Zachary Poulsen was just going to ask the receptionist about the Band-Aid on her bruised nose when three police officers darted through the front gates and under the arching palm plants.
It had been a typically slow Wednesday afternoon at Don Jon’s Lodge, where Poulsen often swung by after snapping photos of surfers on the beaches of Santa Teresa, a mellow coastal oasis in western Costa Rica.
The officers beelined to the receptionist, demanding in broken English that she show her documents, according to Poulsen. An American who’d moved to the surf town in September like many pandemic nomads, Poulsen wanted to shrink into the bamboo wall, his mind racing about where his own passport lay should the authorities turn to him next.
The woman, who went by the name Ari Martin, responded to the officers with one word, “Puntarenas,” the name of a faraway port town. She seemed to be suggesting that her passport was hours away, on the other side of the Nicoya Peninsula. The officers did not seem to buy it, according to Poulsen. They escorted her out of the hostel and drove her six hours to the country’s capital of San José.
It was there, according to authorities, that the woman broke down and admitted her true identity: Kaitlin Armstrong.
It was a name that had become infamous over the course of six weeks, after Armstrong, 34, fled Austin, Texas, in the wake of the May 11 murder of well-known off-road cyclist Anna Moriah “Mo” Wilson. The crime, police said, was allegedly triggered by Armstrong’s jealousy over a relationship that Wilson, a 25-year-old Vermont native, previously had with Armstrong’s boyfriend, Colin Strickland.
The murder sent shock waves through the close-knit world of elite off-road cycling. Wilson, a Dartmouth graduate who had recently quit her job to pursue the sport professionally, had been scheduled to compete in a race in Texas days after her death.
Santa Teresa buzzed with the news that an American fugitive had been hiding out amid the palm trees of the peninsula. Poulsen was stunned.
“I guess I always thought if someone, like, murdered someone, I would be able to feel it on them. Like you’d get a weird vibe, but I didn’t get anything like that,” he said in an interview. “So when I found out, I was like, ‘Holy Buddha!’ ”
The arrest brought to a close an international search for Armstrong, who used another person’s passport to board a plane to Costa Rica, where she traversed the country by bus, following her passion for yoga to bohemian beach towns.
But the six-week search might have been avoided entirely, if not for a clerical error early in the investigation that allowed Armstrong to flee Austin two days after the murder.
The Austin police were showered with leads and information in the hours after Wilson was found dead.
They learned that Wilson spent the afternoon of May 11 swimming and dining with Strickland, 35, a professional cyclist and Armstrong’s boyfriend, according to an arrest affidavit in Travis County District Court. Strickland dropped Wilson off at her friend’s house around 8:30 p.m. Shortly after, surveillance footage captured a black Jeep with a bike rack — fitting the description of Armstrong’s car — pulled up to the East Austin apartment where Wilson was staying. Later that night, Wilson’s friend arrived home to find the cyclist dead with multiple gunshot wounds.
Investigators discovered casings from 9mm bullets at the crime scene that matched the type of gun Strickland said he and Armstrong both owned. A tipster also called Austin police alleging that Armstrong had been angry to discover that Strickland and Wilson had had a romantic relationship the previous fall when Strickland and Armstrong briefly separated.
After amassing that information, the Austin police learned Armstrong also had a warrant out for her arrest on an unrelated charge for theft. According to a probable cause affidavit obtained by Fox News, the Michigan native had skipped out on a $650 bill for a Botox treatment in March 2018.
Even as police built the case against her in Wilson’s death, the warrant gave them a more immediate chance to apprehend Armstrong and present her with the substantial evidence that appeared to tie her to the shooting, which the medical examiner had ruled a homicide.
The evidence “made things not look too good,” commented Detective Katy Conner in the May 12 interview. Armstrong nodded in seeming agreement, according to the affidavit.
But still, the police could not detain Armstrong. The warrant for the Botox nonpayment cited the wrong date of birth and was therefore invalid.
