Suspect Arrested in Brutal Murder of American Denise Mullen Hiller in Panama
Tuesday, February 23 2010 @ 06:58 AM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
An Opportunity in Panama: Denise Mullen Hiller took a job with the American company CH2M Hill, hired to work on the project to expand the Panama Canal. Denise had only been in Panama a short time. Initial local press reporting on the day her body was discovered indicated Denise had been in Panama for three years, and that information turned out to be incorrect. In fact Denise had only arrived in Panama in September 2009 and had only been in country for a total of about five months. Before taking the job with CH2M Hill and moving to Panama, Denise was an Applications Facilitator with Schuff International in Phoenix, AZ.
Short Term Hotel Stay: Upon arriving in Panama in mid September 2009, Denise took a room in the Marriott Hotel in downtown Panama City while she searched for an apartment to rent. Contractors hired by foreign companies often stay in hotels for a few weeks as they secure more permanent living arrangements, and the Marriott is obviously one of the largest and best known hotels in Panama City where thousands of people stay as guests every year.
Romantic Liaison: At the hotel Denise met thirty-something Panamanian Daniel Moreno Melendez, who worked as a bartender at the Champions Sports Bar in the ground floor of the hotel. Denise became romantically involved with Daniel. She took photos of Daniel on her Verizon Wireless Blackberry cell phone and sent them to a close family member in the United States. The romantic relationship between Denise and Daniel Moreno Melendez apparently started on the evening of 27 September 2009 when the photos were sent. In the photo you can see Daniel working behind the bar, pouring drinks. He was wearing the standard black and white stripped shirt that looks like an umpire's uniform, the uniform used by employees at the bar. Denise actually took about four or five photos of Daniel with her Verizon Wireless Blackberry cell phone, but of those she only sent one to her close family member in the United States. These photos were used by Homicide detectives to positively identify the suspect. All of the photos were taken on Sunday, 27 September 2009, just before 6:00 pm. Denise sent the photo as an attachment to an email to her close family member at 8:51 pm. The next day, on Monday morning at 11:44 am the family member responded "how did things turn out last night?" I believe this was the start of the relationship between Denise Mullen Hiller and Daniel Moreno Melendez.
Renting the Apartment in Paitilla: Denise Mullen Hiller rented an apartment on the fifth floor of the Torres del Parque building in the Paitilla neighborhood of Panama City. She posted photos of her new apartment on her Facebook page on 25 September 2009. At 11:50 am on 30 September 2009 Denise commented on the photos she had posted, saying "I love it. I get to move in next week. I am sooooo ready to move out of the Marriott." This comment establishes two things. 30 September 2009 was a Wednesday, and if she actually did move in "next week" then she took possession of the apartment during the week of 4 - 10 October 2009. But more importantly, this comment established that Denise had been living in the Marriott Hotel before taking possession of the apartment. Obviously she had plenty of time and opportunity to have met Daniel Moreno Melendez. Also, this comment was apparently posted after the start of the relationship between Denise and Daniel.
Visiting Panama: A close family member visited Denise in Panama twice. The first trip was around Thanksgiving 2009, arriving on 26 November 2009 and staying until 1 December 2009. On Saturday, 28 November 2009 Denise, the close family member, and another friend went out to dinner on the Causeway in Panama City. During dinner Denise spoke to Daniel via cell phone and suggested they all get together to go out dancing. They met up with Daniel in the parking lot of the TGIF restaurant and they all decided to go to the "Zona Viva" on the Causeway to go dancing. There are a lot of clubs in the Zona Viva and they stayed out until about 1:30 am. Daniel then drove Denise and the close family member back home. Daniel was driving a small SUV, like a Hyundai or something, dark color, either black or dark blue. During the conversation Daniel said he worked on motorcycles and he displayed a photo on his cell phone of his bike, which looked like a "blue ninja style" motorcycle. The family member describes Daniel as "around 6'1 and medium build and from Panama. He has brown eyes and dark hair (well groomed). Was still married and working on a divorce."
Daniel Gets Fired: On 2 December 2009 Denise sent an email to the close family member saying that Daniel had been called in to a meeting with the General Manager of the Marriott Hotel where he worked. Daniel was fired from his job as a bartender, because another Marriott employee had seen him out dancing at the Causeway with Denise, who was a guest at the hotel and a frequent patron of the Champion's Sports Bar. The Marriott has a strict policy against employees fraternizing with customers. At first it seemed a little strange to me that Daniel had been fired form his job at the end of November or early December 2009, because Denise had moved into her apartment in the first week of October 2009. If Denise was no longer a guest at the hotel, why did Daniel get fired? Yesterday I spoke to another member of the English speaking expatriate community here in Panama who told me he had met Denise at the Champions Sports Bar in the Marriott hotel in early January 2010. Therefore, even though Denise was no longer staying at the hotel as a guest, she continued to return to the bar as a regular customer.
