The hunt for the Camino killer

A step-by-step examination of the unprecedented search for Denise Pikka Thiem’s murderer Flight of main suspect and pressure from US Senator McCain triggered deployment in León

The main suspect in Thiem’s death outside a courthouse in Astorga.
The main suspect in Thiem’s death outside a courthouse in Astorga.J. CASARES (EFE)

“If you want to find the guilty party, go to the prefabricated house up on the hill. That lunatic brought trouble to this village where nothing had ever happened before. They let him go, and now they go looking for him five months later.”

That was how a retiree sitting on a stone bench under a tree greeted journalists on Thursday as they showed up in Castrillo de los Polvazares, a hamlet in Spain’s northern León province, to follow the massive and sudden search operation for Denise Pikka Thiem, a US tourist who went missing on April 5 as she was walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route by herself.

Despite the huge deployment, the suspect was only located when he tried to take out money from an ATM

Over 300 police and military personnel, dogs, horses, army vehicles and a helicopter were out looking for the 41-year-old from Arizona. An initial investigation had yielded no arrests, and the case seemed at a dead end until its sudden reactivation last week.

Miguel Ángel Muñoz Blas, the “lunatic” that the retiree was talking about, had a police record for theft, and was known to have harassed female pilgrims along this stretch of the route, where he would wear a balaclava to conceal his identity.

The police had interrogated him in the weeks following the Arizona woman’s disappearance, but he was not arrested.

Suspect changes his story

El País

Chief suspect Miguel Ángel Muñoz Blas on Monday went back on his initial confession and now claims that he did not kill the American tourist despite all the evidence against him – including traces of the victim's DNA on tools found on his property.

Muñoz Blas pleaded innocent and said he had found the body because of the smell, investigators told news agency Europa Press. A court has remanded him in custody without bail.

Also on Monday, the results of the autopsy confirmed that the body found on the suspect's premises is that of Denise Pikka Thiem.

At the time of his arrest, Muñoz Blas allegedly told the police that he beat the woman to death. Now he claims that he found the body on his property, but did not alert authorities because he was afraid his neighbors would accuse him of the crime.

Yet a bank employee in Zamora had warned authorities about a suspicious transaction she had been witness to: a middle-aged man had come in to change $1,200 into euros right around the time of Thiem’s disappearance.

Muñoz Blas, 39, became the top suspect in the case and was being tailed by the police, who were planning to set up cameras near his home to keep tabs on him.

Then, last week, police chiefs received the kind of news that they don’t like to hear: the suspect had fled. Even though he had no car and no driver’s license – he used mountain bikes to move around the village – Muñoz Blas had made his getaway, most likely by bus.

Investigators who had been waiting for him to make a wrong move now found themselves empty-handed. Yet this was a priority case for the government, since back in July US Republican Senator John McCain had offered the help of the FBI in solving the disappearance – an offer Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had politely declined.

Alarms went off inside the Interior Ministry at news of the suspect’s flight, and a decision was made to launch a search that has few precedents for someone who has been missing five months.

Over 300 police officers and military emergency personnel were deployed on the hills around Astorga to find the body, since Thiem was already presumed dead at that point. Searchers drew 100-hectare maps around the perimeter of the wooden house that Muñoz had constructed three years ago not 500 meters from the Camino de Santiago, between the hamlets of Castrillo de los Polvazares and El Ganso – both located along Thiem’s planned route.

One of the last pictures of Thiem on the Camino de Santiago.
One of the last pictures of Thiem on the Camino de Santiago.

Mounted police, soldiers and underground experts were sent to dry out two dozen wells, while trained dogs sniffed the ground, a helicopter hovered overhead and armored vehicles monitored every crossroads. A Zodiac-type inflatable boat was even brought in, even though the only brook in the area, the Jerga, has been dry since spring.

Despite the huge deployment, the suspect was only located on Friday morning after he attempted to take out money from an ATM in Grandas de Salime, a village in the neighboring region of Asturias. His credit card gave him away, and Muñoz Blas did not resist arrest at the bar where the Civil Guard located him. He was flown back by helicopter and took officers to the spot where Thiem’s body was buried, near his house.

More information
DNA of missing US tourist found on tools belonging to murder suspect
Police searching for American tourist missing in León province
Camino de Santiago: Trampling the holy path

The next morning, the official fanfare announcing that the case was solved matched the scope of the search operation. Before Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz arrived in Astorga by helicopter, chauffeurs were instructed to wash the official cars. Meanwhile, over by the police station on Plaza de los Marqueses, two large police trucks were parked right where 20 or so police chiefs were scheduled to be congratulated in front of the cameras.

At the open-air press conference, the minister said that by the time Senator McCain offered the Spanish government help in July, investigators were already on the suspect’s heels.

“He was being watched closely by the police, and if he was arrested thanks to magnificent cooperation by the Asturias police, it was also because the operation was perfectly deployed,” he said.

English version by Susana Urra.

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