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Murder by the sea

Eric Volz staked his future on a place far from home, but after being sent to prison there his dreams focused on one thing: getting home alive.

Tony D'Souza: This case is so disturbing on so many levels.  One thing I’ll never be able to get out of my mind are the pictures of the crime scene. Whoever killed her [Doris Jimenez], what they did to her was just a brutal crime.

Doris Jimenez was a jewel set in a Nicaraguan paradise. She was just 25 years old—strikingly beautiful, bright, and ambitious.

What was done to her was horrific. The crime scene photographs show her body trussed up like some animal, and left, as if on display, here on the floor of her little clothing shop by the beach.

Oh, and one more thing: She had been seeing an American.

Another American, writer Tony D’Sousa set out to investigate the crime  and became a witness to a national tidal wave of anger.

D'Souza: It was a major event here. I’ve heard it, you know, compared to the O.J. Simpson trial.

20 years ago, this volcanic country was torn apart by revolution, political scandal and war, in which the U.S. was deeply involved. But things change.  And in Nicaragua, they are changing fast. Americans are invading, but with their money, as owners of oceanfront property.

But when Eric Volz, a young American, recently dipped his toes into sleepy seaside life, he found himself caught up in a story of jealousy, injustice and a murder so twisted, it united this nation in outrage... and revenge.

D'Souza: It was a cultural tinderbox.  And There’s a saying down there, “small town, big hell.”

Eric Volz was the young man destined to walk into that small town hell. He’d grown up in San Diego—ambitious, competitive, even driven...and an eager student of Latin America.

And in 2005, after backpacking around Central America, he responded to a friend’s invitation to Nicaragua.

Eric Volz: Nicaragua’s a very special place, and it’s in a tremendous time of development.

One of the uncut diamonds on this Pacific coastline is the sparkling seaside town Eric soon called home: San Juan Del Sur.

Volz: San Juan del Sur is very enchanting. It has a very sleepy feeling to it.  Everyone’s extremely nice there, nice people.

But it wasn’t just the sweet, sunny people and the surfing Eric liked—he was catching a big wave of change here.

Volz: The image is evolving into more of a new hot spot for travelers and Baby Boomers that want to have retirement homes.

More rock climber than social climber, Eric surprised himself by stepping onto a career ladder, making big commissions with a franchise of Century 21, selling real estate.

Volz: There’s a lot of capital and cash flow coming into Nicaragua.  Business were popping up.

But the waves of dollars washing up on these shores brought friction too.  

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Resentments building up?Volz: Yeah, of course as locals start to realize that they’re kind of being left behind, they retaliate.  You know, crime goes up. Drug use goes up—you know, delinquency. And it’s been starting to get worse in San Juan.

Maybe he should have seen the trouble heading his way.  Maybe he wasn’t looking.

As 2005 came around, everything was just about as good as it could be for any 20-something American adventurer.

And then it got even better when Eric started dating a local waitress.

Volz: I met Doris in a restaurant just down the street from where I worked. And luckily, they had the best food in town, so I went there quite often.Morrison: What was she like?Volz: Incredibly beautiful, very charismatic.Morrison: Couldn’t help but notice her?Volz: Oh yeah. What was unique about her is that she was very independent. She supported herself financially. She was putting herself through college.Morrison: How did you manage to make her notice you?Volz: I just got to know her over time and eventually developed more of a formal relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend.

Doris had grown up in a poor family, as many in Nicaragua are.  And it’s a tradition of necessity that she lived with an aunt and cousins in a small cramped house, while her mother worked and sent money home from her job in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.

Before long, she’d moved in with Eric—a temporary arrangement—at least as far as he was concerned.

Volz: I knew that I wouldn’t be in Nicaragua forever.  I was very careful not to lead her on. I wasn’t gonna marry her.Morrison: You told her that?Volz: Oh yeah, of course. I tried to be very responsible and very upfront.Morrison: She would’ve married you if you had asked?Volz: Yeah. Definitely.

