The body of American tourist Denise Pikka Thiem, killed along a Spanish hiking trail popular with travelers and religious pilgrims, has been found after a five-month search. A local recluse is allegedly tied to her murder.
The 39-year-old man, named by authorities as Miguel A. M. B., is in custody, nabbed by police near his farm. He is said to have lived in a wooden hut for the past four years on a plot of land in Astorga, the last place Denise had been seen by fellow pilgrims, on the Camino de Santiago, the Daily Beast reported.
He was also known to tourists; witnesses told law enforcement that Miguel had harassed people on the trail before, sometimes donning a balaclava and chasing them on his bike with threats to rob them.
Spanish police had been keeping their eyes on Miguel in connection with Denise Pikka Thiem’s sudden and mysterious disappearance in April. They’d previously interviewed the man, who piqued their interest when he exchanged over $1,000 euros days after Pikka Thiem had disappeared.
But investigators kept their distance, hoping the hermit would “provide a new clue to the location of the body or the existence of a possible accomplice,” they said. And Friday, he did.
According to Agence France-Presse, “[T]he suspect led the police to a body in an advanced state of decomposition hidden under branches. Pending an examination, it appears that the body is that of the American pilgrim.”
Pikka Thiem, 41, lived in Arizona and quit her job at PetSmart’s corporate headquarters to travel the world. One leg of her trip was the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), a hiking trail traveled by hundreds of thousands of tourists and Roman Catholic pilgrims every year; the trail ends at Santiago de Compostela.
Denise was a mere 155 miles from the end, in Astorga, when she was last seen, BBC News added; she’d started the trip on March 6. Though she didn’t carry a cell phone, she’d been updating her progress on the Camino de Santiago via social media but had stopped posting updates or contacting friends on April 4, Reuters added.
Pikka Thiem had intended to attend church services at the Santa Marta in Astorga, then head on to a town called El Ganso, about nine miles away, to bunk up for the night. She never made it. Soon after, Denise’s brother, Cedric, moved to Spain and brought attention to his sister’s disappearance. He even searched for her along with other volunteers.
This summer, the search was relaunched thanks to intervention from Sen. John McCain, who’d been involved in the hunt for the American tourist from the beginning. In August, McCain asked Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to let the FBI intervene, but he declined, lauding the abilities of the Spanish police, who’d by that point conducted 200 interviews with anyone Pikka Thiem had met on the trail.
The search for Denise began anew Thursday, with huge numbers of law enforcement and armed forces getting involved. A day later, Pikka Thiem’s body was found.
Naturally, Denise’s death has prompted questions about the safety of Camino de Santiago, but authorities say this is an isolated incident. Crime along the trail is generally very low.
[Photo Courtesy Hans Wichmann/Shutterstock]