Brian’s computer,” Van Sant noted.
“Yes,” Valenzuela replied.
The family’s worst fear had come true: it appeared Brimager had hacked into Yvonne’s e-mail account and was impersonating her. But why?
“That’s when I knew that he did something to her,” said Lillian Faust.
“It’s not missing person. It’s murder now,” said Van Sant.
“It’s murder,” said Lillian.
“I said, ‘My sister’s dead and I’m never gonna see her again,’” said Valenzuela.
But Valenzuela had no time to mourn. She took that new evidence down to the FBI, where she met with Special Agent Andrew Masters.
“Michele Valenzuela … she is a spitfire,” Masters said. “When … they brought that to us, we knew that there is absolutely foul play involved.”
The FBI immediately launched an investigation into Yvonne’s disappearance, with Masters taking charge. Yvonne’s family then contacted the State Department.
“I called the embassy, and the embassy tells us there is ... no record of her ever leaving Panama, and no record of her ever entering Costa Rica,” said Lillian Faust.
Yvonne’s family couldn’t wait any longer. They travelled to Panama to find answers. The FBI made a move as well, targeting Brian Brimager as a person of interest.
“Brian didn’t realize-- what exactly the FBI is capable of,” said Masters.
THE SEARCH FOR YVONNE
With the FBI investigation under way in the states, Yvonne’s family met up with legendary investigator Don Winner in Panama City.
“Why is it when something goes bad with an American citizen in Panama you get the phone call?” Van Sant asked Winner.
“I’ve already put away or helped to put away -- three serial killers,” he replied. “So when bad things happen they know that -- to come to me when -- when they don’t know what else to do.”
Winner is an ex-U.S. intelligence officer with an uncanny ability to solve murders. Jim and Lillian Faust tell Winner the story of their daughter’s disappearance and Brian Brinager’s claim that she’s run off with another man.
“I think the chances that she’s running around in Costa Rica somewhere with some other dude are damn near zero,” said Winner.
It’s not the first time Winner, a CBS News consultant, has worked on a case with “48 Hours.” The intrepid investigator helped solve the murder of American sailor Don North as “48 Hours” reported in 2011.
“Just on a personal side of in all of this ... can you believe you and I are doing this again?” Van Sant asked Winner.
“No. Absolutely not,” he replied with a laugh. “I tell you what. It’s -- it’s amazing.”
Winner is convinced Brian Brimager is involved. His strategy? Put pressure on the Panamanian government to act.
“Because when Don Winner speaks ...” Van Sant noted to the Fausts.
“The people listen...” Jim said. “Yeah.”
Winner’s game plan also called for Jim Faust and Michele Valenzuela to give blood for DNA tests should any remains be found.
And when Yvonne’s family traveled hundreds of miles from Panama City to the tropical island where she disappeared, the Panamanian police were persuaded to hold a press conference to plead for information.
“The family has been experiencing a living nightmare for -- quite a few months,” an emotional Jim Faust addressed reporters, “and we continue to appeal to anyone who knows absolutely anything about Yvonne’s disappearance to come forward.”
Panamanian police announce for the first time that Yvonne is the victim of foul play and name Brian Brimager as the suspect. The news conference reverberated around the world.
Riding the momentum of the press conference, the family printed flyers, fanned out to neighborhoods and the village, searching for their own clues.
For Yvonne’s niece, Lauren Beyer, it was a bittersweet search in a place that is no longer a paradise.
“There’s nothing here for us until we find her. That’s why we’re here,” said Beyer.
The family’s quest started to get results. Witnesses who knew the couple came out of the woodwork, describing Brimager’s verbal and physical abuse.
“To me ... he was a scary person,” Jeff Salzman, a local bar owner, said. “He was -- not the kind of person I wanted to be around.”
Salzman saw it firsthand on Yvonne’s face.
“As I recall, it was black eyes and -- and blackness around the face and -- and bruises,” he said.
“Was she self-conscious about it?” Van Sant asked Salzman.
“She was trying to hide it and -- and not speak of it,” he replied.
“It was very painful to learn ... that he had hit her ... that she had bruises, that she had black eyes,” Lillian Faust said. “Those things were very difficult to learn.”
“I mean, Yvonne was such a part of our life and then to see a place where such torture may have happened to her ... it just breaks my heart,” her father said.
Where could her body have been dumped? Just feet in front of the house she shared with Brimager, there’s thousands of square miles of water. Just 20 yards from the shoreline, there’s an impenetrable swamp.
Yvonne’s family, investigators and volunteers set out to find her -- entering what could be her swampy graveyard.
“Describe this area that has to be searched? Just how difficult a place is it?” Van Sant asked Winner.
“OK ... it’s jungle. It’s tropical ... also you have every kind of bug and critter that you can think of,” Winner said. “Spiders and snakes and, you know ... it’s not a place to go sloggin’ around through.”
Struggling through the muck, the spiders and the rancid water, the smallest discovery raises hope: a purse, a medicine bottle, a mysterious sinkhole.
“I kept asking myself, ‘I wanna find Yvonne, but do I wanna find Yvonne?’ I mean, I wanna know where she is. But do I wanna see her in these swampy areas?” said Lillian Faust.
Then, they find a U.S. passport.
None of it is Yvonne’s. But back in the United States, the FBI confronted Brian Brimager.
“We went and -- knocked on his door. He answered, and -- and invited us in, said that he was expecting us,” said FBI Special Agent Andrew Masters.
Masters questioned Brimager for more than four hours while he babysat his young daughter.
“We weren’t sure if he was gonna break down and confess to having a part in her disappearance and murder-- or if he was going to become angry, if he was gonna kick us out,” said Masters.
Brimager stuck to his story: Yvonne left him for another man:
Brian Brimager: Yeah, uh, so … I come back home, and there was a note that said, and I quote, um, ‘Going to Costa Rica with a man I have been talking to,’ um, ‘F you asshole.’”
But when confronted with Michele Valenzuela’s email evidence, Brimager began to stumble:
Special Agent Masters: Brian, I am just going to try to lay it out there man. The IP addresses are not coming back from Costa Rica or Panama.
Brian Brimager: OK.
Special Agent Masters: They are coming back from here.
Brian Brimager: Here?
Special Agent Masters: Um hmm. Ok, so if she is not hanging out around here, then somebody, somebody sent those emails, right? How did those emails get sent?
Brian Brimager: You know anybody that would have her email account? Hacked into her account?
Special Agent Masters: No.
Then, something caught Masters’ eye.
“…as soon as I walk in … I see a white Sony Vaio,” Masters said of the laptop computer. “And … we knew that Yvonne owned a white Sony Vaio laptop that she had taken with her to Panama.”
“And what are you thinkin’?” Van Sant asked.
“I’m thinkin’, ‘We may very well have Yvonne’s computer right here,’” Masters replied.
Masters’ hunch was spot on. It was Yvonne’s computer. But why was it in Brimager’s condo, and would it help unravel the mystery of Yvonne’s disappearance?
PORTRAIT OF A SUSPECT
Even though he was under the FBI’S microscope, Brian Brimager remained a free man living with his family on the outskirts of San Diego. Kristin worked for a defense contractor, while Brimager, unemployed, spent much of his time… golfing.
In the summer of 2012, “48 Hours” showed Yvonne’s sister, Michele Valenzuela, video of Brimager’s new life.
“What goes through your mind when you see him?” Van Sant asked.
“Well, honestly ... It’s not surprising now that I know what he’s capable of,” Valenzuela replied. “He thinks he got away with murder. ...So what you have here is a person, killed my sister ... and can walk away scot free.”
Just a few months after that FBI interview, “48 Hours” came face-to-face with the suspected killer.
“Brian? Peter Van Sant with CBS News. We’d like to ask you a couple of questions. Could you please talk to us?” Van Sant questioned Brimager. “Did you murder Yvonne Baldelli? You can speak to us, you can answer that question. Brian, why won’t you speak with us? Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?”
While Brimager ignored Van Sant’s questions and headed off to enjoy another carefree day on the greens, the FBI was turning his life upside down interviewing everyone he knew, including his wife, Kristin.
“What had Brian told her about why he was living in Panama?” Van Sant asked Masters.
“He told Kristin that he is going down to Panama to decompress from -- after leaving the Marine Corps,” he replied.
“Did Kristin urge Brian to leave Yvonne?” Van Sant asked.
“No. Kristin didn’t even know Yvonne existed,” said Masters.
“So he lied to Kristin?”
“Absolutely,” said Masters.
Apparently, all those lies didn’t matter to Kristin.
“According to her, Brian is the greatest thing-- to ever happen to anybody,” Masters continued.
But that’s something she didn’t want to share when “48 Hours” knocked on her door.
Meanwhile, as Special Agent Masters took several investigative trips to Panama, a different portrait of Brian Brimager emerged.
“We talked to -- many people,” Masters said. “And we learned about all the -- domestic violence – that -- that he brought upon her. The choking, the … the dragging. The berating.”
After speaking with friends and neighbors of Yvonne and Brimager, Special Agent Masters became certain the couple had a violent fight on Nov. 26, 2011, after Yvonne learned that Brian had fathered a child with Kristin.
“The argument,” Masters said, “probably escalated. And at some point Brian decided he was done with her, and he was gonna kill her.”
Crucial evidence was also discovered on Yvonne’s laptop -- the very computer Masters saw when he first questioned Brimager. About two weeks before her murder, Yvonne took a disturbing selfie.
“That photo shows a massive black eye on her left eye, and swelling in her left cheek,” said Masters.
“In a way, from the grave, Yvonne helped you in this investigation?” Van Sant asked.
“Yvonne helped us tell the story, yes. Absolutely,” Masters affirmed.
And there was more chilling evidence.
“We found the -- the Yahoo searches in which he searches, ‘How to remove blood from a mattress?’” said Masters.
“When did he do that?” Van Sant asked.
“He did that about 10:30 in the morning the night after Yvonne was murdered,” Masters replied.
Masters discovered even more evidence in Costa Rica, where Brimager is seen withdrawing cash from Yvonne’s account.
“And we were able to obtain those ATM photos. So we have Brian using the -- Yvonne’s debit card to extract money from her account,” he explained.
And Masters says there is no doubt Brimager used Yvonne’s laptop to send those emails to her family. So “48 Hours” went looking for Brian Brimager again to get answers.
“Brian, I need to talk with you. How do you explain the fact that Yvonne’s email that said she was in Costa Rica that she sent to people was actually sent by you, from here in California. Can you answer that? You knew she was dead when you sent that email didn’t you? Brian, we really want you to talk to us...answer some questions,” Van Sant asked Brimager in a grocery store parking lot.
Brimager never said a word, refusing to answer any questions.
And what about Yvonne’s dog, Georgia Mae, which had not been seen since she disappeared? Don Winner has a theory.
“He knew that she loved that dog, and that if the dog was runnin’ around, he knew that anything she said about her takin’ off with some guy to Costa Rica -- everybody would immediately know it was crap. So he had to get rid of the dog too,” said Winner.
In his investigation, Winner unwittingly found a key piece of evidence on Brimager’s Facebook page where he had sold a machete.
“Brimager made a comment about that knife. He’s like, ‘Yeah, that used to be mine. I brought it down with me when I came down from the States.’ And the chilling part is he made a comment that said, ‘I’ve only used it to chop up one stripper.’ That’s just chilling,” he said.
Special Agent Masters needed to get his hands on the machete to see if it was used in Yvonne’s murder. Incredibly, he was able to track down the person who bought it from Brimager in Panama.
“This is the machete that Brian bought -- bought in United States and took down with him -- to Panama,” Masters showed Van Sant. “It’s very heavy. It’s -- weighted, and it would inflict a lot of damage.”
Investigators had the machete, they had the email and they had caught Brimager in multiple lies. Soon, someone would stumble upon the most important evidence of all.
A MYSTERY UNFOLDS
Summer 2013 -- nearly two years have passed since Yvonne Baldelli’s disappearance.
“You feel like you’re reading a book, a terrible -- mystery, a murder mystery and there’s no end to it,” said Jim Faust.
On June 26, 2013, the final chapter of this mystery began to unfold. FBI Special Agent Andrew Masters slapped the cuffs on Brian Brimager.
“What did you say to him?” Van Sant asked Masters.
“’You’re under arrest.’ I said, ‘Turn around. Put your hands behind your back,’” Masters replied. “He needed to answer for his crime.”
“How did you learn ... that Brian had been arrested?” Van Sant asked Michele Valenzuela.
“Truth be told, I received a text from my dad that said, ‘They got the SOB,’” And I sat down and a sense of [clears throat] relief … because now ... they believed us,” she replied.
Brian Brimager was charged with 13 felonies, relating to the cover up of Yvonne’s Baldelli’s death -- but not murder. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shane Harrigan and Mark Conover were lead prosecutors.
“At that point, without having found the body,” Harrigan told reporters, “we didn’t have quite enough to bring the murder charge.”
But that would soon change. A local worker clearing some brush on the island where Brimager and Yvonne lived came upon a duffel bag.
“And when he unbuckled the -- the clasp -- he found … skeletonized remains,” Master said. “By the time she was found two years later, she -- it was -- only bones.”
A DNA test confirmed it was Yvonne. Her remains were found just a few hundred yards from where the family had spent days searching.
“I wanted to tell Michele personally,” said Masters.
“When I first heard … that they found Yvonne, my first reaction was … for me it’s good news because I just feel good we can nail this bastard,” said Valenzuela.
While the family’s prayers had been answered, an autopsy confirmed the hellish fact that Yvonne had been dismembered.
“This is -- the actual device that was used -- to dismember Yvonne,” Masters said, showing Van Sant the machete.
“The most likely cause of death was being stabbed in the back at least twice,” said Harrigan.
Despite overwhelming evidence and proof that Brimager had repeatedly lied, his wife, Kristin, continued to stand by him. Like her husband, “48 Hours” could only meet her on the street.
“Kristin may I ask, do you still believe in your husband’s innocence? Can you just tell us that?” Van Sant asked as she was leaving the courthouse. Kristin’s mother put her hand up to the camera.
Then, for Yvonne’s family, another cruel tragedy struck in the spring of 2014. Michele Valenzuela, who had dedicated her life to finding justice for her sister, now faced another deadly enemy. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
“I’m still alive to fight for my life, and I’m still alive to fight for my sister,” she said.
By September 2014, weakened by cancer and given just weeks to live, Valenzuela -- a crucial witness -- agreed to tell her story while she still could. Brian Brimager would sit directly across from her.
“I’m going to try to ignore him, the best I can,” she said.
Q: And who is Brian Brimager?
Michele Valenzuela: He is the defendant.
Q: Do you see him in the courtroom here today
Michele Valenzuela: Yes, I do.
Q: Would you please point to him and describe where he is seated for the record?
Michele Valenzuela: He is sitting at the end in the khaki outfit at the end.
Valenzuela passed out after the exhausting testimony. It was a courageous act of love for her sister.
“And this might be the last thing I get to do for her. Over and over and over again, because it will be on camera forever,” she said.
Days later, she died.
It took years of diplomatic and legal wrangling, but in early 2015, the government of Panama finally agreed to let Brimager be tried for murder on American soil.
“We came to the conclusion that -- the only way that Brian Brimager would face justice for his murderous act is if he was charged and convicted here in the United States,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover.
Brimager pleaded not guilty. The case was heading for trial in 2016, when investigators made another dramatic discovery. Yvonne’s blood and DNA were found under the machete’s handle.
“So these three screws were undone?” Van Sant asked Masters.
“Uh, huh,” he affirmed.
“The handle -- opens up, and … inside, they find blood?” Van Sant asked.
“Right, they removed these three, and just pulled it out of here, and conducted the testing on the blade and the interior portion of the handle, and -- found blood,” said Masters.
“This now is a slam dunk. You know that this is the tool used to dismember her?” Van Sant asked.
“It was that -- that … made Brian finally realize he was not gonna get out of this. He was not gonna lie his way out,” Masters explained. “It’s done.”
“He had cleaned the blade, but he hadn’t cleaned underneath the handle. And it was that additional evidence that I believe eventually led Mr. Brimager to plead guilty,” said Conover.
Within a week, 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.
“And I think … if you look up in the dictionary evil, and you see Brian’s picture in there. He’s the ultimate incarnate of evil in my mind,” said Jim Faust.
In open court, Brimager apologized to Yvonne’s family; but his words rang hollow.
“Brian Brimager is a con artist. He had our daughter conned. He had his new wife conned. He had her family conned. He was able to live a double life, sometimes a triple life. And -- people buy what he says. But his actions show that he’s not the person he says that he is,” said Lillian Faust.
With the case over, Yvonne’s remains were returned to her family and laid to rest at sea.
“To get her remains back, and be able to give her a dignified resting place … I can sleep better at night knowing that she’s not rotting in some jungle, or deep in the ocean somewhere. Knowing that she loved the ocean. Knowing that we were able to put her in a place that she loved,” said Jim Faust.
“And we brought her home. And I know that that was thanks to a lot of work of a lot of unsung heroes. I know,” said Lillian Faust.
In a way, two people were honored that day – Yvonne, and her beloved sister, Michele, who battled a Marine to the end --and won.
“She’s definitely a hero,” Masters said of Valenzuela. “She never gave up. To her dying day -- she gave all she had.”
Kristin and Brian Brimager are still married. She continues to support and visit him in federal prison.
Brimager’s prison term ends in February 2037.