MAY 30, 2010 LIMA, PERU
Ricardo Flores was an early riser, even on Sundays. Cracking open the door to his daughter’s bedroom, he saw that she hadn’t come home from her night out with friends. Her bed was still made and arranged with the stuffed teddy bears she loved and collected.
The fifty-eight-year-old remembered his youth when kids still had curfews. These days, the parties continued well past dawn. He only had a few ground rules with Stephany but checking in was one of them. She hadn’t even left a message about her whereabouts. She was going to get an earful when she did report in.
The last time Ricardo had spoken to his daughter was the previous evening. He’d reached her on her cell just before 10 P.M. to invite her to an impromptu family dinner at a grill not far from the Floreses’ home in Santiago de Surco. Stephany told her father she was hanging out with friends in Larcomar, a three-level mall of boutiques, eateries, and movie theaters carved into the cliff at the edge of Miraflores, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
By day, Miraflores was a bustling place full of foreigners eager to see the sights. A half-hour drive from Jorge Chávez International Airport, Miraflores catered to both well-heeled travelers residing in four-star hotels on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and backpackers flopping in cheap hostels. Special tourist police and English-friendly information booths sought to give the place a feeling of calm and safety amid the polluted chaos that was greater metropolitan Lima.
In the district’s central square, Parque Kennedy, olive-skinned women in colorful Indian garb sold traditional indigenous paintings, tapestries, and other knickknacks. “Hey Mee-stir” or “Hey Lay-dee,” they would call out, employing the little English they knew. Camera-toting travelers from all points of the globe would stand in line, tickets in hand, for seats on the red double-decker Mirabuses to explore a myriad of museums, pre-Incan ruins, and even catacombs buried deep beneath an ancient Spanish monastery farther downtown. At lunchtime, barkers with broad friendly smiles would stand on the sidewalks corralling hungry foreigners into relatively inexpensive cafés to feast on enormous plates of ceviche, pinchos, and Chifa, a wild fusion of traditional Peruvian and Chinese cuisine. Restaurants were equipped with special hooks on the underside of tables to keep purses, knapsacks, and cameras away from street thieves.
The intoxicating smells of lunchtime, the biggest meal of the day, almost masked the thick odor of exhaust that hovered over the city; trapped between the cool winds of the Pacific and the foothills of the Andes on the other side of town, the sickening, damp, polluted air had no place to go. To say the air quality was poor was an understatement. From June through December, a thick, gray fog, known as “la garúa,” hung over the city, obscuring what would otherwise be spectacular views of the Pacific coastline.
By night, Miraflores was another place entirely. Cars would race by at breakneck speeds, making the simple act of crossing the street a dangerous endeavor. Neon signs advertised McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks and might seem out of place, but the American fast-food establishments were always packed with budget travelers and locals. The action started late and typically began with a round of pisco sours, Peru’s national cocktail made from brandy, lemon juice, and sugar, topped with frothy egg whites and a drop of Angostura bitters. The drink, surprisingly strong, tasted a bit like margaritas and fueled the laughter, loud conversations, and occasional bar fights. Nightclubs and casinos sprang to life when the sun went down.
After dusk, the district of Miraflores was party central and the revelry often spilled into the streets as bleary-eyed packs of tourists stumbled from bar to bar. Patrols of heavily armed police officers in black flak jackets kept a careful watch over the foreigners, wobbly from the excesses of the evening and vulnerable to petty crime.
Ricardo was aware of Miraflores’s wild nightlife, and although he worried about his daughter’s absence that morning, he also realized she was twenty-one and an adult.
Annoyed that she hadn’t touched base with the family, Ricardo dialed her cell phone. It rang a few times and then went to voice mail. Clearly the phone was on, but she wasn’t answering.
Ricardo had always been a little overprotective of Stephany. The father of five children, he only had one daughter, his baby girl. As Stephany was growing up, he was rarely seen without his little nenita in tow.
When Stephany was two years old, the family owned a circus. It was a good, old-fashioned tent circus, complete with trapeze acts and a menagerie of exotic animals. Stephany loved to be around the elephants, bears, and tigers. Because her mother, Mariaelena, was the manager, she was able to spend her days hanging out with carnival workers who shared their strange and curious world with the tiny brown-eyed brunette. The performers loved Stephany and saw her as a kindred spirit. Like them, she was a bit mischievous and utterly fearless.