Armstrong was free to go.
She walked out of the police station and into the Austin heat. In the following 36 hours, she sold her black Jeep to a CarMax dealership for $12,200 and then, on May 14, boarded a plane traveling to Houston and on to LaGuardia Airport in New York.
Her whereabouts over the next four days remain uncertain. Voter records list Armstrong’s sister as living at a holistic camp in the Catskills, a couple of hours outside of New York City. On May 18, Armstrong resurfaced in surveillance footage at Newark airport with her long blond hair pulled back and a black mask covering the lower part of her face.
By then, police had formally secured a homicide warrant. Still, at security, Armstrong was able to flash a passport either stolen from or offered up by a close acquaintance, whom authorities have not named. Then she boarded a plane to San José, Costa Rica.
Once there, she lived frugally, staying at hostels, traveling by bus, and chasing work as a yoga instructor, a profession she had long pursued stateside. Armstrong dyed her hair a reddish-brown and chopped it to shoulder length. She introduced herself as Liz. Or Beth. By the time she’d traveled westward and down the mountains into Santa Teresa, she had settled on Ari.
That’s what Poulsen, the surf photographer, called her anyway, whenever he sauntered over to the front desk of Don Jon’s Lodge to crack a joke or offer tips on stretching money in the coastal oasis that only seemed to grow more expensive and popular with each new paved road.
Armstrong had picked up shifts at the front desk as needed and persuaded the hostel’s owner to let her teach yoga classes when the regular instructor couldn’t. Otherwise, she laid low, finding refuge in a town where “we don’t really like to ask people what they do, or judge people or anything,” Poulsen said.
The only time she caused alarm was when she disappeared for a few days in June. The hostel owner rang her again and again. She returned with a bandage across her nose, discoloration under her eyes, and a back story that she’d been injured in a surfing accident.
She still wore the bandage on the afternoon of June 29 when the Costa Rican police officers barreled into Don Jon’s.
US marshals had surveyed the flight manifests out of Newark and found the name of someone close to Armstrong on a flight scheduled for May 18 from Newark to San José, and surveillance cameras at the gate showed Armstrong boarding. Costa Rican authorities then traced the route of her bus from San José, discovering her many aliases among log-in sheets for hostels across the country.
After being taken into custody, Armstrong maintained her story for much of the drive back to San José, officials said. But once in the capital, she admitted her real name, and her six-week run as an international fugitive came to an end.
The hostel owner and Poulsen would later open a lockbox of her personal belongings. There they allegedly found an American passport bearing her real name, a vaccine card bearing her name, an American passport bearing another person’s name, and a $6,350 receipt for cosmetic surgery at a clinic in San Jose under yet another name, according to Poulsen.
Police said last Thursday in a press conference in Austin that they had obtained the cosmetic surgery receipt from the hostel but could not confirm it definitively belonged to Armstrong.
“You’ve seen the pictures just like I have,” said US Marshal Brandon Filla, referencing the dramatic differences between Armstrong’s driver’s license photo and her booking photo from July 2. “But I will say she had a bandage on her nose with a little bit of discoloration under her eyes. Her statement was that it came from a surfboard incident and, well, I think we’ll leave it at that.”
She was deported to Houston days later and booked into Travis County Jail on July 5, where her bond is set at $3.5 million on murder and other charges, including the longstanding Botox case.
“We hope this is the beginning stage of closure and justice for the Wilson family,” said Filla at the press conference.
A month ago, hundreds gathered for a memorial service in Wilson’s tiny hometown of East Burke, Vt., where her love for cycling had blossomed years earlier.
A former riding partner, Jordan Fields, said fellow cyclists and skiers — Wilson was a ski racer at Dartmouth before going pro in cycling after graduation — had been trying to keep their attention focused on Wilson, “the way she rode, the way she lived, the way she shared space with friends,” he said.
Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.