CAUCA, Colombia—American citizen John Poulos, 35, was arrested by Interpol officers last week in Panama for the alleged murder of his fiancée, a celebrated DJ from Bogotá. The body of Valentina Trespalacios, 21, had been found in a dumpster on Jan. 22 in the Fontibón district of the Colombian capital, according to the public prosecutor’s office.
Trespalacios’ remains had been stuffed into a “blue plastic-coated travel suitcase, which was properly packed in a white plastic bag,” Semana magazine reported officials as saying, and the body had been found by a homeless man rooting in the trash. Prosecutors also noted that Trespalacios’ cellphone had been found in a garbage bin at the Dorado International Airport in Bogotá.
Authorities listed Trespalacios’ cause of death as “mechanical strangulation” and added that the autopsy indicated she had also had intercourse with her killer shortly before her death. There were also bruises on her lips, cheeks, back, and arms.
Texas native Poulos was almost immediately extradited to Colombia, where the divorced father of three denied all charges.
Poulos was trying to board a flight from Panama to Turkey when he was apprehended, according to Colombian police, who also published photos of the tickets allegedly in Poulos’ possession at the time. His final destination was apparently Montenegro, which does not currently have an extradition treaty with the U.S.
The murder of the popular DJ, who was a fixture at clubs around the country, has caused such widespread outrage in Colombia that the lawyer representing Poulos decided to quit the case this week due to the number of death threats he’d received.
The victim’s brother Daniel Trespalacios, who is also acting as the family spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that his sister had been “very judicious from a young age.” He also said the notable DJ was “our [family’s] financial support” and that she had “dreamt of buying our mom a house some day.”
The oldest of the four Trespalacios siblings, Daniel also described his sister as a “warrior” who was “very focused on her future.”
Eva Manjarrez, a Medellin-based college student who was part of Trespalacios’ circle of musician friends, told The Daily Beast: “I always paid attention to her shows. I admired her so much and I was shocked that one day she is performing and the next day they find her in a garbage container… It hurts a lot. The entire artistic union of DJs and [her] other friends are outraged.”
Manjarrez also said that Trespalacio had told her she was fond of her “novio” (fiancé) and excited for their wedding and subsequent life together.
“What I do know is that Valen[tina] loved him very much,” Manjarrez said.
According to the victim’s family, Trespalacios and Poulos met via the dating app Tinder about 10 months ago. Poulos, who is reported to have been a financial adviser, had subsequently made multiple trips to Colombia where he made a good impression on her loved ones.
“He seemed like a nice person,” said family spokesperson Daniel, who helped police identify photos and video of Poulos, eventually leading to his capture in Panama.
“He took my mother and my two little brothers to eat once at a restaurant in a very good neighborhood in Bogotá. And he appeared to be a good man. He promised my sister that he would come back to get married,” Daniel said.
But before the wedding, Poulos began to display signs of jealousy, according to prosecutors.
At a hearing earlier this week, prosecutor Daniel Gómez Acuña said Poulos had hired a private investigator to follow his betrothed due to “suspicions” of infidelity he had about the relationship.
“Poulos had sexual relations with Valentina Trespalacios and proceeded to violently beat Miss Valentina’s body with his own fists, after which he put pressure with his hands around her neck until she died,” said the prosecutor.
The prosecutor also accused Poulos of seeing the victim as “his personal object” and “that is why he… controlled her actions, her personal friendships, [and] monitored her [social media] networks.”
Allegedly provoked by the reports from the detective he’d hired, Poulos returned to Colombia again on Jan. 19. He’d told Trepalacios and his family that he was coming to buy an apartment and relocate to Bogotá after the wedding. But the family now says that was just a cover story he’d invented to set up an act of foul play against their daughter.
“The more we know, the worse it is, because my sister’s last moments were very hard.”
“He said he’d come to get married, that he was going to buy an apartment and well, all that was a lie,” said Daniel. “He told my sister they would only stay there for one or two months, while they looked to buy an apartment. But now we know from the investigators that wasn’t so. He had also rented a car for only [the same] three days. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”
Daniel said that Poulos picked the victim up at her family home on Friday along with her luggage and drove her to the Airbnb rental. Trespalacios later performed a show that same night at a club called Nexus, before returning to Poulos’ apartment.
“It was my 13-year-old brother who [last] contacted her before her death,” Daniel said. “At 11 p.m. on Saturday, they had a video call until 12 a.m. Then nothing is known until 2 p.m. on Sunday when [she’s found] in a dumpster in Fontibón.”
Daniel was away from home that day when his stepfather came to pick him up. “When I get in the car he tells me: ‘They killed your sister.’ I said: ‘Who killed her, who did that to her?’
“He told me: ‘It was that gringo son of a bitch,’” Daniel said.
“The more we know, the worse it is, because my sister’s last moments were very hard,” he said. “Imagine that huge guy on top of her, choking her… And then he put her in the suitcase. Imagine it. She’s skinny but she’s tall and that suitcase is super small. Poor thing. He must have broken her bones to put her in there,” adding, “He’s an animal, that man is the worst.”
Poulos has been charged with femicide—defined as “the killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender”—which would result in a minimum 40-year prison sentence if he is convicted (Colombia does not have the death penalty).
Retired U.S. Federal Agent Mike Vigil, who has spent decades stationed in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, said that investigators in the region often take a lax stance toward crimes against women.
“Authorities in Latin America are often dismissive of femicides,” Vigil said, describing as “an acceptance of toxic masculinity” in local law enforcement.
Trespalacios’ celebrity might have spurred Colombian law enforcement to greater policing efforts due to public outcry. In the wake of Trespalacios’ murder, social media users wasted no time in comparing security-cam feeds of Palacios’ body stuffed into the suitcase with images from Netflix’s popular Jeffrey Dahmer series, in which the titular character can be seen using a similar suitcase for the same purpose.
“If he hadn’t had anything to do with it, he would have stayed here to show his face and to support us and find out what had happened with my sister,” said Daniel, who vows to see his sister’s murderer face justice.
There are other pressing concerns for the family right now, in particular because Valentina’s musical talents were the family’s main source of income.
“We are humble, we don’t have money,” Daniel said. “I really didn’t know what to do or where to go.”