One day, Ricardo received a call from his wife asking him to head over to the main tent. When he arrived, there was a rehearsal in progress. He nearly passed out when he saw his two-year-old dressed in a frilly, pink tutu seated atop an elephant making its way into the arena. It was an unforgettable moment. Ricardo felt pride tinged with horror as he admired his tiny daughter’s courage. She was all smiles balanced atop the giant pachyderm. It turned out she’d been practicing for weeks without his knowledge under the direction of the circus’s veteran animal trainer. And his wife was a co-conspirator.
Years later, Stephany would be involved in another daredevil stunt, this time with her father. The two of them decided to keep Mariaelena in the dark. Ricardo was a well-known race-car driver, a good-looking older man with thick jet-black hair, deeply tanned skin, and a cleft chin, and his televised skills on the rally racing circuit had earned him near-celebrity status in Peru. His team’s name was Riflo, a contraction of his first and last names. The team had won the internationally famous Caminos del Inca Peru Rally in 1991, a 2,700-kilometer (1,680-mile) circuit divided into five grueling stages. The race placed tremendous pressure on both the car and driver. The Andean leg took drivers and their vehicles to altitudes of 15,000 feet, about 4,500 meters, and required that participants carry oxygen on board. Speeding up and down steep mountain roads, past high cliff walls lacking any safety rails, an unlucky driver could easily slide off a crumbling embankment into the abyss. Certain death lay below. The danger, the speed, the steely grins of the racers who had survived the sometimes deadly course generated female groupies. These men were superstars in their own right.
In the years following his victory, Riflo enjoyed this celebrity status. He also served two terms as president of the Peruvian Automobile Club. Off the track he wore tailor-made suits that hung gracefully from his lean, well-toned body. His look was classy and successful but he had a gangster’s edge and carried himself with a confidence that would serve him well from the racetrack to the boardroom.
Rally drivers were always accompanied by a navigator whose job was to shout out the unseen course in front of them. The navigator had to know the route and read from written notes as he simultaneously watched for the dips and turns in the road ahead. He had to know every curve and elevation change. It was a position with no margin for error. The slightest miscalculation could send a driver over the edge of a high cliff wall before he even realized he’d reached it. The driver and navigator had to be in sync and must have complete faith and trust in one another. On and off the racecourse, Ricardo Flores loved being behind the wheel and insisted on being in the driver’s seat. Even when he was out with his family he did all the driving. He selected a navigator with great care.
Stephany was in her teens when she first expressed an interest in racing, and she and her father hatched a plan to get her into the navigator’s seat for a real race. Normally, Team Riflo wore red fireproof racing suits, red being the team color. But Ricardo had two blue uniforms custom-made for him and Stephany. They would also register using pseudonyms.
In a sport dominated by men, it would be unheard of for a driver to use his sixteen-year-old daughter as a navigator. And he was sure his wife would object. The plan went awry when Mariaelena caught the two sneaking the suits out of the house. Admitting everything, Ricardo pleaded with his wife to let him take Stephany. He promised to keep his daughter safe.
Ultimately, Mariaelena acquiesced. She trusted her husband. When Stephany was a baby, the family had nicknamed him “Papá Gallana,” or Father Hen, because of the way he guarded over her. She accepted that he would not recklessly endanger their daughter’s life. Their shared passion for racing trumped the risk.
Now, standing in the hallway outside of Stephany’s bedroom, Ricardo felt his daughter slipping away. There was more to his concern than her failure to check in that evening. She had been spending a lot of nights out on the town. He’d recently discovered she was frequenting the casinos of Miraflores, and had gotten herself in over her head. He’d even bailed her out earlier in the year, buying her a new car after he learned that she’d sold her Mitsubushi in an online auction for the equivalent of U.S.$12,000 to cover her gambling debts. Ricardo was upset when he found out what she had done, and he settled the obligation, warning his daughter that owing money was both reckless and dangerous. He didn’t know for sure, but he suspected his daughter was still gambling.