And why not?  He was good looking, young and very successful. Now he was publishing an innovative magazine about responsible foreign investment in Nicaragua.

He called it “El Puente,”  meaning the bridge. He told his mom Maggie back in Nashville Tennessee it was designed to span the divide between locals and Americans.

Maggie Anthony, Eric's mother: The plan was to continually develop his magazine.  That he wanted to develop it so it could affect all of Central America.  He was very passionate about his magazine.

And Eric’s success was perhaps what encouraged Doris to set up her own business: a fashion boutique on one of San Juan’s busier streets.

Volz: I helped her do a business plan. She made money and she ran the place by herself, and she was a great salesperson.Morrison: She was going places.Volz: She really wanted to break out and obtain more mobility for herself.

And with that mobility, breaking out of small-town life, and her relationship with Eric, local tongues started wagging.

Volz: There was a lot of people that really envied Doris. The big rumor was that Eric must be the one behind the scenes, that he must be the one that’s paying for the store.Morrison: That was the nasty chatter of people who were envious of her beauty and her success?Volz: Yeah, definitely. And of her boyfriend.  I mean, there was a lot of people that were envious of the fact that she was dating me.

It was almost a year after they’d started dating. Eric’s magazine was taking off.  It was time, he decided, to move El Puente to the capital, Managua, a two and a half hour drive from tiny San Juan, two and a half hours from Doris.

Morrison: Was there a discussion or did she ever consider moving to Managua with you?Volz: No. Never. No, I mean, she wasn’t invited.Morrison: Wasn’t invited?Volz: No.Morrison: So, what happened to the relationship?Volz: Well, I mean, we remained friends, good friends. I remained supportive.  We saw each other on occasion.

But Doris started seeing someone else.

Morrison: Did she tell you at the time?Volz: She told me about him once. She had met a guy who was treating her very nicely, and you know, he loved her.Morrison: He loved her?Volz: That’s what she told me.

What Doris may not have told Eric was her belief that there was an intruder lurking around. Someone she thought was spying on her.

The last time Eric Volz says he saw Doris was last November, in San Juan. He says they spent the night together and had breakfast the following morning.

Morrison: It wasn’t a final goodbye, it was just, “See you, but I don’t know when?”Volz: Oh yeah.  

So now the young publisher, Eric Volz was turning a page in his life. He had essentially said goodbye to his girlfriend Doris, was also going to say goodbye to Nicaragua — at least as a permanent residence. After some meetings and a visit with his grandmother in California, he intended to move the magazine to Costa Rica, and it was one of his last meetings in Manangua when the telephone rang.

One of Doris’s friends was calling.

Eric Volz’s beautiful ex-girlfriend Doris had been murdered.

One of Doris’s friend’s, he says, called with the news.

Eric Volz: The tears start to pour and how can this be. It rocks the reality that you live in.

Eric had been preparing to move his magazine from Nicaragua to Costa Rica but when he got that call, he says, he told his colleagues he would not be leaving quite so soon after all.

He rented a car in Nicaragua’s capital Managua and three hours later, he encountered the dreadful scene in tiny San Juan: Doris - dead - in the back room of her fashion boutique.

Volz: The police had the door open. People could kind of see in the back and see maybe her feet in the back of the store.  And for decency, I was like, “Man, can’t you at least shut the door? 

Eric says he was told to stand on the street where a hushed crowd had gathered.

Tony D'Souza, writer: It was a really ominous mood.  And then I could see over the heads of people this little blue storefront.  And the police were coming in and out of it.

Tony D’Sousa is a young writer from Chicago.  He’d been enjoying some down time after completing an award winning novel when quite suddenly, this bizarre story began to unfold right in front of him.

D'Souza: I said to a guy right next to me, “What happened?”  And he said, “A girl raped and murdered.” 

Inside was the stuff of nightmares. The store upfront had been ransacked and robbed. Signs of a struggle led back through a living area and into the bedroom where police found the body. Doris had apparently been raped, strangled and her body hog-tied and exposed.

And her attacker - or attackers - didn’t even stop there.

