American charged with murdering his DJ girlfriend in Colombia

The case dominated national newspapers, broadcasts and social media for more than a week

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The homeless man was sifting through the trash items that he could recycle.

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What he found instead was a corpse.

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Valentina Trespalacios’ legs had been neatly bent so that her body could fit in a blue rolling suitcase. Luggage was wrapped in black tape. His head was sticking out of an opening.

The disappearance, death and discovery of the 21-year-old, a DJ here, has fascinated even this nation, where the murder of women has become painfully familiar. This could be at least partly due to the identity of the man accused of her death: her American boyfriend.

Colombian authorities have charged John Nelson Poulos, 35, with femicide and concealing evidence. He pleaded not guilty. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

The case dominated national newspapers, broadcasts and social media for more than a week. Femicide, the killing of a woman or girl for their gender, has been a crime in Colombia since the Rosa Elvira Cely Law was passed in 2015. Cely, 35, a single mother who was raped and killed by an acquaintance in a Bogotá park in 2012, has become a national symbol of gender-based violence.

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The Colombian Independent Femicide Observatory recorded nearly 600 deaths in 2022, or 1.6 per day. Women’s advocates here say authorities have failed to respond adequately to the problem in general, and to the Trespalacios case in particular.

Yalime Roncancio, director of the Colombian Femicide Foundation, points to authorities’ comments about Poulos’ alleged jealousy.

“It’s sexist language that leads to the question: What did the victim do to provoke his attacker?” she says. “The Attorney General’s office should show more discretion, more respect for the victims.”

Defense attorneys have expressed concern over Poulos’ right to the presumption of innocence. During her arrest, she was put in purple handcuffs – a symbol, according to the police, of “justice for women”.

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“The color purple dismisses the presumption of innocence that can only be lost at trial,” said Marlon Díaz, a defense attorney who is not involved in the case. “It is also the symbol of a feminist fight that does not belong to the police.”

Mariana Botero is coordinator of the Rosario University legal clinic on gender violence. Even after Cely’s law was passed, she said, tackling femicide here remains a challenge.

“We have the standards, but there are many judicial officers who still call us ‘exaggerated'”, she declared. “It’s a weak state that normally reacts only to well-publicized cases, while others remain forgotten.”

Indeed, the investigation, arrest and prosecution of Poulos has progressed faster than Colombians expect from their criminal justice system. Friends and family of Trespalacios reported her missing on social media on the morning of January 22. Within 12 hours, his body had been found and his family notified.

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Investigators say surveillance footage taken from the building where Trespalacios and Poulos were staying that day shows Poulos leaving with a suitcase in a shopping cart covered in what appears to be a blanket. The Wisconsin native seems to struggle with the weight of luggage as he stows it in the trunk of a rented vehicle. Records show he then flew to Panama.

Trespalacios’ cell phone was found at El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá. His body was found two kilometers away.

On January 24, two days after Trespalacios’ body was discovered, an Interpol alert allowed authorities in Panama City to arrest Poulos before he boarded a flight to Istanbul. Colombian officials flew to Panama to bring him back in a twin-engine police plane.

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Friends and family of Trespalacios told investigators the couple had a year-long long-distance relationship, according to police records. They met about four times in Mexico and Colombia before moving in together on January 20.

Trespalacios’ friend, María Silvana Núñez, told investigators they met in a videoconference the day before her friend’s body was found, records show.

“Look how messy he is,” Trespalacios told Núñez, according to the records. Núñez pointed to his clothes strewn across the bed and asked why he had brought so little if he planned to stay in Colombia. Investigators say Poulos did not take out a lease but rented an Airbnb apartment and a car for four days.

The accusation was hampered by the language. According to Colombian law, foreigners must have translators to assist them in their defense. Poulos said in court that he was denied that right.

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Before Poulos appeared on Tuesday, his attorney surprised the court by stepping away from the case. Martin Riascos said he had been threatened – he did not specify by whom – and would not continue to represent Poulos. The state-provided translator also quit.

Poulos told the judge that he had requested a lawyer since his arrest but had been limited by language. An assistant to Riascos was the only English speaker he could find, he said – which is how he became his lawyer.

In court on Wednesday, Poulos had a public defender and a new translator.

The judge reminded him that he had the right to a public defender and that he could also choose a translator.

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