Separating Fact From Fiction: The Natalee Holloway Case

Few disappearances are as baffling as that of teenager Natalee Holloway. From the beginning, the investigation into her vanishing was marred by inconsistencies, misinformation, and the changing stories of key suspects. The murky material surrounding the case makes it difficult to discern the truth about what really happened to her. However, there are enough facts available to paint a truly chilling picture of this cold case.

Just your average suburban teen

Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of the Natalee Holloway case is that she was such a normal American girl. According to Biography, Holloway was born Oct. 21, 1986 and was raised by parents David "Dave" Edward Holloway and Elizabeth "Beth" Ann Holloway until they divorced in 1993. From that point, both Natalee and her brother, Matthew, were raised primarily by their mother.

Natalee grew up in Mountain Brook, a wealthy Alabama suburb, and graduated with honors from the local high school. She intended to study pre-med at the University of Alabama, but first, she wanted to celebrate her high school graduation. That meant joining dozens of schoolmates on an exciting trip to Aruba.

Natalee arrives in Aruba

Natalee was one of more than 100 Mountain Brook High School students to arrive in Aruba—a tiny Dutch island in the Caribbean, located just off the coast of Venezuela—for the school trip. By all accounts, it was a fun-filled week for Natalee and her classmates. Free from the watchful eyes of parents, many of the teens took in the island's party scene.

But it wasn't as if the group was left entirely to their own devices. Bob Plummer was one of several adults who went to Aruba as a chaperone for the students. According to his Fox News interview, chaperones routinely checked on students to make sure everyone was safe and happy. This seemed to be the case up until the night Natalee disappeared.

The last confirmed sighting

According to an FBI release, Natalee joined several classmates for a final night out on May 29, 2005. The students reportedly met 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot, a teen Dutchman attending Aruba International School. Later that same evening, Natalee and her classmates met up with van der Sloot and his friends at the bar Carlos 'N Charlie's.

Allegedly, Holloway left the bar with van der Sloot and two of his pals. CNN reports that van der Sloot's young Surinamese friends were later identified as brothers Satish Kalpoe, 18, and Deepak Kalpoe, 21. According to a follow-up report by AL.com, Holloway was last seen alive as a passenger in Deepak's silver Honda.

Natalee Holloway goes missing

On May 30, 2005, Natalee failed to show up in the hotel lobby to return to the airport, and none of her schoolmates knew where she was. One of the chaperones phoned Natalee's mother, who then called 911, Holloway's stepfather, and the FBI, according to Vanity Fair. Beth was reportedly on a plane to Aruba by 5 p.m. that day.

Police subsequently scrambled to find any trace of the 5' 4" teen. Natalee's unexplained disappearance led to a frustrating series of dead ends that further obscured the truth.

The investigation went nowhere

Aruban authorities zeroed in on prime suspects Joran van der Sloot, Satish Kalpoe, and Deepak Kalpoe almost immediately.The three young men were among several suspects arrested in the months following Natalee's disappearance. A 26-year-old DJ named Steve Croes was arrested on June 17. Paul van der Sloot, Joran's 53-year-old father, was arrested a few days later. CNN writes that all suspects were eventually released due to the lack of evidence.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the search for Natalee put a huge strain on Aruba. Not only did the investigation overwhelm the tiny nation's resources, it cast a horrible light on the Caribbean island with some Americans characterizing the nation as inept and shady. Some went as far as to claim Arubans were purposely covering up Natalee's disappearance. Even her mother called for a boycott of the island, according to AL.com.

Aruba's reputation tarnished

In reality, Aruban citizens tried very hard to find Natalee. "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 Los Angeles Times reported. "The Aruba government gave thousands of civil servants a day off to join the hunt."

Police Commissioner Gerold Dompig said Aruba spent $3 million on the case, according to the New York Daily News. That amount reportedly represents nearly 40 percent of Aruban law enforcement's "operational budget." After some high-profile nudging, Aruban authorities began cooperating with the FBI in July 2005.

Still, according to AL.com, the case had negative impacts on the island. Carlos 'N Charlie's shut down within two years; even its replacement, Senor Frogs, moved to a new location. "We were devastated by what happened and did everything possible to assist the family and authorities,” Sjeidy Feliciano of the Aruba Tourism Authority said in 2010. "While our tourism has continued to grow over the years, our main challenge has been correcting inaccurate perceptions of the island based on this isolated incident. We are grateful to have such loyal visitors who choose Aruba as their vacation paradise and consistently convince their friends and family to visit as well."

