A siren blares and whistle-blowing waiters race in to the hectic beat of the “Mexican Hat Dance.” It’s time for the hourly tequila attack at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s.
The target is an already inebriated blond with seven gal pals, a sunset-colored rum drink and a sunburned nose. The waiters crown her with a giant sombrero, toss a serape over her bare shoulders and pour a stream of golden liquid into a mouth turned up like a baby bird’s.
Liquor-plying mission accomplished, a DJ swaps the peppy Mexican melody for a blaring rendition of dance group T-Spoon’s “Sex on the Beach.”
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 Jello shots from her navel.
Two years later, it may be business as usual at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s, but the mystery of the missing American girl lingers. No body has been found, no evidence of a crime has been uncovered, and the 18-year-old’s disappearance is dangerously close to being labeled a cold case.
The sad trajectory of the case mirrors that of the increasingly bitter relations between Holloway’s parents and the people of Aruba, arcing downward from the moment two years ago when islanders took the tragedy to heart and joined in the hunt by the thousands to today, when locals mutter about American media distortions and “missing white woman syndrome.”
Holloway’s parents — and the 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 hearty-partying teen.
As in the cases of slain child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, missing congressional staffer Chandra Levy and murdered expectant mother Laci Peterson, the ill fate presumed to have befallen Holloway made her a cause celebre for vigilante justice-seekers and a ratings boon for cable TV crime mavens.
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 under wind-sculpted divi-divi trees or on sugar-white beaches. Yes, it was a blow to their livelihoods, as U.S. visits fell 7% last year. More painful, though, it was a wound to the heart for all who had joined the prayer vigils and searches, Arubans such as restaurant manager Edwin Trimon say.
“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 Trimon, a fixture in the Aruban tourism industry “since there was just one hotel on the island.”
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, 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 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 against them within “a reasonable time,” which judicial precedent has defined as about two years unless fresh leads justify extension.
It was on June 9, 2005, 10 days after Holloway’s disappearance, that Aruba police arrested 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch citizen, and Surinamese brothers Satish and Deepak Kalpoe, who were respectively 18 and 21 at the time. They were released that September after a magistrate who had granted numerous extensions ruled that police had insufficient grounds to further detain them.
“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 that authorities are prohibited from discussing an active case and that a new phase of the investigation began six weeks ago.
On the recommendation of officials in the Netherlands 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.
Paul 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, would give the prosecution more time given the high visibility and complexity of the Holloway case. But she acknowledged that the clock was ticking and, at best, they had a few more months to find a body or forensic evidence that a crime had been committed.
“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.
In one of her frequent appearances on Greta van Susteren’s “On the Record” legal show on Fox News, Beth Twitty, Holloway’s mother, complained that the parallel inquiry that family members and friends conducted was being ignored by Aruban 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 were still convinced her daughter had simply extended her vacation.
Recriminations are a two-way street here on Aruba.
Julia Renfro, a Los Angeles native who is editor in chief of Aruba Today, initially took the side of Holloway’s parents when they sought publicity on the disappearance and lambasted Aruban police for following Dutch investigative procedures rather than 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 island-wide search.
A mother of four, Renfro spent weeks shuttling the family from the scene of one rumored development to another but eventually 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 Holloway died on the island. She — and many Arubans — doubts the three suspects, who were all good students without criminal records, could have pulled off a perfect crime, leaving no forensic evidence behind and never caving in to the intense pressure of 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 later given by her classmates to the FBI, Holloway could have staggered into the sea and drowned after the local men left her, Renfro speculates. She might have died of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose and washed out to sea, as Deputy Police Chief Gerold Dompig surmised in a CBS interview last year. She might have climbed aboard one of the dozens of catamarans and cabin cruisers moored off the beach for late-night partying after a concert nearby.
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 a few 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 didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for an interview.
Renfro parted ways with Twitty and 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 elder Kalpoe’s response from “No, she didn’t” to “She did.” Versions of the original and aired tapes available on YouTube and other websites appear to back Kalpoe’s contention that his words were altered.
Although leads have faltered and investigators no longer seem to be focusing on the three named suspects, the case of the “missing white woman” promises to live on for years, at least in the legal TV and unsolved-mystery broadcasts.