D'Souza: They stuffed her mouth so full of paper and rags, that when they took that stuff out of her mouth and took pictures of her, it looked to me like her jaw had been broken. It was just a brutal crime.

Eric began to think about funeral arrangements.  He says he found himself involved in the family’s decision-making.

At the time, it seemed to some of Doris’s family that Eric was being a little hasty... even pushy.  After all, nobody invited him to be there.

But Eric was into it now. He’d become a kind of an amateur detective.

The day after Doris was found murdered, Eric says he discovered the police arrested two local men.

And he knew them from the beach: Two surfers named Julion Martin Chamorro and Nelson Danglas.

Volz: It’s such a small town that if you asked, “Who are the two most delinquent people, they would name these two people.” And San Juan people said on record, “We’re not even surprised that it was Nelson and Julio Chamorro.”  That was the only thing they hadn’t done, is killed somebody. 

But why would they have murdered Doris?

Eric continued his detective work.  Hoping to help the police solve the crime, he claims, he went to see the chief investigating officer.

It was a strategy that was about to backfire horribly.

Volz: He stops me in the middle of our conversation, and he tells me “Eric, you drink a lot, don’t you?  You—do you get violent when you drink, Eric?”  And  you’re a jealous guy—you know, would you kill somebody if they cheated on you?

Eric says he was outraged by the policeman’s accusations.

Volz: And I said, “You know, I don’t like your tone. I know my rights, and you’re speaking to me in an accusatory way.”Morrison: He was accusing you of murder.Volz: Well, he didn’t directly do it, but he was accusing me of somehow. It was his tone.Morrison: He was implying.Volz: Yeah.

Later the same day, two days after Doris was murdered, it was time to bury her.

Eric stepped in to help carry the coffin of his former girlfriend. He had no idea, of course, that his stint as a pallbearer would come back to haunt him. He was upset, he says.  Distraught.

Morrison: What effect did it have on you?Volz: I went through a lot of pain. No answers, you know, just that knot that you get in your stomach when you lose somebody and definitely a lot of tears.  A lot of sorrow.

His mourning was short-lived. Just after the funeral, that very day, they came for him. It was, he says,  a complete surprise.

A man in San Juan called Eric’s mom Maggie back in Nashville.

Maggie Anthony, Eric's mom: He said, you need to excuse yourself.  And you need to find a quiet place.  Because I have some terrible news to tell you about Eric. Morrison: What did you think?Maggie Anthony: I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to think at that moment.

Eric had been arrested for the rape and murder of Doris Jimenez.

Maggie Anthony: I was just in shock. I felt sick to my stomach. I just felt like I was just going to throw up the whole time.Morrison: That was the day your life changed.Maggie Anthony: Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.  It’s never been the same since.  Probably never will be either.  It’s devastating.

Eric was taken to a Nicaraguan jail to wait for his trial. And he says he was terrified.

Volz: All of a sudden, my life was being threatened, and I was in prison with killers and—you know, violent criminals.

Tony D’Sousa, the writer, saw a story breaking. He was on a loose contract with outside magazine.  He called his editor.

D'Souza: I just knew it was gonna be a big story. Because he was a U.S. Citizen, a white guy accused of killing a Nicaraguan girl.

And he was right. The local press jumped all over it. Or rather, all over Eric.

D'Souza: Their story was that Eric Volz raped Doris Jimenez vaginally and anally, and then killed her.Morrison: You were said to be arrogant, wealthy, arrogant, spoiled American kid, who felt he could kill with impunity, a lovely local girl.Volz: It was surreal for me to see the way that they were presenting me nationally.

Presenting him as a brutal killer.

But was he?

On December 7th, regional court was assembled here in Rivas, the provincial capital.

A local judge prepared to hear the case. Outside, a crowd began to gather in the streets around the courthouse.

And soon the crowd was huge, and menacing. They were demanding Eric’s head.

Morrison: Could you hear them?Volz: Yeah - they were yelling.

