Joran Van der Sloot has some serious explaining to do. The 22-year-old Dutchman became a household name in 2005 when he was arrested twice in connection with the disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway on the Caribbean island of Aruba. Her body has never been found and Van der Sloot is no longer officially a suspect, according to his American lawyer, but he has never been able to shake the connection to the case. At the time of Holloway’s disappearance, Van der Sloot’s father, now deceased, was an influential judge in Aruba and each time Van der Sloot was arrested, the Caribbean cops let him go due to lack of evidence. Even a commissioned by a Dutch journalist didn’t stick after Aruba police deemed the tape to be more braggadocio than true confession.
Essentially, they determined, if there is no body, there is no proof of murder.
“I don’t know what’s fact or what’s fiction,” says Tacopina. “But I do know that even more than in the Amanda Knox case, more false rumors have emerged than truths.”
All of that has just changed. Van der Sloot is in trouble again and this time there is a body. On Wednesday morning, 21-year-old Stephany Flores Ramirez was found dead in a Lima, Peru hotel room booked under Van der Sloot’s name. Ramirez was a pretty woman from a wealthy Lima family. Her father, Ricardo Flores, is a former racecar driver who now works as an entertainment booking agent for Peru cultural events. He has twice run unsuccessfully for political office, including president of Peru. He told local reporters in Lima that his daughter had been staying with a girlfriend in central Lima when she met Van der Sloot and that the hotel room where her body was found was “covered in blood”—indicating that there was a struggle.
Van der Sloot, who lives a pseudo-playboy lifestyle off his late father’s inheritance, had been in Lima since May 14 to play in an international poker tournament. Border records show that he crossed into Chile on May 31. He was taken into custory there on June 3. Like Holloway, the last person Ramirez was seen with was Van der Sloot. Police in Peru say the two were caught on CCTV tape leaving a Lima casino early Sunday morning and the pair were allegedly spotted by a hotel employee going up to the Dutchman’s room shortly after.
Van der Sloot’s lawyer in the Holloway case, Joseph Tacopina, who also once advised Amanda Knox’s defense team, said that he has not heard from his client. “I have not spoken to Joran since this news broke,” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know what’s fact or what’s fiction. But I do know that even more than in the Amanda Knox case, more false rumors have emerged than truths.”
Tacopina has seen all of this before. He says Van der Sloot’s case is reminiscent of the Knox case in more ways than one. Like Knox, Van der Sloot has been the object of intense interest and wild speculation. His good looks and boyish charm are the male equivalent of Knox’s girl-next-door appeal. The idea that clean-cut kids could commit brutal murders drives those on both sides of the line of guilt.
Not unlike the Knox case in Perugia, Italy, salacious details leaked by authorities in both Aruba and now in Lima have muddied the facts. Police in Lima have already released vivid photos of the murder scene.
They say Ramirez had multiple lesions from being beaten. Her body was clothed so the police say she showed no signs of sexual assault. She was supposedly wrapped in a hotel bed sheet and found face down in a pool of her own blood. Authorities admit they are waiting coroner’s report, yet they have named the probable cause of death is strangulation or asphyxiation. Even before the official autopsy results, Peruvian authorities put her time of death at 8:30 a.m. on May 30—exactly five years to the day after Holloway’s disappearance.
Tacopina is distressed that there is an immediate assumption of guilt. He says that his former client has become a “usual suspect” in these cases. More to the point, he says that even if Van der Sloot ends up implicated in Ramirez’s death, it does not mean he had anything to do with Holloway’s disappearance. “Even if there is an allegation here, it doesn’t create evidence in the Holloway case,” he says. “There are only three possible scenarios. He is either not on the run—he finished his poker tournament and left the country normally; he knows he is going to be implicated in this murder like he was in Aruba and he is scared; or he has something to hide. Let’s take a step back and wait for the facts.”
UPDATE: This story has been revised with news of Van der Sloot's arrest.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.