Gambling in the Flores household was something of a family pastime. It was done for recreation, just like Americans might bet on the Superbowl or basketball’s March Madness with friends. Sometimes the buy-in was U.S.$100, which might seem steep, even obscene, in a country as poor as Peru, but in the Floreses’ minds dinner out and a night on the town would be just as expensive.
The senior Flores had been a gambler, and knew it had a darker side. Ricardo’s game had been baccarat. But at home the family played poker. And Stephany was good. She even told friends and family that she dreamed of becoming a professional poker player. She excelled at everything she did, and hated to lose. While she shared her mother’s light complexion and soft facial features, she had definitely inherited her thick, dark hair and competitive nature from her father.
Ricardo had hoped his daughter had learned her lesson after hocking her car, but just a few days earlier she’d hit him up for the equivalent of U.S.$1,000, claiming she needed a new laptop for school. As far as he knew, she hadn’t yet purchased one. He hoped she wasn’t gambling again.
Stephany’s mother, Mariaelena, a striking blonde who was stylish and chic, was equally concerned when she learned their daughter had not contacted them. She and her husband had both checked their cell phones; neither had a message. When she dialed Stephany’s number, the Nextel phone she carried appeared to be on, but it just rang several times before going to voice mail. This was odd.
When Stephany had stayed out all night in the past, she was good about letting her parents know her whereabouts. In fact, she was usually the one keeping tabs on her father, who, like Stephany, was a free spirit.
The Floreses’ home was in the quiet neighborhood of Chacarilla, an affluent oasis within the district of Surco, fifteen minutes from Miraflores. Surco itself ran the gamut of economic conditions, from rich to poor. Chacarilla was a work of gentrification in progress. The blocks of beautiful, expensive homes and classy shopping malls that made up its core deteriorated rapidly at the periphery. Almost from one block to another, the upscale areas changed to cinderblock storefronts and half-built dwellings that formed the backdrop of an impoverished district. Street children juggled plastic balls at stoplights for coins and women sold fruit from pushcarts as groups of men stood in small clusters drinking beer on the corners. Where rich and poor collided, the affluent tended to be on edge.
Armed paramilitary patrols would attempt to keep these affluent transplants safe as they relocated to the neighborhood, attracted by low real estate prices and the illusion of finding safety in numbers. Many of the homes on Ricardo’s block were new and a few were still under construction.
Ricardo had been able to keep his family protected within the sanctuary of their new home. To prevent would-be home invaders from gaining easy access, he had built a twelve-foot concrete wall surrounding his house. Many of the city’s residents installed an additional layer of razor wire or electrified fencing to fend off the home invaders and burglars that plagued Lima. But Ricardo had forgone this additional precaution. The private security booth, manned twenty-four hours a day, was next door.
With all these safety measures, he was only able to provide protection for his wife and the couple’s three children—Stephany, a second son he also named Ricardo, and Bobby—when they were at home. Outside one needed street smarts and luck. Stephany had neither.
Ricardo was a relatively lenient disciplinarian. He gave his children a certain amount of freedom and believed that kids learned best by making their own mistakes. Still, it wasn’t like Stephany to be out of touch for more than a few hours.
Ricardo’s mind cycled through the possibilities. Repeated calls to Stephany’s cell phone went unanswered. By late morning, he and his wife were frantically calling anyone who may have seen her, including her two older brothers, Ricardo Jr. and Enrique. The two were Ricardo’s adult sons from his first marriage, but they were very close to their half sister.
Ricardo Jr., nicknamed Richie, was fourteen when Stephany was born. He had been the one to choose her name and its unusual spelling. Now thirty-five and a single dad, he cut a larger-than-life figure in the bars and restaurants of Miraflores. He stood well over six feet tall with thick curly hair, long sideburns, and a broad and expressive smile, which made him one of the most eligible bachelors in the neighborhood. As a younger man working for a catering company in northern California, he’d developed a taste for good food and was both fond and proud of Lima’s nouveau cuisine. He was treated like a VIP by the chefs and maître d’s and was always the one to suggest the hot new restaurant when meeting his father and the rest of the family for impromptu get-togethers.
The day before, Saturday, he had invited the family to lunch to celebrate his son, Sebastian’s, first birthday and was disappointed that his kid sister hadn’t been able to join them. Stephany had told the family she had to sit for an exam and wouldn’t be finished in time. Richie had recently gone back to school himself, studying for a Master’s in business administration, and understood the pressures of academic life. He had just settled in on the couch and was watching cartoons with Sebastian when his phone rang.