The judge, after hearing Eric’s defense eased his pre-trial imprisonment to house arrest.

The crowd, waiting heard this and was furious.  And what came next was truly terrifying.

In Nicaragua, public rage was growing over the murder of Doris Jimenez.

It was directed at the young American, Eric Volz. And it wasn’t hard to see why.

Headlines in a leading tabloid almost shouted the accusation that Volz had brutally raped and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Doris.

This, as American writer Tony D’Sousa was getting his teeth into the story for “Outside” magazine.

Tony D'Souza: The vast majority of people, local and expat, were sure he was guilty. 

And, perhaps, guilty enough to try to influence Doris’s mom Mercedes.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: There was a story that she was offered a million dollars to make the case go away. D'Souza: That is one that has a lot of legs to it.Morrison: Somebody did offer her that kind of money?D'Souza: Something happened.  I don’t think it was Eric’s—family, anyone on Eric’s legal side.

Doris’s mother denies receiving money from anybody, but she ensured that the story of an attempted bribe went very public.

D'Souza: It’s a major part of how public sentiment was turned against Eric trying to buy his way out of a crime in Nicaragua.

And when Eric began to appear in court to face rape and murder charges, Doris’s mother Mercedes was ready - she’d assembled a huge crowd outside the court house. At a pre-trial hearing in December, says Tony D’Sousa, the crowd became a mob.

Morrison: There were people, though, with machetes, guns, clubs?D'Souza: What I’m sure of is that it was a big, angry mob, and that some people in that mob would have killed Eric Volz if they’d had a chance to get their hands on him.Morrison: Could you hear them?Volz: Sure.Morrison: Yelling?  Yelling what?Volz: “Bring out the gringo, because we’re gonna kill him.” It was an angry mob of people that weren’t interested in justice, but revenge.

After his hearing, Eric, in his prison issue garb, was led from the courthouse and into the mouth of the mob.

Volz: What happened after that was you know, me running for my life… from hundreds of people.Morrison: They were chasing you?Volz: Yeah, oh yeah. I was handcuffed—no shoe laces, and my pants were falling down, because the jeans they brought me were too big.

U.S. Consul General Marc Meznar says a embassy officer was also caught up.

U.S. Consul General Marc Meznar: One of the embassy officers that was with him was also attacked by the mob.  I mean, they had to run for their lives.

Even so, Eric managed to escape.  He took refuge in a nearby gymnasium.

Volz: I found some rope in the office and tied my shoes up.  There was a soft measuring tape and I cut it with a fork and made a belt. I wet my hand with saliva and actually tore the handcuff off my left-hand and you know, took some flesh with it.Morrison: What were you thinking?Volz: It was an adrenaline-filled near-death experience. 

Eventually Eric found some police who took him back to prison.

He had barely escaped street justice, so it seemed a wise choice to opt for a single judge only — and no jury.

And just this past February, Eric was put on trial, along with Julio Chamorro, one of the others arrested after Doris’s murder.

Local prosecutor Isolda Ibarra charged that Eric murdered Doris — most likely in a fit of jealous rage — after discovering she was dating another man.

It was an opinion supported by Doris’s mother Mercedes.

Mercedes Alvarado: Doris told me that she was scared that his jealousy would drive him to kill her.

The prosecutor called upon Doris’s friends and relatives, like her cousin Ada, who claimed that Eric was so controlling, Doris found herself trying to escape.

Ada also believed the mystery intruder Doris had worried about was a jealous Eric, checking up on Doris.

Ada said she last saw Doris at 9 a.m. on the day she was murdered. Doris was leaving for work.

Ada Alvarado, cousin: She got dressed and she came in to the room, kissed the baby and said, “I’ll see you later”.

Four hours later, Doris was dead and it wasn’t long before Eric was fingered as a suspect by the prosecutor.

Isolda Ibarra, prosecutor (translated): We have testimony that places him directly at the scene when the crime was committed. 

Investigators determined that Doris was murdered in broad daylight, on the 21st of November, just after midday - around 12:30 p.m.

