The girl who chased frogs

Lula Solorzano, a Honduran living in Miami, took advantage of Amazon Prime to send things around the world. Occasionally her friends used her login and on Nov. 6, 2016, Solorzano dug through her Prime account to look up the details of a recent order.

Days earlier, her friend Meli Flores sent a birthday present to her fiance, Ben Pizii, in London, using Solorzano’s account. In the account record, Solorzano hoped, would be a contact number for Pizii. She urgently needed to speak to him. It was about Meli.

Isis Melissa “Meli” Medina Flores, a Honduran, had met Pizii while they worked for a conservation charity in Belize in 2009 and their relationship had since spanned multiple continents. They had spent time in Pennsylvania—he worked while she studied for a masters degree—but by 2016 he was back in the UK, she was at home in Honduras, and they were working out how and where the next stage of their lives would play out. In two weeks, she was planning to move to the UK for a multi-month stay to decide if she could deal with the British climate.

Pizii was just then returning to London after spending the weekend in Somerset, a rural county in southwestern Britain. Then 38, he was a slender but fit man, who kept in shape with excursions through the English countryside.

Her arrival in the UK would give Pizii some stability. His trip to Somerset was one in a series of visits he made to see his father, diagnosed with terminal cancer, in the hospital.

Now, at home in his London flat, Pizii answered his ringing phone, which was flashing an international number.

“Ben, it’s Lula,” the voice at the other end of the line said. The words were heavily accented but clear. Solorzano was a friend of Meli’s from the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Now, Solorzano lived in Miami and because Pizii wasn’t a fluent Spanish speaker, she had become one of Meli’s few friends from home he could converse easily with.

“It’s Meli,” she said. “She’s missing.”

Meli Flores (center) at work with the Ya’axché Conservation Trust in Belize in 2009, where she met Ben Pizii, an environmental consultant from the United Kingdom / Photo courtesy of Ben Pizii

HONDURAS is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a woman. Official statistics say that in 2018 alone, 380 women were killed in a country of nearly 10 million, though the actual number of murders is likely higher. People disappear regularly in Honduras, either near their hometowns or along the migrant route to the US-Mexico border. Femicide, understood to be the murder of women on the basis of their gender, is as rampant in Honduras as in any country in the world.

The number of women missing across the country is unclear. What is clear is that Meli Flores is one of them.

Too often, crime stories tend to reduce murder victims or those who disappear into bit players in a whodunnit drama. Too often, the victims become lost in a sea of statistics, remembered hazily through police reports and witness statements and closing arguments for juries.

Meli Flores is not a statistic.

She was about 5-foot-6, with long dark hair, and as tough as men twice her size. She was an accomplished female biologist facing adversity in her industry and her country, though that didn’t stop her from intimidating the men around her. Any man trying to harm her would have faced a tough fight.

She did not suffer fools or silliness or incompetence gladly. She loved Pizii and her friends and her family and the environment and animals. Her work on frogs and fishes brought her to the United States and beyond.

In photographs, she often looked as if she was in a bad mood, and Pizii had to explain to people who saw pictures of their vacations that she wasn’t angry; she just liked to make faces when confronted with a camera.

Courtesy Ben Pizii

Yet the day Pizii photographed her on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, just after he’d asked her to marry him, she smiled and stretched out her hand, a simple silver band with a yellow stone atop her ring finger. She was a loyal member of the Honduran Federation of Mountain Sports and Climbing and an experienced hiker unlikely to get lost for a significant period of time out on the slopes.

That was what made her unresolved 2016 disappearance, while hiking up the Cerro Las Minas mountain, so inexplicable. If anyone could have survived there, on Honduras’s tallest peak, it was her. Yet by Nov. 8, search teams hadn’t found the 33-year-old. It seemed unlikely she was lost—she’d hiked that same mountain, inside Celaque National Park, several times.

When Solorzano rang Pizii from her home in Miami, she relayed the news: on Saturday Nov. 5, Meli left for a hike with four of her regular climbing companions: Cesar, Mauritio (known as “Cookie”), and twins who went by Sharon and Iris. They’d woken up early and started ascending Cerro Las Minas. Along the way, Cookie began to feel unwell and before the group entered the steepest part of the climb, decided to return to their camp at the foot of the mountain.

