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Search for boater leads to alleged serial killer

Dark Side of Paradise 41:57

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.

With Don North missing for more than three weeks and a body discovered floating off the Caribbean coast of Panama, Don's former girlfriend, Becky Reynolds, got a horrible feeling.

"I called Ezra. And he just said, 'Pray as hard as you can.' And that scared me. That if their concern was like that," she said. "This just doesn't happen."

Fortunately, the body was not Don North's, but friends and family remained deeply worried.

"I -- I felt sick," Ezra explained. "...at that point I realized that there's something very wrong going on, and -- and something bad must have happened."

The bullet-ridden body was identified as Frenchman Jean Pierre Bouahard, the captain of a large catamaran. He'd been shot in the head, tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

"We knew immediately it was more than a coincidence that this Frenchman had been found murdered and our friend Don North was missing," said Don's friend, Glenn Tuttle.

But what was the connection? Working his sources, Don Winner learned that the dead Frenchman was last seen with Javier Martin -- the same man Don North was with when he set sail for Colombia.

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

"It instantly became, 'all right everybody, focus - find Javier Martin,'" said Winner.

Winner was convinced Javier Martin would leave them to Don North.

"What was going through my mind was, 'we got business to do,'" said Ezra.

Their first stop: The headquarters of the national police force.

"We went to the office of the chief of operations," Winner said while he walked with Ezra and Van Sant in Panama. "I sat Ezra down in his office and said, 'Here's the deal. This is what happened. This is what we think is goin' on. And -- we wanna get the ball rollin' on it.'"

And when Winner talked, the Panamanian police listened. Just months earlier, he had helped them catch accused serial killer, "Wild Bill Holbert," an American who preyed on retired ex-pats.

"How many murder cases have you solved here in Panama?" Van Sant asked Winner.

"Four," he replied. "And that's in a year--year-and-a-half."

"Don't mess with Don Winner," Van Sant commented.

"Don't kill anybody," Winner said with a laugh.

Winner convinced Panamanian authorities to form a special task force to look for Don North. They also enlisted the FBI, which has agents stationed in Panama City.

"Because of all that, then the investigation went from...zero to 100-percent literally in a matter of two or three hours," he said.

.

Ezra and Winner joined the task force as it began the hunt for Javier Martin.

"The biggest fear was that he might split and be gone, and be on the run for years before he finally turns up," said Winner.

"I consider this man a pirate, a pirate because he was committing crimes on his travels," Gustavo Perez said of Martin -- a pirate who became the focus of a manhunt overseen by Perez.

National director of police at the time, Perez led thousands of officers and personally oversaw the pursuit of Javier Martin.

Using all that manpower, the police quickly picked up Martin's trail. It led to Captain Jack's, where Don North's friends were told the lead suspect had stayed in their hostel.

"I felt hair stand up on my-- my arms and my back," said Captain Jack.

The more Ezra learned the scarier Javier Martin became.

"One lady, at one of the hostels had said, 'That guy is a psychopath.' He caught a snake one time, and cut the head off, and ran around shaking the snake everywhere," Ezra said of Martin.

Retracing Winner's investigation, Van Sant, Winner and Ezra North head to Puerto Lindo, a sleepy port village near the San Blas Islands.

"When you come into a little village like this, I mean, what are your instincts? What are you trying to do as an investigator?" Van Sant asked Winner.

"Well, it was all related to tracking the movements [of] Javier Martin, trying to find out where he went, what he was doing," he replied.

"Did you sense something right away? Did you sense this man was trouble?" Van Sant asked a hostel worker who said Martin had stayed there.

Winner translated the man's response: "He said, 'I didn't think he was a drug trafficker, I thought he was this crazy...he was somebody that's out of control.'"

In late January 2011, after Don North went missing, locals reported that Javier Martin, who had always lived hand to mouth, suddenly was living large.

"They said that he had -- he went out and bought a -- like a large-screen plasma TV brand new. He bought a sound system. He bought a guitar," said Winner.

And he may have bought all that stuff using Don North's ATM card.

"I believe that these are the ATM machines that were used by-- either Javier Martin himself or -- people that were helping him to-- pull money out of the-- bank accounts of the victims using their ATM-- he got their cards. He got their pin numbers," said Winner.

Taking into account the dead Frenchman, the missing money and Javier Martin's spending spree, Winner knew in his gut that it wasn't looking good for Don North.

"No doubt in your mind that Javier Martin is the man responsible for the disappearance of Don North?" Van Sant asked Winner.