And the prosecutor’s prime witness testified in court that he saw Eric, right then, near Doris’s store.

Tony D'Souza, writer: He says that at 10 a.m., Eric showed up in a low, white car…

And that Eric paid him to carry two bags of clothes to the car.

D'Souza: And then Eric got in the car and they drove away in the direction of Managua.

Then the prosecutor presented strong physical evidence—incriminating stuff.

There were photos showing scratches on Eric’s back, caused, said the prosecutor, by Doris’s fingernails in a desperate fight for her life.

Prosecutor: Forensic tests show they corresponded to self-defense injuries that the victim made against him.

And that wasn’t all.

Prosecutor: The forensic doctor took a sample from under Eric’s nails and found blood there.

Must have been Doris’s blood, she said.

And in trying to avoid punishment for his crime, said the prosecutor, Eric spun the lie that he had ordered a rental car after hearing that Doris was dead, but was caught by a different time line given by the rental car company, whose employees said he’d called much earlier, saying someone had died.

Ibarra: He called around 1:00 to 1:30 P.M. to rent the car and according to his testimony, he found out about his girlfriends death at 2:45 P.M. 

And what’s more, she alleged, Eric did not take delivery of the rental car himself. Someone else signed for it, she said.  But then later, she said, Eric tried to persuade employees of the rental car company to cover for him.

Ibarra: They were asked by Erick Volz employees to write a document stating that they had personally delivered the car and that they had seen Eric Volz in Managua the day Doris was killed.

Eric Volz, she concluded, was caught in his own lies.

There was physical evidence, circumstantial evidence... and critical eye-witness testimony placing Eric at the scene of the crime.

All of that taken together appeared to give the prosecutor an iron clad case.

Eric Volz, she concluded, brutally murdered his ex girlfriend Doris Jimenez in fit of jealous rage.

There is no death penalty in Nicaragua, so the prosecutor asked for the maximum: 30 years in prison.

But now, it was time to hear Eric’s side of the story. 

Finally, all those vicious accusations, those prosecution claims, would be put to rest.  Eric’s defense attorney was reputed to be one of the best in the land.  And the ammunition he had to work with was unassailable, unbeatable.

Eric Volz was in big trouble: Angry crowds milled around the courthouse.  A national newspaper seemed determined to ensure the ‘gringo’ didn’t evade justice.

And the evidence presented by the Nicaraguan prosecutor during the mid-February trial seemed overwhelming.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: They always say, “Look for the male, the boyfriend, the person who is pretty close, and you’ll find your killer.”Eric Volz: Yeah, yeah.

There was an eyewitness, there were suspicious scratches on his back; and allegations that Eric had been insanely jealous of Doris’s new boyfriend and had threatened to kill her. 

It was, in a word, grim.

Or was it?

Eric’s family had hired the best lawyer they could find—a man who’d once defended Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

And he had excellent ammunition—a perfect alibi.

Remember, the murder happened around 12:30 p.m .in San Juan del Sur, more than two and a half hours drive from Managua.

Volz: The first question that the police asked me when I was interviewed the night of her murder was “Eric, where were you today from 8 o’clock in the morning until the time you received this phone call saying that Doris was dead?” And the first answer out of my lips to the police was that, “I was in my office at Managua.”  He then asked, “Do you have witnesses that can—you know, confirm this?” Yes.

Eric testified that his housemaid woke him up that morning at his Managua apartment sometime before 9 a.m.

Volz: And then I immediately went into the office, probably around 9 o’clock, and there was my creative director, my managerial editor, and my graphic designer.

All three provided testimony they had been with Eric, just as he claimed.

But there was more.

A potential business partner called: Respected Nicaraguan journalist Ricardo Castillo asked for a meeting to talk about Eric’s magazine.

Ricardo Castillo: I called him at 10:30-- 11:00 on the conventional line. Volz: Not on the cell phone, because the meeting was set originally at 1:00.  And then something else came up for me at after 2:00.  So I called him and asked him to move the meeting from 1:00 to 12:00.  And he said yes.