“We can’t find Stephany. She never came home last night. Have you heard from her?” His father sounded nervous and worried.
“No, Dad, I have no idea where she is.”
“We’ve been calling her cell phone and she’s not picking up. I’m worried something’s happened to her.”
Richie had never heard his father so rattled and did his best to calm him down. “I’ll call Enrique and see if he’s heard anything.”
Enrique was the younger of the two and had recently married. His bride, Carolina Jorge, was a stunning brunette from a small town in the tropical Amazon basin of southeastern Peru who quickly became like a second daughter to Ricardo and Mariaelena. A call to Enrique’s home yielded no further clues. It wasn’t unusual that Stephany’s two older brothers had not heard from their baby sister; they were grown and no longer lived at home. But they were protective of Stephany, whom they affectionately called “Booboo,” and immediately offered to help their father with the search.
By evening, the Flores family still hadn’t been able to get in touch with Stephany or her friends. The truth was they didn’t even know many of them. Stephany was a college senior and rarely brought her friends home like she had done when she was a child.
Panic was beginning to set in. Ricardo and Mariaelena were making no progress. Their daughter had vanished. Hours had passed and there was still no word. Ricardo was compelled to call the police.
* * *
“You have to wait for the ransom call,” an officer from the kidnapping squad of the Division of Criminal Investigations of the Peruvian National Police instructed.
Like every wealthy or well-known businessman in Lima, Ricardo Flores was acutely aware of the dangers faced by high-profile individuals and their families. Residential burglaries, street crimes, and carjackers were an ever-present reality in Lima. Gangs of young street toughs, known as “piranhas,” operated in packs, typically swarming their victims in broad daylight, quickly stripping them of anything of value. Kidnappings were also a dangerous possibility.
Although not as rampant as in the past, abductions were still common in Latin America and Lima, Peru, was no exception. The abductions usually fell into one of two scenarios, the “kidnap express” and the “kidnap and ransom.”
The kidnap express was quick and dirty. Kidnappers usually snatched their victims off the street around 11:00 P.M., drove them to an ATM machine, and ordered them to use their bank cards and passwords to withdraw the daily maximum, about $500. Typically, the victims were held until just after midnight, when they were instructed to again withdraw the daily limit, another $500.
Odd as it may sound, these kidnappings normally ended without violence. The victim was returned traumatized but otherwise unharmed, so long as the withdrawals were made. From a detached perspective, these were merely business transactions.
The second, less frequent type of abduction was the traditional kidnap and ransom. The stakes and demands were much higher, the negotiations could be prolonged and any number of things could go wrong during the victim-for-cash exchange. This was an urgent, grave business that was as likely to end in death as release.
Luckily, Ricardo Flores had not been a target as yet. But he wondered if Stephany could have fallen victim to a kidnap and ransom scheme. With his now-distraught wife sobbing in the background, he began blaming himself for not teaching his children about the evils of the world. He had given all five of them expensive private school educations, vacations at the family’s seaside beach house and trips to the United States. He had given Stephany money whenever she asked for it. He now found himself second-guessing the freedom he had afforded his daughter.
By Monday, dark and terrible thoughts of what might have happened flashed through his mind. Each time the phone rang Ricardo anxiously answered it. But it was never Stephany, only family members and concerned friends checking in. It was just before 1:00 P.M. when the family finally received some news.
A member of the Peruvian police force was on the phone and believed he had located Stephany’s Jeep. Minutes earlier, officers responding to a suspicious vehicle call had run the plates, discovering it was registered to Stephany Flores. The truck with the tinted windows was found unlocked and abandoned in front of 154 Jorge Chávez Pasaje in the district of Surco Viejo, an impoverished, crime-plagued neighborhood. The officer described the vehicle as a black Jeep Compass 4 × 4, license plate number A1B-333. It had to be Stephany’s. She had purchased the car after selling the Mitsubishi in the Internet auction.
Ricardo jumped into his Mercedes and sped to the location. The four-lane, palm-lined boulevard to Surco Viejo ended in a dusty warren of one-way streets blocked by construction, detours, and police checkpoints. The sad empty eyes of poverty seemed to be the distinguishing feature of the people in the streets.
