From outside its main gates, the jail looked like an abandoned car-repair shop. It had razor wire on the perimeter walls but, then again, just about every wall in the city of David, Panama, is topped by rings of razor wire. There was a line of visiting women, a few of them holding parasols. I saw a quote in Spanish from Proverbs painted in sloping letters on the wall: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Since Truman Capote pulled some strings in the early 1960s and entered the Kansas State Penitentiary to interview Richard Hickock and Perry Smith for his ground-breaking “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, the template has been clear: You want to write a true crime book, say, one about a multiple murderer? Well, figure out how to get into jail to speak to him. Then ask him all your questions. And take a good look at how he answers them.
No one said that the problem would be how you, the writer, stay sitting in your chair.
My arrival at the prison had raised the mildest flicker of interest with the guards. It turned out that the man I had requested to see had not had a gringo visitor in all the time he’d been there. In September 2014, the time of my visit, William “Wild Bill” Holbert, born and raised in Hendersonville, North Carolina, was thirty-five years old. Four years earlier, the authorities had raided his home on Bocas del Toro, a remote stretch of Panama’s Caribbean coast, where they found five rotting corpses in a nearby patch of jungle. Holbert was tracked down and swiftly confessed to the murders. All his victims had been members of a shadowy expat community made up principally of Americans who wanted to disappear—from ex-spouses, the IRS, the police. Pumped up on steroids, wearing a horned Viking hat that he liked to think was his trademark, Wild Bill Holbert and his bare-bones bar, named The Jolly Roger Social Club, had been a focal point of expat life in Bocas del Toro. Pumped up with steroids, with a thick neck and a swastika tattoo, Holbert had a fearsome look about him.
After being frisked and passing through a metal detector old enough to be a museum piece, a prison guard escorted me to the jail’s administrative wing. I had come with Holbert’s local attorney, Claudia Alvarado, a youthful-looking grandmother who wore her hair long. If your knowledge of prison interviews comes from the movies, you might now be picturing a couple of booths separated by triple-glazed glass, connected by a telephone line. But in the city of David, Panama, three chairs were hauled into a narrow space in front of a counter. Behind it, four or five young women were processing stacks of paper files.
Holbert arrived with a smile and a brisk “Hey, I’m Bill,” and offered me his hand. He sat down next to Alvarado on one of two straight-backed chairs. I faced Holbert, much lower down, in an armchair. It was an odd setup for an interview. Holbert and his attorney were towering above me. And Holbert was slim, dressed casually but neatly. He was polite and soft-spoken. It was not exactly what I had expected. I wondered if it was a trick to fool me.
A Panamanian journalist who had spoken with Holbert six months earlier gave me some advice: “Don’t believe anything he tells you,” the journalist warned me. “Holbert is the ultimate manipulator.”
I was a bit nervous, but I felt ready. I quickly asked Holbert what conditions at the jail were like. That way, I figured he’d feel that I was mildly concerned. This would make him more likely to stay and see the interview through to its conclusion.
I’ve been asked many times since: what was it like? (Second-most common question: how much do they pay you to write a book?) I can say this: I’ve had better days at the office, but the interview is something you have to do if you want to write a nonfiction story about a serial killer. But it was not—and here I’m struggling for the right word—the culmination of writing the book. Crime writers are forever quizzed about the “psychology”of evil people (or people who commit evil acts; maybe it’s the same thing and maybe it isn’t) as if this were at the heart of a book about multiple murder and its consequences. But I’m a writer, not a psychologist. After all, even the psychologists assigned to Holbert struggled to explain him. Their report filled a mere couple of pages. They declared him a psychopath, if only a borderline one.
But there are still two routes a crime writer can take. You can pursue the psychological angle. What could it be that sparked his killing spree? Did he have a rotten childhood? Didn’t he get the quad bike he wanted that one time? Was his rec room not big enough?
Or you can try a different approach. You find out about the victims, you talk to their families. They are the real culmination of the book—their trust in you, their wish for the story to be told.
And what about the expats—Holbert’s old buddies—sitting out in the Panamanian sun, taking their boats out for a spin, enjoying their lobster cookouts on the beach? Why did they tolerate Wild Bill for so long? There were warning signs. Surely it was clear that Wild Bill was up to no good?
Could Holbert’s former friends have acted to save a life?
My conversation with Holbert lasted an hour and a half. No prison guard stopped us to tell us our time was up. My aim had been to keep Holbert there in front of me so I could ask him every last question. He stayed where he was.
But I didn’t.
In the end, I was the one who quit the interview. I could stand it no longer. I looked into Holbert’s pale eyes and the memory of a photograph came to me. It was a photo of a family group: a father, a mother, and two teenage boys. They were in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Within a few short months of the photo being taken, three of the group were dead: the parents and the younger of the two boys. His name was Watson, and he was seventeen when Holbert planted a bullet in the back of his neck.
I saw Holbert in front of me and in my mind’s eye, I saw the boy in the photo. It’s the only image of Watson I ever did come across. Dark hair, a shy smile, his future ahead of him.
I have two young sons. Their futures—long and bright and safe, I hope—are ahead of them. My last question for Holbert was about Watson. I had this question deliberately at the end of my list. Because I knew: whatever Holbert’s reply, I was going head out of that jail.
As it happened, this was exactly what I did. But Holbert had the last word, of sorts. He started telling me about his future plans. For after prison.
I got up to leave.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” he told me.