Ricardo says he showed up at Eric’s office at 12 noon on the dot.

Morrison: Were there other people in the office that day?Castillo: Yes.  Yes.  There were at least seven other people.

He was with Eric, he testified, from 12 noon until after 2 p.m.  And about the time the murder happened, they were both on a conference call.

At the other end of the call, in Atlanta, was American Nick Purdy. He testified that as they talked, he and Eric were exchanging instant computer messages.

He submitted the time-stamped messages to the Nicaraguan court.

Eric seemed perfectly fine and even upbeat that day, said Castillo.

Morrison: He didn’t seem nervous in any way?Castillo: Not that I noticed.Morrison: Not stressed?Castillo: Really not at all.  Because then we had a very relaxed lunch afterwards. 

Castillo and nine other people testified Eric Volz was in Managua—more than two and a half hours drive from San Juan, at the time of the murder.

But why call for a rental car at 1 p.m., as the prosecutor claimed, if—as Eric testified—he only found out about the murder at 2:45 p.m.?

Volz: Well, the answer to that is, it’s not true.  We didn’t call at one o’clock. My secretary called around three o’clock, and we actually have the phone registry record that dictates that.  Morrison: There’s been some dispute about that car.  Because, nobody at the rental car company saw you rent it.Volz: Well, they actually did.  They did see me. They testified saying they didn’t. I went outside and signed the voucher on the table, and he was right there.  For whatever reason, he ended up testifying, saying that he didn’t see me.

Sure enough, Eric’s signature is on the rental car payment slip.

Then Eric’s defense produced cell phone records to show that Eric drove from Managua to San Juan just when he said he did.

Volz: My defense did present what’s called a “triangulation registry” that shows where the phone calls I was making, which antennas they were being directed through. And then, it shows them gradually—the antennas, which correlate with a route to San Juan del Sur. 

That, then, was the alibi.

But Eric also responded to the prosecution’s claim that Doris left these scratches on his shoulder as he attacked her.

Morrison: I’ve seen a photograph of them.  And, sure as heck looks like fingernail scratches.  Volz: Number one, you’re not a specialist. To a lot of people, they look at it, and they know that it’s not nail scratches.  If you look at the photograph, the skin is not torn. 

But there was a perfectly good reason for the scratches, said Eric. Remember, at the funeral, he was one of the four pallbearers?

Volz: And on the downhill side of my shoulder, you can see where the blood vessels are broken and bruised.  And that’s because I had the casket, and it would fall down, and then I would readjust the casket. And that’s why there’s two or three different lines. 

The video seemed to back up his story.

As for the blood under Eric’s finger nails, police couldn’t even determine whose it was, or what type, let alone where it came from.

There was no DNA test.  On anything.

And at the crime scene, argued the crack defense team, police found nothing at all linking Eric to the murder. Nothing.

Volz: They took blood samples, pubic hair samples, saliva samples, and hair samples of me.  And none of it coincided  with what little they did find at the crime scene.

As for a motive—jealousy—Eric admits he knew Doris was seeing someone else. But—

Volz: I’m not a jealous person.  None, whatsoever.  I wasn’t in love with Doris in that way, at the time.  I had a lot of exciting things to look forward to… she had her store. I never felt jealousy, what I felt was excitement. It was kind of a relief for me to know that she was kind of taking the pressure off of me a little bit.

And finally, there was that eye witness, Nelson Dangla.

At trial, Dangla admitted he was an alcoholic, and not exactly an upstanding citizen. In fact, police initially arrested him right after Doris’s murder.

He was given immunity for his testimony—that he saw Eric at the crime scene.

Volz: They didn’t have any evidence against me.  So, at the last minute, the prosecution kind of struck a deal with Nelson Danglas.

Surely no one would believe Danglas, when Eric’s alibi was so water tight - backed up by credible witnesses, phone records, cellphone towers and the rental car signature. 

Morrison: When it came to trial, you probably thought, “I’ll get off, no problem.”  Because I’ve got all these alibi witnesses, right? Volz: Yes. 