Cesar and the twins eventually returned to camp late Saturday evening. They called a member of their climbing club for advice about looking for Meli but agreed that rather than bother the police, they’d give her until the morning to make it down the mountain. When they all awoke Sunday morning and Meli had still not returned, one of them alerted a staff member in the visitor center at Celaque. Local firefighters arrived and began to search for her.

A week later, Pizii traveled to Honduras, stopping in Miami to meet up with Solorzano. She was coming with him to Gracias, the small regional capital on the eastern edge of Celaque National Park, to help search for her friend and translate for Pizii with the Honduran police, Meli’s family, and everyone else who’d gathered on the mountain to find Meli.

ONE of the first things Pizii did upon his arrival in Honduras was seek out Meli’s hiking companions. He wanted to build a picture of what had happened on the mountain that Saturday, perhaps establish a logical sequence of events that could explain where she went or how she’d ended up missing.

On that day, he learned, the group woke before dawn and departed their base camp at 6 a.m. Just before noon, they reached a camp on the mountain called El Naranjo and stopped for lunch. Meli had eaten a tuna sandwich and an orange, and drank some water. It was cold—Cerro Las Minas stood 9,416 feet above sea level, with temperatures dropping the higher the altitude and mist often enveloping the mountain and reducing visibility.

After they ate, the hikers—minus Cookie, who had headed back down the mountain—began the push towards the summit. They reached the top around 1:30 p.m. and according to Cesar, Meli left the summit by herself after an hour, as she’d wanted to make it back to the ranger station before dark.

The twins and Cesar eventually followed Meli down the mountain, and through their entire descent, Cesar claimed, never encountered their climbing partner. When they arrived at base camp late Saturday evening, nearly eight hours after leaving the summit, Cesar said he thought it was a joke when Cookie told them Meli hadn’t shown up. When she hadn’t appeared by the following morning, they called for help and waited for the firefighters to arrive. Cookie accompanied the first responders to the mountain to search for her while Cesar and the twins stayed behind and rested their legs after Saturday’s climb.

On the way up the mountain, Cookie met a group of students and their professor coming down. The day before, they’d set up camp at El Naranjo—where Meli and the others had stopped for lunch—as they’d planned to see sunrise from the summit the next morning.

Cookie quizzed them, asking them if they’d seen a young woman on the mountain recently. Their professor, according to Cookie, said he’d seen two women pass through El Naranjo heading down the mountain the previous afternoon, followed some time later by a man. That description fit the timeline of the descent of Cesar and the twins. The professor said he saw no one else pass by the camp.

“Is it possible she could have fallen?” Pizii asked Cookie. “Did you see any dangerous wildlife when you were up there? Are there any big cats?”

“There are cliffs with 100-meter drops,” Cookie said. “There’s a lot of vegetation but we didn’t see any vultures.

“If a big cat had got her, or even a dog, they would have left a mess. There was no sign [of that].”

“It all seems very strange that there’s no evidence of her being up there,” Pizii said. “The thing I’m dreading is that she’s had an accident and that’s why there’s no trace of her up there.”

“Even the community finds it strange,” Cookie responded. “Because there was only one other person who vanished from Celaque without a trace.”

MARCEL VAN LAARHOVEN was a 33-year-old backpacker from the Netherlands. He was an experienced traveler who’d been to Nepal and Peru. On July 2, 1998, according to a story written by his brother Rene, he was set to leave the Gracias visitor center at 5 a.m. and return by 5 p.m.

Before he left, he’d spoken with a local woman, who had agreed to cook him dinner on his return to the Gracias. He left his backpack at the visitor center, planning to see some waterfalls in Celaque, and headed out with a pouch containing his ID, money, and a camera. Several days later, two police officers turned up at the Van Laarhoven family home in the Dutch town of Best and informed them that Marcel was missing.

“We will never see him again,” his mother said when told of her son’s disappearance.

Most people who go missing in Celaque, Cookie said, turn up within 48 hours. In March of this year, Ruben Humbert Maldonado, a tourist guide, was hiking with a client when he became disoriented near the El Naranjo camp. He called his father, who alerted the Fire Department, and within a couple of days, they were found.

