Missing Columbia Grad Reportedly Strangled in Panama Soon After Posting 'I Found Paradise' on Trip
Catherine Johannet was found strangled in Panama days after she was reported missing there while traveling, according to multiple news outlets
On the day before she vanished while traveling in Panama, Catherine Johannet posted a smiling photo to Instagram, with the water and a palm-fringed beach behind her.
“I found paradise and it’s called Isla Ina!” the 23-year-old native of Edgemont, New York, wrote on Feb. 1 about the tiny island off the northern coast of Panama.
It was apparently her last update: Johannet went missing on Feb. 2 — and after an exhaustive search, police reportedly found her dead body three days after that, near the beach on Panama’s Bastimentos Island.
What was a trip abroad has become a homicide investigation: Preliminary forensic results show Johannet was strangled, according to Panamanian media outlets En Segundos, La Prensa and Next TV Panama. It was not immediately clear when authorities believe she was killed.
Johannet — a seasoned traveler who relatives said had visited six continents — was last seen alive about 10 a.m. Thursday on Colon Island in Bocas del Toro, Panama, where she had been staying, according to The Journal News. She planned to travel to Bastimentos Island that same day, according to the News.
When she failed to return, the hostel on Colon Island reported her missing Thursday night, her sister, Laura, wrote on Facebook. Catherine was found dead on Sunday afternoon, according to La Prensa.
After she vanished, FBI agents joined investigators in Panama in raiding various locations on Bastimentos Island, La Prensa reports. Multiple people have since been detained for questioning, according to the paper. The national police will also reportedly increase their presence in the area.
In a statement released by the U.S. Embassy on Monday, spokesperson Adrienne Bory confirmed Catherine’s death and offered the embassy’s condolences.
“Multiple senior members of the Panamanian government have been working closely, throughout the weekend, along with the Ambassador, U.S. consular officials, and the FBI,” the statement reads. “We express our regret to the family of Ms. Johannet. Out of respect for the family’s privacy at this difficult time, we have no further public comment; we will continue to work closely with Panamanian government officials and provide all possible assistance to the grieving family.”
PEOPLE’s calls to the local medical examiner and to Bocas del Toro police were not immediately returned.
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Family: Victim Was ‘Adventurous’ and ‘Warm’
Immediately after learning Catherine had disappeared, her family traveled to Panama to identify her body and bring her home.
Her brother, Paul, described her as a voracious traveler: “By the age of 23, she had already visited six continents and innumerable countries, including a recent 18-month trip to Vietnam where she taught English Literature to local students,” he wrote on Facebook. “She was cheerful, adventurous, thoughtful and warm — all qualities I strive towards. I’ll always look up to my youngest sister.”
Catherine graduated from Columbia University in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, according to her LinkedIn profile. From July 2015 to October 2016, she worked as a teacher at Ivy Prep Academy in Hanoi, Vietnam.
On Monday, her sister, Laura, remembered Catherine as “our laughing, adventurous, warm little girl.” (The Johannet family did not return calls for comment.)
“Thank you for your support as we tried to find my baby sister,” Laura wrote on Facebook. “all your shares and contact with others helped us feel like we were doing something while we were stuck getting there. we will always appreciate that.”
“My family is thinking of all our beautiful memories … [Catherine] was always there to listen to you and just enjoy life with her loved ones,” Laura continued.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday in Scarsdale, New York, Laura wrote — and she added a request: “For her many friends around the world who cannot make it for our beloved Cat’s memorial please light a candle for her at 11am, I know she would love that.”