Starting A Business: After Daniel was fired from his job as a bartender, he apparently approached Denise a couple of weeks later and requested a loan to start a small business as a motorcycle mechanic. Denise gave Daniel a check for $1,000 dollars, and Daniel was supposed to leave behind a Rolex watch in good faith or as collateral for the loan. The close family member said Denise was later "pissed" because she later discovered Daniel had left with both the check and the watch. Denise then stopped payment on the check and said she intended to file a police report against him, although it is unknown if Denise actually filed the report.
Expecting Daniel on Thursday Night: On Thursday, 18 February 2010, the close family member sent a text message to Denise asking her how was Daniel. Denise responded that Daniel had finalized his divorce, and that he was going to be coming over that evening to spend the night. This was on the very same night that Denise was killed.
A Man Comes In, A Man Leaves: Two people work on the ground floor of the Torres del Parque apartment building in Paitilla, the concierge and the security guard. Both of them remember seeing a man enter the building and going up to Denise's apartment on the fifth floor, and then later he left. They didn't know who he was and they had no reason to be suspicious because he was invited up by Denise. A family member explained to me Denise was very security conscious, and there's no way she would ever open her door to a stranger, or let someone unknown to her into her apartment. Obviously, Denise knew Daniel. And, according to the text message sent earlier, she was expecting Daniel on the evening of Thursday, 18 February 2010. There are reportedly no working security cameras in the building, which is relatively new construction and recently finished. So, the security guard and the concierge see the unidentified man enter the building, spend some time in Denise's apartment, and then leave. They had no reason to suspect something was wrong.
Driver Arrives The Next Morning: As a CH2M Hill employee working on the project to expand the Panama Canal, the company was paying all of Denise's living expenses and they even provided a driver to take her to work at her office in Cocoli. When the driver showed up early Friday morning it was unusual for Denise not to respond to the intercom. After repeated attempts to raise Denise on the Intercom, cell phone, and telephone, eventually the driver and another friend of Denise's convinced the concierge something was wrong. Beyond the fact that Denise was not answering the calls, and the security guard and concierge had not seen her leave, there was a strong smell of gas in the hallway and elevator. Based on that alone they opened the door to the apartment and discovered Denise's body. At this point, a certain degree of confusion ensued.
Call The Police, Fire Department, Everyone... In Panama there are often significant problems with issues of crime scene control, and the exact progression of events after the initial discovery of the body is a little unclear at this point. For example, investigators know when the concierge first went into the apartment he discovered all of the knobs on the gas stove were wide open, and there were lit candles burning on a table in the dining room. Apparently the killer had intended to attempt to cause an explosion and fire in an attempt to destroy evidence and cover his tracks at the murder scene. The concierge responded by first blowing out the candles. He ran downstairs and closed the main gas valve, shutting off the flow of LPG gas to the entire building. He also called the fire department. Someone, and right now the homicide detectives don't know who, turned off the knobs on the stove. They suspect it might have been the firemen who turned off the stove, and this is important because obviously the homicide detectives were thinking that the killer's fingerprints should be on the knobs, but that evidence might have been destroyed or altered by whoever turned off the stove. In any case, it was pretty clear someone had intended to cause and explosion and start a fire in an attempt to cover up the crime scene or destroy evidence.
Apparently Beaten To Death: A police commissioner who spoke to the press outside of the building commented it was "apparent" Denise Hiller had been beaten to death. He said she had a severe head wound, that there were other blows all over her body, and that she had been found lying in a pool of her own blood.
The Family Member Immediately Suspected Daniel: When the initial reports of Denise's death appeared in the local news last Friday, the only person on the planet who had all of the details on what had transpired here in Panama between Denise and Daniel was Denise's close family member in the United States. By Sunday morning I was in direct telephone contact with that person, who eventually followed up our conversations with email detailing the nature of the relationship between Denise and Daniel. There were several exchanges between this person and myself, and as more and more details became available, it became apparent the primary suspect would turn out to be "Daniel, the bartender at the Marriott" even though at that point we didn't have a correct last name. We knew he was romantically involved with Denise, that he worked at the Marriott as a bartender, that he had been fired either at the end of November or early December 2009, we had his photo, and a description of his vehicles.