Joran van der Sloot is the prime suspect

Dutchman van der Sloot continues to be the one name consistently linked to the presumed murder of Natalee, primarily because of two disturbing statements he made about the case and because of his own questionable or illegal behaviors.

AL.com writes that van der Sloot initially denied having any idea who Natalee was when approached by investigators. It was only after continuous interrogation that the teen admitted to partying with her and eventually leaving a bar with her, although his story about what happened that night changed over the years.

Van der Sloot's taped confession

According to a 2008 report by ABC News, van der Sloot was allegedly captured on a hidden camera confessing to his role in Natalee's death. He supposedly told a friend that he dumped her body in the ocean off Aruba. Aruban prosecutors attempted to charge van der Sloot based on the tape, but a judge refused the request. Van der Sloot publicly retracted his confession, saying he was under the influence of drugs at the time.

However, that debacle didn't prevent van der Sloot from attempting to capitalize on the emotional turmoil of Natalee's family.

Van der Sloot extorts money from Holloway family

One of the most insidious chapters of Natalee's case came in March 2009. After years of dead leads and no answers, her loved ones were especially desperate and vulnerable. Van der Sloot promised to provide Natalee's family with the location of their daughter's body, but in exchange for his "cooperation," he wanted $250,000 from her mother. Van der Sloot reportedly received an advance of $25,000, but the promised leads were fake.

On June 3, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted van der Sloot for wire fraud and extortion. However, the Dutch national never got the chance to answer for his actions.

The murder of Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramírez

A 21-year-old Peruvian woman named Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramírez was brutally murdered on May 30, 2010, five years after Natalee's disappearance. Like Natalee, Ramírez was also last seen alive in the company of van der Sloot. Ramírez didn't remain missing for long. Her body was soon discovered in van der Sloot's hotel room.

Unlike Natalee's case, evidence in the Ramírez murder overwhelming pointed in the direction of van der Sloot. There was video footage of Ramírez and van der Sloot entering his hotel room together and of the Dutchman calmly leaving the room by himself.

Van der Sloot soon fled to Chile, but was captured just days later. CNN reports that Chilean authorities found the Dutchman with money, allegedly stolen from the murder victim. Even more damning, van der Sloot had "bloodied clothes" on his person. Chilean officials soon extradited van der Sloot to Peru to answer for Ramírez's murder.

Van der Sloot eventually pleaded guilty to murder and robbery charges on Jan. 11, 2012. At the time of this writing, he was serving a 28-year prison sentence in a Peruvian prison.

Was Ramírez killed over evidence connected to Natalee?

The official story is that van der Sloot murdered and robbed Ramírez, but a source close to the Peruvian investigation told CNN that authorities believe the victim was killed, in part, because she stumbled on vital evidence in the Natalee case. During several hours of police interrogation, van der Sloot allegedly admitted to killing Ramírez after an argument.

The catalyst for the argument? The Dutchman reportedly left the victim alone in his room while he went out to buy bread and coffee at a nearby hotel. This statement is corroborated by video evidence of van der Sloot leaving the hotel and returning with those items. According to CNN's source, when van der Sloot returned, he found Ramírez going through his laptop. She allegedly found information connecting van der Sloot to Natalee's disappearance.

CNN reported that during the murder investigation, van der Sloot offered to finally reveal the location of Natalee's body, presumably in exchange for extradition to Aruba, but Peruvian authorities were reportedly not interested in anything that did not directly involve Ramírez's murder.

Natalee is declared dead

On Jan. 12, 2012, just one day after van der Sloot's murder confession, an Alabama court declared Natalee legally dead. Her heartbroken parents willed themselves to move on from their daughter's presumed murder. Even so, the general public continues to wonder about her fate.

If there is any evidence to be found, it may be decades before it becomes available. Prime suspect van der Sloot remains an unreliable source of information. Although he's expected to answer for the attempted extortion of Natalee's parents, that won't happen until he completes his sentence in Peru. It's possible that so many years locked away could move van der Sloot to share what he knows—even if that's ultimately that he knows nothing.

Until then, the truth of Natalee's fate will continue to do battle with fruitless leads and endless speculation.