The area between the summit of Cerro and El Naranjo was, Cesar said, a place that he regularly became lost. The mountain was difficult terrain even for experienced hikers, partly because the trail was not always visible depending on how much footfall there had been and because of the mist that often hung low over it.

In the case of Marcel Van Laarhoven, as with Meli, mountain communities and the Honduran army mobilized and searched for the young Dutchman but found nothing. Months later, Van Laarhoven’s brother Henri returned to resume the search operation with a pack of sniffer dogs. On the last day of their search, two of the dogs were drawn to a certain spot in the forest, but that came just as Hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest storms in Caribbean history, was bearing down on the country.

The search was called off.

“It was raining and raining,” Marcel’s brother wrote. “Pieces of earth were swept away. My mother thought the army was needed more in other places in the country. That is why she did not want army men to look for Marcel. I thought that was very noble of her. Saving local human lives took precedence over salvaging a body, even if it was her son’s.”

Nearly 11,000 people died in the wake of Hurricane Mitch’s deadly storms, winds, and landslides. Marcel Van Laarhoven was officially declared dead by the Dutch government two years after his disappearance. His body was never recovered.

Meli Flores and Ben Pizii on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland. This trip marked the last time the two would see each other before Meli’s disappearance / Photo courtesy of Ben Pizii

From the outset, there were things that did not make sense to Pizii about Meli’s disappearance. Some he would discover while in Honduras; others would emerge later, when he was back in the UK and struggling to make sense of it. Pizii is a consultant for global environmental firm ERM, responsible for planning and managing projects. He approaches problems like an engineer, meticulously deconstructing them piece by piece and then developing and applying a solution. Yet his attempts at logic seemed to fail when he tried to analyze what went wrong the day Meli went missing.

There were the inconsistencies in the stories told by her friends. Cesar, who Meli had accompanied on many hiking trips, initially told another friend of Meli’s that she had not reached the summit of Cerro that day. She complained of abdominal cramps, he said, and turned back. Then, pictures of her on the summit with her climbing partners appeared in news reports. Cesar’s story changed: Meli actually had made it to the summit, they said, but then grabbed her bags and left before the rest of them. Pizii didn’t think that sounded like Meli.

Meli’s mountaineering club had been central to the search operation. While at the home of the club’s president in Gracias, Pizii bumped into the twins and began chatting with them, asking about their recollections of the hike that day. Then Cesar appeared, looking worried.

“What are you talking about?” he asked, visibly agitated, signaling that he did not want Pizii talking to the twins without him present.

Cesar told Pizii that he and Meli had been concerned about the twins’ ability to hike the mountain and that the four of them had ascended together, only for Meli to travel solo on the way down. And, when she wasn’t at the bottom when he got there, Cesar seemed unfazed by Meli’s delay.

“She said the night before she wanted to see a salamander up there,” he told Pizii. “I figured maybe she stopped to take a picture of a waterfall. Sometimes, before, I’d get down and she’d arrive three or four hours later with a snake or something.”

Pizii, in the midst of what he’d call the worst two weeks of his life, laughed dryly.

“Just, to potentially lose the love of my life…” He trailed off, as if mentioning Meli’s death could bury her and any possibility of their future together.

“I understand completely,” Cesar replied. “The type of relationship we had, she was like a sister to me.”

He corrected himself. “She is like a sister to me.”

For nearly an hour, they continued to chat, Cesar suggesting, among other things, that maybe Meli got hypothermia—the temperatures drop close to freezing in the mountains at that time of year—or was shot by a hunter.

Pizii left their discussions believing Cesar had not hurt Meli. The two had been friends for years and completed several climbs together. Cesar being directly involved in Meli’s disappearance made as little sense as many of the other unlikely scenarios that crossed Pizzi’s mind.

Cesar Cerrato did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Sunday Long Read.

Police initially considered the group of friends to be primary suspects in Meli’s disappearance. The week after she vanished, they’d spoken to investigators, who told Cookie that despite their close friendship with Meli, the group would do well to “give them something” to prove their innocence in her disappearance.