Cursing to himself, Ricardo watched as the neighborhood grew worse and worse. Two- and three-story apartment buildings painted in drab shades of brown, yellow, and cream sat abandoned, under construction, or in varying states of disrepair, many with exposed steel rebar jutting from the upper unfinished floors. Heavy metal grates protected first floor windows and doors. Clothes hung limply on makeshift lines on rooftops alongside a tangle of electrical wires that illegally siphoned electricity from the nearby grid. Elderly women in housecoats stood in doorways, and children in well-worn clothes and bare feet played soccer in the street. Ricardo knew the area was a zona roja, a red zone, with a reputation for drug activity and violence.
Pressing gently on the brakes, he looked left and right as the boulevard dead-ended at Las Palmas Air Force Base, where a young officer in combat boots and paramilitary garb stood guarding the entrance; a tank painted in white-and-green camouflage was parked just inside the perimeter. Looking out the passenger-side window he immediately spotted police vehicles and knew this was the place.
His daughter’s Jeep was parked nose in amid a row of late-model cars and taxis. A rusted-out red VW Bug sat just to its left. Above her vehicle, the words “Sí a la Vida, No a las Drogas” (Yes to Life, No to Drugs) were spray-painted in bold blue letters on the twelve-foot brick wall that surrounded the military base.
Ricardo was met by uniformed officers and briefed on what they had been able to piece together so far. They told him his daughter’s truck had been found about an hour earlier after a neighbor called in to report that an unfamiliar vehicle had been parked on the street for much of the weekend. The Jeep was brand new, and had seemed out of place on this impoverished block. Witnesses thought the vehicle might have belonged to someone from the air force base, which sat on the other side of the wall. They worried that its owner might have been the victim of foul play. Their hunch was half right.
Police criminalist José Sandoval Reyna had already begun his inspection of the Jeep. Sandoval had sprayed a reactive agent on all of the flat surfaces of the exterior and interior. His tests yielded fifty-four adhesive tapes containing partial fingerprint impressions lifted from the vehicle, along with samples of all the liquids found in the soda bottles and other containers collected from inside the car. He would soon send them to the lab for analysis.
The vehicle was messy, strewn with plastic bottles of Inca Cola, assorted fast-food wrappers, and dirty clothes, but it didn’t appear as if it had been the scene of a violent struggle.
Sandoval now needed to know if Ricardo knew the vehicle well enough to know if anything was missing.
“That’s Stephany’s, and so is that,” Ricardo told police as they held up various items found in the Jeep.
Ricardo recognized his daughter’s belongings, a jean jacket from the Hard Rock Café, a yellow Hollister sweatshirt, and a gym bag.
“She had a gaming system. I believe it was a Wii,” Ricardo said. “She had it with her on Saturday, but I don’t see it in the car.”
Investigators also found a blister pack for medicine, open and empty, on the passenger-side floor, a finding that fueled early reports in the press that Stephany may have been drugged by her assailant.
With Stephany’s Jeep located, police began working with the premise that the young woman had been abducted. Standing in the street next to Stephany’s car, officers from the kidnapping division asked Ricardo for his help in reconstructing his daughter’s movements over the past few days. The local media had already picked up the story, and there were conflicting reports in the press about Stephany’s whereabouts in the hours before her disappearance.
Neighborhood witnesses were sure that Stephany’s black Jeep had been parked on their block since as early as Friday. But from what Ricardo had told the officers, these witness reports didn’t seem possible. Ricardo was equally certain he had seen Stephany on Saturday morning. Confused, he called his wife to help construct a reliable time line. Mariaelena confirmed that Stephany had been home that Saturday morning, and that her daughter had returned to the house in her Jeep around 4:00 P.M. that same afternoon before heading out with friends for the evening.
Believing Stephany may have been abducted, police began tracking down informants and looking into criminal enterprises that specialize in kidnappings. But this line of inquiry went nowhere. Information was currency in Lima, but there was none of the usual chatter on the street level; none of their sources knew anything. There was also another concern. In their experience, a demand for money should have come by now. That no ransom call was received was very troubling.