In fact, Eric’s defense was so solid that, back in Nashville, his mom Maggie and step-dad Dane were making preparations to bring him home.

Dane Anthony: We were feeling more positive all the time.  And literally, with probably 20 minutes before the phone call came about the verdict, we were on the couch together, on the computer, looking for plane tickets to buy to fly Eric home.  Morrison: I’m feeling tremendous relief at this point.Maggie Anthony: Oh, yeah. We had brought all his clothes home with us.  And I’d washed them.  And we had doctors prepared to see him.  All sorts of things in line for him.  And we just knew he was coming home. 

Or was he?

Tony D’Souza: The whole center of the town was like, you know, the eye of a hurricane, quiet.  It was the height of drama.

From morning to night the drama of Eric Volz's three-day trial electrified this usually lazy provincial town in Nicaragua.

Writer Tony D’Souza recorded it all as it reached its climax and the mood on the street turned thick with menace.

Tony D’Souza: All around the courthouse, two block radius, there were riot police in armor with, you know, tear gas, guns and shields, clubs.

Then Eric arrived, in a flak jacket, surrounded by his own security force.

Keith Morrison: Better weapons than the Nicaraguan military had.Tony D’Souza: Oh yeah. It all reinforced the idea that here was a rich, powerful gringo trying to buy his way out of justice.

And it made the angry mob see red.

Tony D’Souza: Doris’s mother would be out there shaking her fist. Whenever there was a break in the trial, she would run down the steps, past the riot police line, get right in front of the crowd, and raise her fist. And they would yell at the police, you know "You're whores of the gringo!  Let us through!  Process is corrupt!” And, you know, she whipped everyone up. She whipped them up so much that police fired warning shots into the air.

They were clearly audible inside the tiny courtroom, where closing arguments were being heard and the judge was considering Eric's guilt or innocence.

But first -- some preliminary rulings.

Remember that perfect alibi? All those witnesses who said they saw Eric in Managua? The judge threw it all out.

Tony D’Souza: Did the ten people who were physically with him during the time of the crime all like him so much that they were all willing to lie for someone who killed his girlfriend?

The judge ruled in effect that they were lying to protect Eric. All of them -- including that pillar of the community Ricardo Castillo.

Castillo: In any other country, you would have cross examined, you know, the ten other people, and if all of them would have been lying, somebody would have cracked.  But they didn't do that.

It got worse for Eric. The judge also threw out Eric’s phone records.  They only proved calls were made, she said, not who made them.

She applied the same logic to the instant messages, and those cell phone tower records.
Those scratches on Eric’s shoulder and back?

Couldn't have been  caused by a casket, she decided.

Doris must have scratched him.

And Nelson Dangla, the witness who placed Eric at the crime scene?  The judge agreed that Dangla was an alcoholic, but she did not take him for a liar.

Tony D’Souza: Nelson Dangla, who, at one time was also accused, later became the principle witness for the prosecution. He's the only person who can put Eric Volz in San Juan at the time of the murder.

But that was enough. Enough  for the judge to convict Eric Volz of rape and murder of the beautiful Doris Jimenez.

Eric Volz: You know, the judge started reading her verdict, and I realized that she was charging me with murder, she had found me guilty.

At that very moment, Eric’s mom and stepdad were waiting by the phone. A video camera was shooting what they hoped would be a moment of elation.

Dane Anthony: We were just devastated. It was just the total antithesis of what we had been preparing ourselves for for weeks and weeks.  Dane Anthony: I didn't know whether to pass out or throw up.  Or kick something. You know, just  was just overcome with the-- the absurdity of this.

How could he have been found guilty?

Tony D’Souza: It's absolutely opposed to the evidence.

Since the trial, Tony D’Souza has done his best to run down every testimony, every piece of evidence, any rumor and has come to one conclusion.

Tony D’Souza: Eric Volz could not have physically killed Doris Jimenez.

Simply could not have been there.  And yet?  Here he was in prison, sentenced to 30 years, as was his co-defendant, Chamorro.