“They said even if she was under a bale of leaves or something, they would find her,” Cookie had told Pizii of the police.

But authorities spent three weeks scouring the mountain without finding any incriminating physical evidence. Police interrogated her climbing partners without making any progress.

No charges were ever filed in Meli’s disappearance and after three weeks of scrutiny, police dropped the criminal investigation of her climbing partners.

The head of the infantry unit responsible for searching for Meli explained in 2016 to local media that they were working under the assumption she had gone astray and ended up off the path while heading down the mountain.

Searches through the mountain had uncovered nothing, except some baby wipes and a makeshift shelter. Meli had a lighter and other survival tools with her the day she went missing but there were no signs of dying fires or other substantial physical proof that she’d been on the mountain that Saturday.

Members of a Costa Rican search and rescue team, friends of Meli’s, traveled to Honduras to join the hunt for her. If they hadn’t seen photographs of her on the summit that day, they said, they wouldn’t have believed she’d been there at all.

There was only one clue, if it could even be considered a clue. That evening, around 11 p.m., one of the students who’d been camping in El Naranjo said he’d heard the echo of a gunshot on the mountain.

“For me, this is an important fact,” Cesar insisted. But the gunshot was never confirmed by law enforcement.

Meli’s expertise on the mountain did not seem to match speculation that she had fallen off cliffs in Celaque—the ones Cookie described with 100-meter drops. Without physical evidence that she strayed from the path, getting lost seemed an unlikely fate for an experienced mountaineer with multiple summit climbs of Cerro Las Minas.

Some paths down the mountain lead to indigenous villages, which have varied mystic traditions explaining the disappearances of people in Celaque. According to some local ghost stories, Meli was the latest explorer to be swallowed—“claimed”—by the mountain.

The investigation spread to those villages, but no sign of Meli turned up in the rural communities on the southern and western side of the mountain. Journalists, friends, and investigators speculated that Meli could have descended into the villages and come to harm there. But no evidence surfaced to support that claim.

The Honduran disaster relief agency, the police, fire officials, the Red Cross, park administration, and the military all played parts in the search for Meli. More than 200 soldiers, along with helicopters and teams of dogs, were deployed during the military’s efforts to find her.

Honduran special forces were called in as the weather worsened, with the temperature dropping near freezing at some points during the search. Los Tesones, the elite rangers used in inclement weather activities, entered the fray to search for Meli.

But on Dec. 6, 2016, a month after Lula Solorzano’s desperate phone call to Ben Pizii in London, the authorities called off their search. While conducting their operation, the national police initially said that they trusted that Meli had “great experience in the management of these environments,” but that confidence seemed to have waned.

The massive search effort turned up no trace of her, and Meli’s whereabouts remain unknown. In a country where an estimated 90 percent of femicide cases result in no criminal action, yet another woman is missing, presumed dead.

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Meli Flores (center) at work in Belize in 2009 / Photo courtesy of Ben Pizii

“My father died two years ago,” Lula Solorzano said, speaking from her home in Miami. “And it’s sad but I know what happened to him. I have a grave I can go to. With Meli, I don’t know whether to grieve or not or how to grieve because I don’t know what happened to her.”

Ben Pizii is facing the same struggle. How does a man mourn for the love of his life if he doesn’t know for certain if she’s dead or alive?

The last two and a half years of his life have been filled with theories and probabilities and likelihoods but no certainties. The searches for Meli left him with more questions than answers.

The only things that are certain are his memories of their time together.

One particularly magical night, after a friend’s wedding in Thailand, they sat outside in the twilight for an hour, listening to the sound of frogs.

On his way out to Honduras, he wrote her a note that he planned to leave at the foot of the mountain, in case she should ever find it: “You have taught me to love, laugh, live and forgive. I brought you peace, but you have given me a lot more. Part of my heart has gone with you but you will always be with me in my thoughts, chasing frogs.”

“I like to think that she’s just just up there in the mountain,” he said later, remarking on the note. “Just chasing frogs.”

Editors’ note: Here’s more information about SLR contributing editor Lyra McKee, who was killed while reporting in Derry, Northern Ireland, in April. If you’d like to contribute to a GoFundMe set up for Lyra’s family and legacy, you can find that here.