A Call From Homicide: Early Monday morning I met with Police Commissioner, Detective Manuel Moreno, the Chief of the Homicide Division of the DIJ at my office. I translated and relayed to him everything the close family member and others had sent to me via email and through telephone calls. We then went to the office of the Third Superior Prosecutor, Argentina Barrera, who is responsible for investigating this case for Panama's Public Ministry and eventually bringing the suspect to trial before a judge. Once again I explained the same information, translating and relaying all of the information I had received up until that point.
Key Information, Previously Unavailable: The most important issue to note at this point is that prior to my meeting with the homicide detectives and prosecutors, they were basically looking for the wrong guy. They had recovered Denise's Verizon Wireless Blackberry cell phone, the one she used when traveling to the United States. This is the phone Denise used to take the photos of Daniel and to send them to a close family member. However, Denise had taken photos of a lot of people on her cell phone and the detectives thought a different person who appeared in several of the photos was the suspect person they were looking for. The close family member sent me an email explaining "The photo was taken in the Marriott sports bar. Daniel was wearing black and white shirt like a referee shirt. This is Daniel! The photo was taken by Denise's verizon blackberry." And although the close family member in the United States had only seen one photo, there were in fact several good photos of Daniel on her cell phone. At this point the investigators had several good photos of their primary suspect, and they knew exactly who, among all of the people who appeared in the photos on Denise's cell phone, they were looking for.
Fired From The Marriott: The next step was to obtain full and complete identification information on Daniel. Again, based on the information provided by the close family member in the United States, they knew that "Daniel" had been fired from the Marriott hotel where he worked as a bartender. Detective Moreno left the meeting at the prosecutor's office and went straight to the Human Resources office of the Marriott Hotel. There, he was able to access the "Daniel's" employment record, which gave them the Mother Lode of information. They now had his full and complete name, cedula (identification) number, home address, telephone numbers, complete contact information, and references. By early Monday afternoon homicide detectives drove straight to his house in the "Platinum Park" neighborhood of Arraiján, a suburb to the West of Panama City, and staked out his house. They sat there for hours, watching an empty house. Detective Moreno told me "there's no one here, the house is empty, and there's a Rottweiler in the front yard." He said there were no vehicles at the house.
Suspect Arrested: At 9:57 pm last night Detective Moreno called to let me know they had arrested Daniel Moreno Melendez. Detectives arrested him when he returned to his house. They searched the house, and took him into custody. Detective Moreno told me "I have him sitting here in my office - he will be arrested and turned over to the competent authorities in the morning." Daniel spent the night locked up in the DIJ holding cell in Ancon last night.
The Check for $1,000: Denise wrote a check for $1,000 to Daniel, but then she quickly stopped payment on the check when she learned Daniel had not left the Rolex watch behind as promised. It's possible Daniel deposited the check in his bank account in Panama, and it takes as long as 30 days for an international check to clear. Of course in this case the check would not have cleared because of the stop payment put on by Denise. At some point in time Daniel would have learned that the check had been rejected and that he was not going to be getting his $1,000 dollars. The detectives are looking at this as a possible motive.
Cash In The Apartment?: There was a wall safe in the walk-in closet of the master bedroom of Denise's apartment, and reportedly she had a considerable sum of cash in the house. Investigators from the Public Ministry and detectives from the DIJ are in the process of determining if the wall safe is still there, or was it taken. According to the close family member Denise only had a couple of pieces of jewelry that would have been considered valuable. Investigators did note that Denise's laptop computer and cell phone were both missing from the apartment. Denise had two cell phones, one on a Panama account and another phone on a US account. They recovered the US phone but the Panama phone is missing.
Continuing Investigation: At this point Daniel Moreno Melendez has been arrested as the primary suspect in the murder of Denise Mullen Hiller in Panama. He has not yet been charged with murder by the prosecutor, although that might happen as early as today. As with all criminal investigations, suspects are considered to be innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. However in this case the information provided by the close family member was enough to warrant his immediate arrest. Now, homicide detectives from the DIJ and investigators from the Public Ministry will continue their investigations, to build their case for the eventual murder trial of Daniel Moreno Melendez. Additional information will be provided as this case develops. Finally, our heartfelt condolences to the friends and family members of Denise Mullen Hiller.
Copyright 2009 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.