Desperate for answers, Ricardo began to do some digging of his own. He started with his daughter’s phone service provider, Nextel. For nearly three hours, he pleaded with phone company operators and their managers, explaining that his daughter had been kidnapped and he needed their help. The distraught father was convinced they could use her GPS-enabled phone to pinpoint her exact location. Nextel was only able to provide Flores with a list of the most recent outgoing calls made from Stephany’s phone. Information on the incoming calls, he was told, would take fifteen days to process.
Ricardo was furious. He was sure the technology existed to pinpoint his daughter’s exact location and couldn’t believe the phone company hadn’t been more helpful, given that this appeared to be a kidnapping.
Taking a deep breath, he began dialing the numbers the company had provided. There had been six calls between Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30, when she went missing. Two of them were to a medical insurance company, Pacifico Vida, probably about claims related to Stephany’s asthma treatments. Two others were to a fried chicken restaurant. Dialing the next number, Ricardo finally reached someone helpful, one of the girls Stephany had been out with on the night she disappeared.
Carola Sanguinetti was Stephany’s friend from the University of Lima. The two women had met during Stephany’s freshman year in 2006 and were teammates on the school’s futsal team, a fast-paced cousin to soccer that is played indoors. Carola, a well-toned and physically fit brunette with shoulder-length hair she wore tucked behind her ears, was seven years older than Stephany and had already graduated from the university, where Stephany was now a senior and poised to receive a diploma in business administration in the fall. Despite the age difference, the two shared many of the same interests and had been spending a good deal of time together of late.
With Carola’s help, Stephany’s father was able to flesh out a time line.
What he learned was that she, too, was worried about Stephany and had been trying to get in touch with his daughter since Sunday morning. The two had spent much of Saturday together, laughing and swapping gossip over lunch at Polleria Mediterraneo, an inexpensive grill near the Floreses’ home that specialized in pollo a la brasa, a Peruvian staple of salted chicken cooked over charcoal and typically served with French fries. It was a laid-back Saturday afternoon and they were dressed casually in jeans and sneakers.
“She seemed happy. She was in a great mood,” Carola told Mr. Flores.
She had been pleased to see Stephany so upbeat. Stephany tended to despair about her weight, unable to restore the thin figure of her youth. She had the family curse, her father and two older brothers being large men. Coping with the unwanted weight gain as a young woman, however, was causing her considerable stress.
While a fierce athlete, Stephany had a soft, self-deprecating side. If she took any offense to her friend calling her by the pet name “Gordita,” Little Pig, she didn’t show it. In turn, Stephany playfully referred to Carola as “Chinita,” an endearing term in Peru that literally translates to “little Asian girl,” or a girl who looks like she is mixed with more than one race.
The two women loved playing video games, and after lunch they set off in Stephany’s Jeep to Polvos Rosados, a market known for pirated DVDs, video games, and assorted black market electronics. There, they bought a movie and several games for Stephany’s Wii gaming system. Stephany had the system with her in the car, and was planning to rent a room at a hotel in town so she and Carola could play.
In Lima, as is true in most of Latin America, adult children typically lived at home with their parents until they were married. For privacy, they often rented hotel rooms, sometimes by the hour. While it sounds odd, Stephany’s older brother, Richie, said it wasn’t unusual for his sister to spend a few hours partying at a hotel, watching movies and socializing with friends.
On their way to the hotel, they drove past the Markham College, and discovered the school was hosting a carnival. It looked like fun and they decided to stop. The Markham College was a private preparatory academy where Lima’s elite sent their children to study. Stephany’s younger brothers had both attended. Having grown up in a circus environment, Stephany grew nostalgic at the sight of the festival. There were clowns with painted faces, food vendors, and games of chance.
Stephany parked the Jeep at the school and grabbed her wallet out of the truck’s glove compartment. To Carola’s astonishment, Stephany pulled out a thick wad of crisp, high-denomination Peruvian currency while the two stood on the sidewalk, a calliope chiming a carnival tune in the background.
“Can you hold on to these?” she asked. “I don’t want to leave them in the truck,” Stephany said, explaining she had won the money at a casino five days earlier.
Carola was stunned. Stephany was driving around with the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars in her glove box. If she had won the cash five days earlier, why hadn’t she put it in the bank or at least in a safe place in her home?
