The search for a former Orange County woman who moved to Panama just five months ago has intensified as authorities combed her Caribbean home for traces of blood, offered a reward in the case, and named her ex-Marine boyfriend as a person of interest.
Yvonne Baldelli, 42, was last seen Nov. 26 in Isla Carenero, one of several islands in the province of Bocas del Toro on Panama's Caribbean coast.
On Friday, FBI agents, forensic specialists and Panama authorities used a chemical that can reveal traces of blood while searching the home she and boyfriend Brian Brimager shared for more than two months, Panamanian police investigator Alexis Munoz told the Associated Press.
Neighbors reportedly heard yelling, screaming and breaking glass at the home, according to the English language news site Panama-Guide. (However, Baldelli's niece told Patch that authorities never confirmed such reports to the family.)
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Panamanian equivalent of the FBI, the Departamento del Investigación Judicial, announced a $3,000 reward in the case.
“That may not seem like a lot, but in reality it is about six months' worth of a salary in Bocas del Toro," according to Baldelli's 25-year-old niece, Lauren Beyer, who just returned from Panama. “We are hoping that someone comes forward with any kind of information to help authorities find Yvonne.”
Panamanian police have also said Brimager, 36, who apparently returned to the U.S. and married another woman shortly after Baldelli's disappearance, is a person of interest in the investigation, according to various news reports.
Back in Time
Baldelli, 42, moved to Panama from Laguna Niguel in September to “start a new life” and was “extremely excited,” Beyer said.
She was joined by Brimager and her dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called GeorgiaMae, Beyer said.
Beyer said she did not know exactly when Brimager and Baldelli started dating, but said they'd been together at least several years. She also said the family recently learned he married someone else. According to Reuters, a wedding registry created at Amazon.com said Brimager had a civil ceremony in December to Kristin Werkhoven, who gave birth to his daughter in 2010. The registry also said Brimager "went on a vacation to Panama to detox from the Marine Corps" in November.
Beyer said her aunt previously lived in Laguna Niguel and Dana Point. She added that Baldelli was laid off from her job at Proctor & Gamble. Baldelli was a regional sales representative for the Sebastian hair care and cosmetics line, and traveled to check on the product line stocked at various salons.
“She decided that living in the area was very expensive but that she still wanted to live near the beach,” Beyer said. “She wanted to start a new life in Panama, where my grandparents also live.”
A New Life
Before leaving California, the couple found a beach rental home called Casa del Sapo in a tiny town of 450 -- mostly foreigners -- on an archipelago off the coast of Panama.
“She had a one-way ticket and was so excited about moving,” Beyer said. “It’s not like she was just going on vacation.”
During the first few months, Beyer emailed her aunt frequently. Among other tidbits, she learned that Baldelli adopted a second dog, a German Shepherd also now missing.
Beyer said Baldelli was divorced, but had no children. She always wanted kids but was unable. “Her dogs were like her kids.”
“I talked to her when she first arrived and she said they were there, they were settled, walking the dogs. I was going to go and visit, but I wasn’t able to in the two months she was there, before she went missing,” she said. “Of course the family was concerned that she was moving so far ... but she’s an adult so we supported her.”
In January, the family met for a reunion in California, but Baldelli did not attend. Family members started to compare notes, and realized nobody had heard from Baldelli in weeks. Her parents contacted the U.S. embassies in Panama and Costa Rica and went to Panama to look for her. They have not stopped.
“A lot of people want to know why we reported her missing in January,” Beyer said. “We took action immediately when we concluded something was wrong. During the month of December, we figured she must be busy enjoying life and having fun. I personally didn’t think anything was off initially; she is a grown woman in her 40s, after all, and doesn’t need to check in. But that changed when we all discussed it together as a group.”
Relatives have been working with authorities, but did not alert the media until last week.
“As a family, we decided when a good time would be to do that, and it was now,” she said.
Baldelli has three siblings, Lorraine Michelle Faust, Jim Faust Jr., and Michele Valenzuela, Beyer’s mother. Baldelli’s parents live in a rural part of Panama, about nine hours from where she lived.
A Generous, Trusting Person
When asked to describe her aunt, Beyer said: “Yvonne is a kind, loving, generous and trusting person. She had only lived in Panama for about two months; and when I was there in Bocas del Toro, I learned that nearly every person we met knew who she was. They only had great things to say about her."
Baldelli's mother, Lillian Faust, told the Associated Press she fears the worst: "Some people want to say that she's out there somewhere, but everyone in the family knows that's not possible. ... We did not want to accept it for a long time, but we have accepted it."
Beyer told Patch: “This has been such a nightmare, such a shock to the family. We have had a lot of people reach out to us through Facebook. Also, just the other day, Sen. John McCain contacted us, which we are so grateful for. We just want to spread the word, make people aware and bring Yvonne home. Even when we are all asleep, we dream about bringing her home.”