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Is Eric Volz in jail because of Nicaraguan anger at America?

by Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent

 To explore the story of Eric Volz is to take a walk in a nightmare.  Volz is the young American accused, charged and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, the beautiful Doris, the jewel of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

We arrived in that poor but truly lovely country in the midst of a media war -- the Nicaraguan media (or at least, the main national tabloid paper), which printed giant headlines declaring Volz's guilt, versus a growing U.S.-based Internet campaign launched by friends and family in an effort to show he was subjected to an obscene perversion of justice.

"Don't misunderstand," Nicaraguans told us, "We're not anti-American.  But we don't want that rich 'gringo' to avoid paying for his crime." 

  The basic facts are these:  Eric, an ambitious young American, gets involved in San Juan's booming real estate market.  He starts a magazine, 'El Puente,' (the bridge), whose stated mission is to encourage responsible development in Central America. He takes up with the prettiest girl in town, Doris, who is soon in his company at all hours of the night and day. 

But soon Volz finds San Juan too small for his publishing ambitions.  He moves the enterprise to Managua, and plans a further move to Costa Rica.

Doris, left behind in San Juan, stays in touch with Eric but soon has a new boyfriend.  Then, last November, as Eric Volz is meeting with colleagues at his office in Managua, he gets a phone call from San Juan:  Doris has been brutally raped and murdered.

How Volz becomes the chief suspect, and then the most famous inmate in Nicaragua's Tipitapa prison is a twisted tale worthy of Franz Kafka.

In this case, the defendant's apparently impeccable alibi, supported by no fewer than 10 people, is thrown out by the judge, as angry crowds chant for his conviction, and threaten to lynch him.  It's a case in which the defendant hires his own armed guards, and still is chased through town by the mob.

And yet?  When we visited Eric Volz in Tipitapa prison, just outside Managua, we were offered the utmost courtesy by every official from the warden to the lowliest guard.  We had wondered, before we arrived if Volz was in some sense a stand-in for Nicaraguan anger at America.  But, in Managua, in San Juan, we encountered no hostility at all.

Public anger was reserved instead for a man who - whether you find yourself attracted to his character, or repelled - could simply not have been anywhere near the ugly crime that ended the life of the beautiful Doris.

Now, his fate is in the hands of a panel of judges set to review the evidence and hear his appeal.  They could affirm his 30-year jail sentence, order a new trial, or set him free.  "In this country," an observer told us,"this case is like O.J. Simpson."  In a matter of days, much of Nicaragua will be watching to see what happens to Eric Volz.

Keith Morrison's report, 'Murder by the Sea', aired Dateline Sunday, April 22, 8 p.m. Read a transcript and watch the full broadcast here. Watch YouTube videos arguing this case.