Carola was one of the few friends who knew Stephany liked to gamble. During a phone call that past Monday, Stephany had boasted of winning 7,000 nuevos soles, about U.S.$2,500, in a poker tournament. Carola had been skeptical about the amount of money her friend claimed to have won. She had heard these big-fish stories before. As was true with most gamblers, Stephany tended to inflate the sum of her winnings and minimize the sum of her losses. Sometimes she would even offer proof. “Take a look at this,” she would say, opening her wallet to reveal thick wads of cash.
Carola found this side of Stephany’s personality disturbing. People were killed in Lima for smaller sums all the time. It seemed dangerous to be walking around the city carrying so much cash. Yet, Stephany didn’t appear at all concerned.
Not wanting to spoil her friend’s good time, Carola agreed to hold the money while they walked around the carnival. She told Ricardo that Stephany was particularly jovial as they strolled the school grounds, at one point declaring that she was having the time of her life. She loved their spontaneous decision to enjoy something different.
After several hours of eating cotton candy and playing tombola, a game similar to bingo, the two headed to the El Pacifico Hotel, a moderately priced hotel in the Jesus Maria district, not far from Miraflores. There, they rented a room so they could try out the video games and enjoy a few hours of privacy.
At around 11:30 P.M., Stephany and Carola rendezvoused with another friend, Carolina Gallo, in the hotel lobby. Gallo was a slender brunette with brilliant white teeth. She had also attended the University of Lima with them and was on their futsal team. The three women had plans to go to the Pub del Gringo in Barranco, a lively Bohemian district south of Miraflores that was popular with Lima’s young hipster set. The neighborhood, built on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, had a rich colonial history evidenced by the stunning homes built by German and British immigrants dating back to the 1800s.
Unfortunately, Barranco, the once beautiful seaside resort, had fallen on hard times and had been plagued by drugs and crime for decades. Now, it was in a renaissance, with trendy new bars and art galleries opening on an almost daily basis. It was the hot place to be seen and party.
At 2:00 A.M. the three called it a night. Carolina was tired and had to get up early for work. Stephany agreed to drop her off at her boyfriend’s house in Miraflores. From there, she drove Carola to the Phillips Company on Avenida Paseo de la República in San Isidro, where she worked in tech support earning the equivalent of about U.S.$1,000 a month. Carola planned to sleep on the couch in the small sixth-floor staff room before reporting for her shift at 7:00 A.M. rather than go home.
“I’ll call you as soon as I get home,” Stephany said. She then waited at the curb to make sure that Carola made it safely past the doorman and into the building before pulling away. It was 2:54 A.M. when she sent her friend a text, “I love you. I need to pee, did they open the door?”
“Yes, my love,” Carola replied at 2:58 A.M. “Did you arrive?”
Eight minutes passed before Carola received a reply. “I’m going up right now, I’ll call you.”
Carola was relieved thinking that her friend had arrived safely at her destination and fell asleep believing that Stephany was on her way upstairs to her bedroom. But it simply wasn’t true.
After dropping Carola at her office, Stephany had other plans. She drove straight to the Atlantic City Casino, one of the swankiest and most visually striking casinos in Miraflores. Sitting at the crossroads of the main drags of Alfredo Benavides and Larco avenues, the glow of the Atlantic City was visible from blocks away. Thousands of brilliant lightbulbs illuminated the mirrored gold surface of the building creating an almost supernova-like effect on an otherwise dark and uninteresting block populated by Internet cafés and office buildings. Valets in coats with long red tails and top hats looked like they’d stepped out of Victorian England standing beneath the curving red and gold marquis to greet gamblers at the enormous entryway framed by forty-foot waterfalls. The marble floors and colossal gold chandeliers were as glitzy as anything found in Vegas.
The Atlantic City Casino was a modern and full-service establishment and was open twenty-four hours a day. In addition to five hundred slot machines and gaming tables on the main level, there were also private poker suites and a karaoke lounge upstairs, as well the five-star restaurant, Eliazar, and the more casual Lulo’s Ice Cream Shop.
Stephany was already at a gaming table in one of the upstairs poker suites when she sent a text message to Carola saying she had arrived home safely. Her parents and friends had no way of knowing that her secret visits to the casinos of Miraflores were becoming more frequent, the stakes increasingly high.