"I got no doubt. I've got no doubt whatsoever," he replied.

Ezra realized he had to face the hard truth: His uncle was most likely murdered by Javier Martin.

"This bastard killed my uncle, and we need to make sure he's in jail," he said.

Javier Martin, the man at the center of this manhunt had spent years ferrying backpackers between Panama and Colombia. He came into contact with a lot of Americans, like Garrett Paul and Jessica Stout.

"We were at the start of a six month backpacking trip," Stout explained, "and we needed to get from Colombia to Panama."

And along the way, they were looking for adventure.

"We usually like to think outside the box and do things that are a little different and unique," said Paul.

He's not kidding. The couple were contestants on the CBS program "The Amazing Race" in 2009, a year after they happened to meet Javier Martin.

"We...came across a pamphlet for Javier Martin with a number of recommendations, and called him up to see if we could meet him and see the boat," said Stout.

The couple signed on with Martin and spent the next five days aboard his boat, "The Twyla."

"Javier was a little salty in that he just, you know you could tell he'd been spending some time out on the ocean," said Paul.

"He was a fun, you know, flirtatious captain...hanging out with all of us. We even had a barbecue on one of the islands. And he would hang out with us. And, but it was social," added Stout.

They liked Martin well enough to later recommend him, never suspecting might be dangerous.

"It was shocking to us, but you never know what people are capable of," said Paul.

Video: Hear more from the couple
Photos: Behind the scenes with "48 Hours" in Panama

"I think there were two sides to Javier Martin," Becky Reynolds said. "The side that could...have the persona of a businessman and hang out with the passengers and cook for them and the side that, obviously, Don eventually found out."

Reynolds can imagine how the two men became friends after Don rescued Martin from his sinking ship.

"I think that they probably broke bread, probably had a drink together, hung out," she said. "I'm speculating, but Don was a friendly guy."

A friendly guy who investigators now believe had been killed at the hands of Javier Martin.

"Do you believe this was a calculated murder? A spur-of-the-moment killing? What do you think?" Van Sant asked Ezra North.

"I think it was calculated," he replied.

Determined to bring Martin to justice, Ezra went "all in" with Don Winner.

"I trusted him with my whole heart," Ezra said. "Whenever he asked me to do something, I was going to do it."

Not only had Winner convinced the Panamanian police to form a task force, he also corralled a group of local reporters to begin spreading the word that a man who'd allegedly killed Don North and Jean Pierre Bouhard was at large.

"I said, 'Hey guys, huddle up. I got one for ya, here's the deal,'" Winner told Van Sant. "I said, 'Apparently there's another serial killer on the loose and we're looking for this man.'"

"When you tell these reporters there's a potential serial killer on the loose, are they interested?"

"Oh, absolutely."

That night, the story about Ezra and his missing uncle went national.

"That clip aired on the primetime news that night," Ezra recalled, "and it was headline news."

Winner kept digging. He later got a tip that a cruiser named Luis was in possession of Don North's credit card. Winner and "48 Hours" set off to talk to him.

Winner suspects Luis may have played a role in draining Don North's bank account.

He warns us to be alert approaching his boat -- that Luis might be armed and dangerous.

Peter Van Sant: We're with CBS News. We're doing a story about the death of Don North. The murder of Don North.

Luis: I was a friend of Don's.

Peter Van Sant: You were a friend of Don North's. Were you also a friend of Javier Martin's?

Luis: Yes. I no wasn't a friend of his... I know that guy. I know that guy, I talk with this guy, but he wasn't a friend of me. I was a friend of Don's...me and my wife.

Luis then claims that Don willingly gave him his bank card to make withdrawals on his account. Winner is skeptical of Luis' story.

Peter Van Sant: Don North gave you his credit card?

Luis: I am done with this case. I don't know. I am done with this bull----."

"Based on your experience as an intelligence officer, you can read body language. What were you seeing with all the folding up and the attitude?" Van Sant asked Winner of Luis.

"Scared, nervous, afraid," he replied. "He wasn't putting out that 'I had nothing to do with it vibe.'"

Two days into the manhunt, Javier Martin's whereabouts remained a mystery.

While the task force spread out over a vast area including the scores of islands off the coast of Panama, he was actually hundreds of miles away in the tiny village of Santa Fe, not far from the border with Columbia.

A Panamanian cowboy says he met Javier Martin and sold him two horses.

Javier's plan was to pack those horses full of supplies and head into one of the most treacherous jungles on earth... making his way to Colombia where he figured no law enforcement would follow him.

The question was - could anyone stop him?

"We knew...that Javier Martin was a dangerous killer," said Glenn Tuttle, a friend of Don North. "We knew that he had killed two people...we knew that he was going to flee the jurisdiction of Panama."

And the trail to Javier Martin led to Panama's Darien Jungle -- 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long. It is a dangerous corridor, but Martin had no choice - it was the only way he could flee Panama and get to Colombia.

"His plan was going to be to ride via horseback through some of the most impenetrable jungle in the world and to escape into Colombia," according to Don Winner.

Authorities knew Martin was equipped with guns and money, so time was of the essence.

Luckily, Don Winner's strategy of plastering Javier Martin's face on national television was about to pay off.

In a tiny town on the edge of the Darien Jungle, a hotel clerk watched that news report and was stunned. She knew that guy... and more importantly, she knew where he was. He was upstairs in Room 27...and he wasn't using the name Javier Martin.

Asked what name he was registered under, the clerk told Van Sant, "Don North."

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

Javier Martin had assumed the identity of the man he allegedly killed. And he didn't stop there.

Winner, translating for the clerk, said, "And, he's hitting on her and trying to get her to come up to his room and saying, 'It's Valentine's Day. And I don't wanna spend Valentine's Day alone.'"

"You just learned that Don North is actually Javier Martin? ...And an accused serial killer? ...And he's hitting on you?" Van Sant asked the hotel clerk.

"She says, 'I got afraid,'" Winner translated.

Afraid that a killer was in the hotel, she called her boss, who called police.

After a massive three-day manhunt involving dozens of investigators, searches in the Caribbean and the jungle, Javier Martin was arrested. What he had with him was damning.

"They found Don North's passport," Winner said. "They found three weapons. ...They found like $13,000 cash that he had stolen from his victims."

The day after Javier Martin's arrest, authorities located Don's missing boat, "The Wind Dancer." Its name had been changed to "The Green Twilight."

"That was done by Javier Martin...and that of course is not the name of the boat," Ezra North said standing by the boat. "That boat's my uncle's home. Without the boat, he wouldn't live without the boat."

That boat - once so alive when Don owned it - was now empty and adrift.

"What was that moment like for you when you came to the realization that he was gone?" Van Sant asked Reynolds.

"I was in shock and all the stages of grieving...shock comes first and disbelief," she replied. "I don't know how he died, but I can only imagine...the fate of him...that makes it hard. And I just hope that it went quickly for him."

Investigators treated "The Wind Dancer" as a crime scene, sharing their findings with Ezra.

"He was killed on the boat, they found DNA on the boat," Ezra explained. "They found blood in the top of the cabin indicating that maybe a gun shot -- to the head. And then they found blood...up the stairs and then on the deck indicating that...Javier Martin had pulled him off the boat and thrown him overboard. ...There was very little question he was killed in his boat. And that's hard to think about."

"Well, it's just incredibly sad....Don...no one deserves to die like that," an emotional Tuttle said.

The evidence against Javier Martin continued to pile up and was even found on Don's beloved island of Chichime.

Kuna chief Humberto showed "48 Hours Mystery" where police found two tents rented by Javier Martin. Inside, Martin allegedly had stashed many of Don North's possessions, including a gun and equipment from his boat.

"Electronics, there was navigational equipment," Ezra told Van Sant.

"So your uncle's boat had been stripped, essentially."

"Yeah, apparently so."

So what was Javier Martin's plan? And more importantly why did he allegedly kill two innocent boat owners: Jean Pierre Bouhard and Don North?

"I think he killed Don, because there were things on the boat that he wanted," said Winner.

Remember, Martin's own boat had sunk in a storm. Authorities believe he was desperate to restart his business, ferrying backpackers between Panama and Colombia.

"And if you're...charging them $450 bucks a head, what you want is a big boat that can carry more passengers," said Winner.

Jean Pierre's big boat was perfect -- which is why police say Martin shot the Frenchman and dumped him overboard just days after killing Don North, looting his boat and stealing his money.

In fact, Panamanian authorities - along with Interpol - are investigating reports that Martin may have left a trail of murdered boat owners across the Caribbean.

"It's just beyond comprehension that there are people in the world as evil as that to do something like that," said Tuttle.

And Ezra is about to confront that evil head on... setting foot on his uncle's boat for the first time since the murder.

Ezra North says his uncle's boat was his life. "It's part of his identity this is, to see it without him on it just doesn't, it isn't right."

"48 Hours Mystery" was with Ezra as he boarded his uncle's boat for the first time since the murder.

"What's the emotional connection for you to be back on this boat?" Peter Van Sant asked.

"I remember things, but they're all destroyed so I'm having a hard time looking at 'em because it's been ruined," Ezra replied. "...there's just stuff everywhere."

But as he looks closer, Ezra discovers more remnants of Don North's life.

"Here's my uncle at his nursery," Ezra says after finding photos. "Here he is and there's Becky...This was his dog in Trinidad. His name was Jesse."

Ezra then searches for a precious family heirloom.

"OK, well I think this is the bag that my dad described..."he said. It was something he assumed the killer must have stolen. "...wouldn't that be cool if there was some gold in here..."

Inside the bag were four solid gold Krugerrands.

"Oh my god...I found them...unbelievable," Ezra exclaimed after finding his uncle's gold. "The killer didn't get the gold...I just found the gold."

"Your uncle Don right now has a smile on his face," said Van Sant.

"He does, this belongs to the family," Ezra said.

Ezra continued with a laugh, "I've traveled thousands of miles to get to this moment and here they are. It's unbelievable (sighs) but it still doesn't bring him back."

"As you describe the gold, the storm is kicking up...the rain is hitting..." said Van Sant.

"Maybe he knows. Thanks Uncle Don."

What would your uncle be saying to you right now Ezra?"

Ezra gets emotional before answering. "He'd be proud of me, he always told me he's proud of me...he'd call me and tell me he's proud of me...I just do what I think is right. I don't feel like I've done anything special."

"Well, we've got one more search to do, don't we? And we're gonna help you do that search," Van Sant told Ezra.

"Yes. Yes. And if he's got any say in it, we'll find him, too."

With that in mind, "48 Hours Mystery" brought sonar expert Scott Walters down to the San Blas Islands to look for the one thing that could lead us to Don's body.

"What we have is an acoustic camera,' Walters explained."It allows us to see things using sound in motion."

"We're looking for an anchor. If we're lucky enough to go over one, will this device detect it?" Van Sant asked.

"Absolutely," he replied. "This is the best thing that we could have for-- for a search of this kind.

Authorities believe Don's body was tied to his anchor and thrown overboard. We scan the channel that sources tell us Javier Martin sailed after the murder.

But after multiple attempts, we all come to realize the water is just too deep.

"And if a body was here, is it almost impossible to find?" Van Sant asked Walters.

"It makes it a lot more difficult," he replied. "Not impossible. It's just more difficult at these types of depths."

While Don North is lost at sea forever, "48 Hours Mystery" heads off to meet the one person who may know where his body was dumped.

Javier Martin is awaiting trial in Panama's most notorious prison, La Joyita.

"48 Hours Mystery" has been trying for months to get to this man and hear what he has to say.

Martin, now facing more than 70 years in prison and a trial date later this year, agreed to an interview.

But with the cameras ready to roll, the accused double murderer backs down.

Surprisingly, he did manage to contact producer Chris O'Connell the next day. First by email and then on a phone that someone had smuggled in.

Chris O'Connell Javier? Oh, hey, yes this is Chris...

Peter Van Sant: It's Peter Van Sant. And this is a story I know you want the world to hear.

Immediately, it's clear that Javier Martin only has one thing on his mind.

Don Winner translation: He's like, I need the money. The only way I would do this.

Chris O'Connell: Javier, we can't pay for an interview.

Don Winner: He's not gonna do it...

Peter Van Sant: Did you kill Don North?

Don Winner translation: He says I'm not gonna do an interview on the phone.

In other conversations with "48 Hours Mystery," Javier Martin claimed his innocence, but Don Winner is sure he's got his man and he's proud of it.

"I really do like the idea of being responsible for putting the bad guys in jail," he said. "I think that is a noble service."

Despite the many unanswered questions, friends and family of Don North take some solace in the knowledge that his body is most likely in the waters that he called home.

"Don's watchin'. He's around. He'll send his little signals some way. It is kind of ironic, also, that he is in the sea," Becky Reynolds told Van Sant. "And actually, when I went snorkeling a few weeks ago in the Grand Caymans, I remember just that the quiet of being under water, and I thought about him. It's peaceful."

"It's definitely his resting place, and he would've told me, 'Cremate my body, spread my ashes here, in Chichime,'" Ezra said. "I am at peace, though. I'm at peace that he's with the sea. And that's...where I would wanna be."

Javier Martin faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted of the murders of Don North and Jean Pierre Bouahard. He remains in jail awaiting trial.

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