He immediately launched an appeal which -- like him -- seemed to fall into a big black hole.
Eric was, quite simply, in hell.  And his chances of ever getting out seemed to wither by the day.

Eric says after authorities uncovered a plot to have him killed, he was transferred to the infamous "Modelo" prison and became a target for other inmates.

Eric Volz: People tried to plant drugs in my cell.  People tried to put, at one point, you know, weapons in my cell.  And then they would go tell the guards. They constantly were looking for a way to be able to justify sending me to solitary confinement block.

And as days became weeks and then months, Eric’s promised appeal seemed to go nowhere.

So Eric’s family publicized his plight far and wide with a YouTube segment, a slick Web site and appearances ontelevision.

They hoped it would pressure the Nicaraguan authorities.

And all the while Eric had no idea how long his descent into hell was going to last. His appeal had been expected for months. Would his case ever be reviewed?

Eric Volz: Every time there was a delay in the appeal, it was like a stab in the heart. My life, I lived it, you know, in week-long blocks.  And they would announce that they were going to, you know, present the resolution in two weeks or three weeks or four weeks. And nothing would happen. It just twisted my guts and my heart, it hurt so bad, to wait for these-- you know, the delays were-- it's indescribable.

And yet he did describe it, graphically, in his prison journal, which his family turned into a blog.

(Reading from journal)

Four months into his sentence he was coming apart at the seams:

(Reading from journal)

Eric was struggling to keep it together physically too -- on a meager diet of rice and beans.

(Reading from journal)

Then, after a year in prison,  finally, a ruling. Of innocence. He had won his appeal.

And yet? For five days he waited, still in prison, as angry Nicaraguans turned their fury on those appeals judges and the government ordered an investigation into how they reached their decision.

His mom Maggie was beyond frustration.

Finally, in a sudden rush, Eric was released. But even then he didn't know if he would get out of the country alive.

Keith Morrison: You had a--- a group of people who were protecting you and getting you to an airport and a private plane that flew out of there fast?Eric Volz: It was a dangerous situation and we had to take the pre-- the necessary precautions.Keith Morrison: You wore a bulletproof vest?Eric Volz: Yeah.Keith Morrison: For good reason probably.Eric Volz: Yeah.

Finally, Eric arrived home in Nashville just before Christmas - and into the arms of his mom.

(At the reunion)
Eric Volz: I got my "moms" back -- the best Christmas present…

Maggie Anthony: We were relentless. We weren't going to let go. We just fought just as best we knew how.Keith Morrison: When we left the last time, I remember thinking to myself, “That guy's chances in there are not good." Here you are.Eric Volz: It's a miracle that I survived.Keith Morrison: What was your state of mind in those dark days?Eric Volz: You have to become a warrior to survive those kinds of situations.  You know, those prisons are  dangerous.  So you really do have to kind of adopt, you know, a stronger, harder demeanor.Keith Morrison: Put on kind of a brittle mask.Eric Volz: I don't know if it's a mask.  It's real. You got to do whatever you got to do to stay alive.Keith Morrison: And coming out the other end of the tunnel.  When did you feel free?Eric Volz: I still don't feel free. I'm out of prison and I’m out of Nicaragua but they continue to persecute me. They're now threatening to throw the judges in jail that signed and ruled in my favor.  My case is now being seen by the Supreme Court.

That means Eric’s innocence could be put in doubt again, he says, while Doris’s real murderer might be free to murder again.

Eric Volz: There's a very good chance that I’ll be considered a wanted man in Nicaragua and potentially in the Central American region. And that's not justice. I'm an innocent man and that's not freedom.

But for now, he says, he is grateful… to his family... to those appeals judges... to the soft bed waiting at home.

Eric Volz: My first hot shower in, you know, over a year.  I slept deeper than I can-- I think I’ve ever  slept in my life.  You know, the first night I was-- after I was free man.  You know, little things like that. you can't appreciate your freedom until you've had it taken away and you've had to fight to retrieve it.