Search for boater leads to alleged serial killer

An American adventurer goes missing in Panama; did things turn deadly in this tropical paradise?

Produced by Paul LaRosa and Chris O'Connell
[This story originally aired on Feb. 4]

"My uncle was an absolute free spirit....loved people, loved animals, loved plants...he was just a lover of life," Ezra North said of his uncle, Don.

When Don North and his sailboat, "The Wind Dancer," disappeared in the waters off Panama in January 2011, Ezra was sick with worry.

"It's hard to work. It's hard to eat. It's hard to sleep. You're thousands of miles away from someone you love and you've got a million scenarios playing out," Ezra told "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Peter Van Sant.

Ezra - an engineer for an oil company -- was determined to unravel the mystery of what had become of his uncle. Friends recommended the one American in Panama who might be able to find Don North.

"All they said to me was, 'Call Don Winner. This man can help you,'" said Ezra.

Don Winner is a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Air Force and an investigative journalist who runs a website for expatriates. He's also a CBS News consultant.

"When I get involved in something like this, I drop all the other stuff," Winner said, "and I go focus on the most important thing."

"What is it about you and who you are that makes you want to get involved?" Van Sant asked Winner.

"Why not? Wouldn't you? If you knew that there was a family member who was asking for help, wouldn't you drop what you were doing to go help that guy? I mean, it's just the right thing to do," he replied.

Winner told Ezra that he needed to file a missing persons report. Ezra abruptly said goodbye to his wife in Houston and headed to Panama.

Ezra and Winner hit the ground running, searching for any information about Don North.

For Ezra, being in the Caribbean brought back memories of happier times with his Uncle Don.

Photos: Behind the scenes with "48 Hours" in Panama

"My uncle was like one of my best friends. He taught me how to scuba dive, he taught me how to hunt," he said. "He's everything that you want from an uncle. ...Look at the life he lived."

And what a life it was. Back in the 1990s, Don North sold his stateside gardening business, bought a boat and set sail... cruising from Florida to Curacao to Colombia - kicking back and just enjoying life.

"Every day of his life, he did what he wanted to do and he was a beautiful person," said Ezra.

Don was a member of a tight-knit cruiser community, people who choose to live their lives on the water.

"Tell me about the cruising lifestyle. For a lot of people who live their life on a couch with a remote in their hand, it is extraordinary what you do," Van Sant asked Glenn Tuttle.

"I think we cruisers enjoy the freedom of being out there and being self-sufficient," he replied.

Tuttle and his wife, Eddie, are friends of Don North. Both are retired FBI agents who've been cruising the Caribbean for years.

"You can literally catch dinner under the boat. You can...snorkel and spear fish and catch lobsters and it's a paradise," said Tuttle.

Video: Dean Yale, an American in Panama, on the cruiser lifestyle

Becky Reynolds, Don's former girlfriend, recalls the first time she set eyes on him.

"He loved life...I know he loved me. We had a lot of fun together," she told Van Sant. "I just remember seeing the yellow dinghy with a pink motor and I thought, 'Oh my God, who's this character?' And, he just struck me as just a very kind of a funny guy and an interesting character. And, we exchanged numbers."

Reynolds and Don wound up living together for five years. Their sailing days were idyllic...even though Don didn't actually do much sailing.

"In the five years that I have known Don North...we sailed probably seven times," Reynolds told Van Sant.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Van Sant laughed. "He lived on this boat. It's on the water."

"He liked to be on his boat. But, that was his home," she said.

"He liked his boat...he liked his radio...he liked his dog Kuna...he liked his plants...that was Don," said Captain Jack Von Ohlen.

Captain Jack and Dennis Morris were fellow cruisers who knew Don North well.

"Oh, Don was a classic," Morris said. "His claim to fame was he never went anywhere fast and if there was any wind, he wouldn't go."

After cruising the Caribbean for 20 years, Don North finally found his little piece of paradise and he dropped anchor in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.

Don spent most of his time on the island of Chichime, where he had a special bond with the Kuna Indians.

"He loved them. He respected them. ...He helped them garden. ...He helped them dig a water well," Ezra said his uncle's relationship with the indigenous people. "They loved him."

But by mid-January 2011, no one - not the Kunas nor any of Don's friends - had seen or heard from him in weeks.

In one of Don North's last emails to his nephew, he told of a series of terrible storms ravaging the San Blas Islands.

Dec 20, 2010. Hola, this will be the last e mail in a while because my phone modem broke...

Don did his best to help out, rescuing Javier Martin, whose boat had sunk after hitting a reef.

As Ezra and Winner tried to pick up Don's trail, all they had to go on was a handful of clues.

"When we started looking for him, we were told by other cruisers that, yeah, 'he's sailing to Colombia...he's sailing with Captain Martin,'" said Ezra.

Supposedly, Don was making the five-day trip to Cartagena to renew his visa and took Javier Martin along for company.

"When he was missing, at first I thought, no, Don will show up. I just kept thinking Don will show up," said Captain Jack.

"One of the last times I spoke to him, he said, 'Please don't forget me' and I said, 'Don, how could I ever forget you," said Reynolds.

But then came the worst news imaginable: A man's body was discovered floating near the San Blas Islands.