Arubans helped search for the Alabama high-schooler, who disappeared two years ago, but now they're embittered by the negative publicity.
ORANJESTAD, Aruba — A siren blares, and whistle-blowing waiters race in to the “Mexican Hat Dance.” It’s time for the hourly tequila attack at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s on this Caribbean island.
The target is an inebriated female with seven friends. Waiters crown her with a sombrero, toss a serape over her shoulders and pour a stream of golden liquid into her mouth.
Liquor-plying mission accomplished, a disc jockey swaps the peppy Mexican melody for T-Spoon’s “Sex on the Beach.”
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Alcoholic excess and abandon are back in vogue at the cantina, where a pretty blond teenager from Alabama named Natalee Holloway was last seen by her high-school classmates — drunk and supine on the bar as a boy slurped Jell-O shots from her navel.
Two years later, the mystery of the missing girl lingers. No body has been found, no evidence of a crime has been uncovered, and the 18-year-old’s disappearance is close to being labeled a cold case.
The trajectory of the case mirrors the increasingly bitter relations between Holloway’s parents and the people of Aruba, arcing downward from the moment two years ago when islanders joined in the hunt by the thousands to today, when locals mutter over American media distortions and “missing white-woman syndrome.”
Natalee Holloway: Alabama teenager who vanished May 30, 2005, after leaving a cantina with three local men after an evening of heavy drinking.
Beth Twitty: Holloway’s mother, who doggedly pursued the case for months — personally pursuing leads, conducting cable-TV interviews and publicly accusing the three locals of killing her daughter.
Joran van der Sloot: Dutch citizen, then 17, and one of the three locals last seen with Holloway; arrested 11 days after her disappearance and detained for three months but never charged.
Satish and Deepak Kalpoe: Surinamese brothers, ages 18 and 21, respectively, at the time, also among the local men last seen with Holloway; also detained for three months but never charged.
Julia Renfro: American citizen, editor-in-chief of Aruba Today newspaper; assisted Twitty during the early stages of the investigation but now critical of her cable-TV appearances and “flat-out lies.”
Los Angeles Times
Holloway’s parents — and cable-TV crime analysts who followed their plight for months — have cast affluent Aruba as a dangerous den of iniquity, its police force as inept bunglers and its government and people as co-conspirators in covering up what happened to the partying teen.
Although they have recovered from the initial economic fallout, Arubans say the accusatory free-for-all was a blast-force end of innocence — danger could indeed lurk on sugar-white beaches.
Yes, it was a blow to their livelihoods, as U.S. visits fell 7 percent last year. More painfully, Arubans say, it was a wound to the heart for all who had joined prayer vigils and searches in the most thorough hunt ever mounted on their island.
“Last year was a tragedy for us. Many people’s businesses were ruined. But what hurt the most was what they were saying about us on TV,” said restaurant manager Edwin Trimon, a fixture in the Aruban tourism industry.
Marcelino Maduro, who has had a taxi service for 17 years, angrily defends his island nation: “The truth is, Aruba is safe. We don’t have people begging. There’s no bad neighborhood where a tourist feels he could be in trouble. We were all shocked when whatever happened to this girl happened.”
In the first days after Holloway went missing, on May 30, 2005, hundreds of tourists joined Aruban police and U.S. private investigators in combing the island’s beaches, coral outcroppings and cactus-studded fields. The Aruba government gave thousands of civil servants a day off to join the hunt.
A pond was drained near the Marriott, where Holloway was reported to have gone after she left Carlos ‘n Charlie’s with three locals. North-shore sand dunes were scoured. F-16s flew in from the Netherlands — Aruba is a Dutch protectorate — to infrared-scan the entire island for signs of freshly turned earth.
No trace of Natalee Holloway was found. Now, the period defined by Dutch jurisprudence for bringing suspects to trial is about to expire.
Under Dutch law, prosecutors can designate suspects for arrest and interrogation without probable cause but must bring a case within “a reasonable time,” defined by judicial precedent as about two years, unless fresh leads justify extension.
On June 9, 2005, 11 days after Holloway’s disappearance, Aruba police arrested Dutch citizen Joran van der Sloot, then 17, and Surinamese brothers Satish and Deepak Kalpoe, then 18 and 21, respectively. They were released three months later after a magistrate ruled that police had insufficient grounds to detain them further.