It was just before 3:00 A.M. when casino surveillance cameras captured her taking a seat alongside a young Dutchman named Joran van der Sloot. Seen on video, the encounter seemed friendly and random. The two shook hands. For a minute Stephany appeared unsure about taking either of the two vacant chairs next to the lanky, dark-haired foreigner with the thin mustache and closely cropped beard. The fair-skinned young man was dressed casually in a long-sleeved collared shirt that hung loosely from his athletic frame. His well-worn blue jeans had holes in both knees. Cameras caught Stephany considering an empty chair at another table before she settled into a chair to the man’s left side, leaving the seat between them empty.
Pulling her hair back nervously with her fingers, she seemed on edge, perhaps simply the result of the rush of adrenaline that went along with sitting down at the gaming table.
Joran watched as she pulled a small wallet with peace symbols and the words “peace,” “love me,” and “flower power” in purple and blue lettering from the pocket of her jeans, unzipped it, and tossed a wad of bills onto the table in front of the dealer. In a city where pickpockets and purse snatchings were part of the norm, many Peruvians kept their money in a simple billfold in their front pockets. And Stephany was carrying a lot of cash. Her wallet was stuffed with 100 and 50 nuevos soles bills.
For the next two hours, Stephany sipped wine while Van der Sloot downed the complimentary whiskey and colas and smoked countless cigarettes doled out one by one, courtesy of the house, by cocktail waitresses dressed in revealing black-and-white uniforms. He had entered the casino an hour earlier than Stephany, most likely anticipating her arrival.
The two had been introduced at the tables earlier in the week by a thirty-five-year-old Uruguayan poker player named Elton García, who was in Lima to participate in the Latin American Poker Tour, scheduled to begin at the Atlantic City Casino in a few days. García, like Joran, was a guest at the Hotel Tac, and the two men had struck up a casual friendship.
Joran had also wanted to be a competitor in the four-day poker tournament. Although he wasn’t a registered player like García, he had come to Peru with $25,000 and had hoped he would be able to buy his way in at the last minute. But the last two weeks had been a bust. He’d lost almost all his cash and barely had enough money to pay his hotel bill.
Joran was a well-known figure in the poker world, though more for his media notoriety than his poker skills, and had a reputation for being a “railbird.” Railbirds, in pokerspeak, were gamblers who watched from the sidelines. They got their name because as observers not placing bets, they must stand behind a rail. True railbirds would often scam or hustle to get back into the action.
Joran couldn’t pinpoint when his gambling became an addiction, but it had taken over his entire life. His world revolved around cards and jackpots, his next fix. All his actions were a means to that end.
Since his childhood back on the Caribbean island of Aruba, he had wanted to be a “player.” Now at twenty-two his life was in shambles. His mother wanted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital, he had no real friends to speak of, and he suspected that the FBI was after him for an unsolved disappearance of a young woman in Aruba. All that remained from his once-promising former life was an all-consuming desire to gamble. Gambling was an expensive addiction to feed. With the Latin American Poker Tour just three days away, he needed cash desperately. The buy-in for the tournament was U.S.$2,700, and he would need additional money for betting.
Stephany Flores was oblivious to all of this as she sat next to the dangerous and desperate man. She had played cards with him earlier in the week, and he seemed like a nice, friendly Dutch tourist. During Joran’s stay in Peru, Stephany had been a regular at the Atlantic City Casino and there was a buzz about her recent winning streak. He knew she’d scored U.S.$10,000 at the baccarat tables that past Monday and had been winning ever since. The staff at the casino fawned over her, treating her like a VIP. Casinos didn’t do this for just anybody.
Since being introduced to her by Elton García earlier in the week, he and Stephany had played poker together several times, including an hour the night before. Joran had been quick to size her up. He learned that her father was a big shot and that she came from money.
It was 5:00 A.M. when videotape from a camera trained on the casino floor captured Stephany cashing in her chips. Another in the establishment’s parking lot recorded her driving into the night with Joran, known internationally as a suspect in an unsolved murder. What ruse he used to lure the young woman out of the casino would prove one of the greatest mysteries surrounding the case.
Stephany appeared nervous on the tape, as though her instincts were telling her to walk away. But the Dutchman’s charm was almost hypnotic.
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson