Spanish farmer jailed for 23 years for murder of American pilgrim

Miguel Angel Muñoz Blas, 41, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for the murder of Denise Pikka Thiem from the United States whom he lured off the Camino de Santiago and beat her to death.

Spanish farmer jailed for 23 years for murder of American pilgrim
Muñoz arriving for court in León. Photo: AFP

The provincial court in León handed down the sentence a week after a judy found him guilty of the murder of the 40 year-old pilgrim whose body was discovered on his land five months after she disappeared while walking the Camino de Santiago.

Denise Pikka Thiem, from Arizona, was last seen on  April 5th 2015 in a rural area of northwestern Spain's Leon province while following the French route of the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage also called the St. James Way.

Five months later, after a renewed appeal for information backed by US Senator John McCain, Spanish police arrested Muñoz and he led them to where he had hidden her body, after chopping off her hands, on his land.

Photo released by the family of Denise Pikka Thiem after she went missing.

Throughout the trial, Muñoz, who had originally given a full confession to police, had refused to answer questions.

“I will not make a statement. I won't answer any questions from prosecutors or my lawyer either,” he said.

At the time of his arrest the accused claimed that Thiem appeared on his property “lost and asking for help to find her way back to the pilgrimage route,” said his lawyer, Vicente Prieto at the time.

“He claims she asked him to show her the way, then got nervous and somehow, and this has not been made clear, it ended with him hitting her,” his lawyer said.

Police said that they believe the perpetrator may have painted fake yellow arrows used to mark the pilgrimage route to divert unsuspecting pilgrims off the official track towards his house.

Prieto told the La Manaña programme that his client had hit his victim with a stick and when she fell to the ground was hit on the head with a stone.

“After determining that she had stopped breathing he then buried her in front of his house,” said Prieto.

But Muñoz later dug her up and carried her to a more secluded area of farmland and reburied her. “She was naked, I am not sure why,” said the lawyer. “He burned her clothes and her backpack.” 

Police investigators at the time said they believed the killer may have removed her hands in an attempt to hinder her identification and possible forensic traces of her attacker that may have been under her fingernails after the struggle.

Muñoz in court in León. Photo: AFP

DNA tests confirmed that the remains were those of Thiem and the post mortem report stated that Thiem had received a blow to the head that had most probably caused her death.

Muñoz was also accused of stealing more than €1,000 dollars that Thiem was carrying and that he exchanged for euros at a local bank days after she disappeared.

During the three week trial in which more than 100 witnesses were called, the jury of eight women and one man heard testimony that several other women had been harassed by the accused as they walked the same route.

Muñoz was sentenced to 20 years for murder and three years for violent robbery for the theft of more than 1,000 dollars that Thiem was carrying and that he exchanged for euros at a local bank days after she disappeared.

He was also ordered to pay €120,000 compensation to the victim’s parents and a further €30,000 to her brother.


Railway to heaven? New pilgrim route launched

If you're seeking penance or perhaps enlightenment but don't fancy roughing the well-worn pilgrimage path on foot, a new luxury locomotive route to Santiago de Compostela may be the answer to your prayers.

Railway to heaven? New pilgrim route launched
The train, which usually travels around Andalusia, will travel the Camino de Santiago in July. Photo: Renfe

Al Andalus, the luxury 'palace on wheels' that is synonymous with Spain’s moorish south is to travel a very different route this summer, the country’s train operator has announced.

The train, more usually associated with Spain’s Islamic history will take a more Christian route in July, travelling along part of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in northern Spain.

Run by national rail operator Renfe, the train will head north between July 13th and 20th to take passengers along part of the world famous and Unesco reognised Roman Catholic pilgrimage route, setting off from the city of Leon.

Eat in luxury in Al Andalus' exclusive dining carriage. Photo: Renfe

The five day, four night journey includes travel, accommodation, day trips, dining in the the onboard restaurant and visits to some of the most exclusive eating establishments along the route.

Rather than lug around a backpack, passengers are greeted on board the locomotive with a cocktail, before setting off for the beautiful town of Astorga, then travelling on to Monforte de Lemos and Orense, in Galicia. 

In Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the famous pilgrimage route, travellers can enjoy a guided tour of the city before sitting down to a lavish dinner at the five-star parador, Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

After leaving Santiago, passengers will take a relaxing boat trip along the river Arousa in the town of Villagarcía de Arousa before heading to the town of Cambaros.

The final day will be spent in the Galician capital of A Coruña before boarding the train back to Leon.

Pilgrims usually walk or cycle along the camino. Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP

Al Andalus is renowned as one of the world’s most luxurious trains; its coaches were originally built for the British royal family to travel between Calais and the French Riviera and retain a host of Belle Epoque features.

So if you have always wanted to travel the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, but could not quite bring yourself to don the walking boots and brave the bedbugs at the pilgrim shelters along the way, your prayers may have just been answered.