“I hope we can close the case against them,” said attorney David Kock, who represents the Kalpoe brothers. “They have been living with this sword over their heads for two years now.”
Vivian van der Biezen, head of legal and policy assistance for the Aruba prosecutor’s office, says authorities are prohibited from discussing an active case, but that a new phase of the investigation began six weeks ago.
On the recommendation of Netherlands officials who reviewed Aruban and FBI reports, van der Sloot’s home was searched again April 27. Twenty forensic investigators perused his parents’ diary notes and a personal computer and poked narrow rods into soil in the backyard of their modest home.
Paulus van der Sloot, the suspect’s father, said they found nothing suspicious.
Van der Biezen said she was confident the magistrate on the sister island of Curacao, where the case has been relocated, will give the prosecution more time. But she conceded the clock is ticking and, at best, they have a few more months to find a body or forensic evidence.
“There will come a time when we have to make a decision to prosecute or make it a cold case,” she said.
Like many Arubans who understood the anguish of the missing girl’s parents, van der Biezen is reluctant to accuse them of interfering in the investigation. But she observed that their freelance actions in confronting witnesses and suspects blew early opportunities for clandestine surveillance.
Beth Twitty, Holloway’s mother, complained on cable-TV shows that the parallel probe that family members and friends conducted was being ignored by investigators.
“We’ve just about done all the investigation for them, I guess, so to speak, identified witnesses, put the three suspects on a silver platter and gave it to them,” Twitty said of the sleuthing she did when Aruban police still were convinced her daughter simply had extended her vacation.
American Julia Renfro, editor-in-chief of Aruba Today, initially sided with Holloway’s parents when they sought publicity and lambasted Aruban police for following Dutch investigative procedures different from those in the United States.
Galvanized by compassion for a desperate mother, Renfro stopped the presses of her daily newspaper for the first time in its history to include a picture of Holloway to aid Arubans in the islandwide search.
Renfro, a mother of four, spent weeks shuttling the family from the scene of one rumored development to another, but she became disenchanted with what she saw as Twitty’s pandering to tabloid TV and “flat-out lies” she told on the air.
“I feel guilty saying any negative thing about a mother who has lost her daughter,” Renfro said. “But her behavior was odd from the get-go.”
Renfro has concluded that the body would have turned up by now if she died on the island proper. She — and many Arubans — doubts the three suspects, all good students without criminal records, could have pulled off a perfect crime, never caving in to intense interrogations.
“I’ve spoken with all of the suspects,” she said. “I don’t believe any of them did anything to her.”
Heavily intoxicated, according to accounts given by her classmates to the FBI, Holloway could have staggered into the sea and drowned after the local men left her, Renfro speculated.
Holloway might have died of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose and washed out to sea, as Deputy Police Chief Gerold Dompig surmised. She might have climbed aboard one of dozens of catamarans and cabin cruisers for late-night partying after a nearby concert.
Renfro says she was perplexed when Twitty immediately concluded that her daughter had been kidnapped and made no effort to check hospitals or police about accident victims. Within hours, Twitty had concluded van der Sloot was responsible, and within a couple of days she was telling TV interviewers that she knew her daughter had been gang-raped and murdered.
Twitty did not respond to e-mailed requests for an interview.
Renfro ceased front-page coverage of the disappearance after what she considered a malicious act of distortion. A video aired Sept. 15, 2005, on “Dr. Phil” appeared to show Deepak Kalpoe telling a California private investigator, Jamie Skeeters, that Holloway had sex with all three men on the night she disappeared.
The Kalpoe brothers sued talk-show host Phil McGraw, CBS and Skeeters (who died in January), alleging the clandestinely recorded jailhouse conversation was doctored heavily to change the older Kalpoe’s response from “No, she didn’t,” to “She did.”
Versions of the original and aired tapes available on YouTube.com and other Web sites appear to back Kalpoe’s contention that his words were altered.
While the investigation appears to be running dry, the case of the “missing white woman” promises to live on for years, at least in legal-TV and unsolved-mystery broadcasts.