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11.19.10

Natalee Holloway: Is the Bone in Aruba Hers?

In the years since she disappeared, the Alabama girl's family has kept her case from going cold—and a startling new discovery suggests it may have just paid off. 

In the years since she disappeared, the Alabama girl's family has kept her case from going cold—and a startling new discovery suggests it may have just paid off. By Barbie Latza Nadeau

There is no one as desperate as a parent whose child is missing and presumed dead. Every lead, no matter how far-fetched, is clung to. Such is the case with Natalee Holloway, the 18-year-old Alabama high-school student who disappeared on a senior trip to the holiday island of Aruba on May 30, 2005. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the Aruban officials, her parents have spent the last five years keeping her story alive and even conducting their own investigation into what happened to their daughter, turning up countless dead-end clues along the way.

Their perseverance may have just paid off.

Last week, the latest clue in the mystery of Holloway's disappearance washed up on the shores of Aruba. This time it is a fragment of jawbone with a tooth intact. It was found by a beachcombing tourist near the Hotel Phoenix on the west side of the island, not far from where Holloway was last seen over five years ago. The tourist had heard that the girl disappeared near there, largely thanks to her parent's awareness campaign, and immediately turned the jawbone over to the hotel concierge who contacted police.

What makes this lead particularly poignant is the fact that it was found just a few weeks after Natalee's mother Beth Twitty sat in a Peruvian prison and confronted Dutch native Joran van der Sloot, the 22-year-old Dutchman she believes knows exactly what happened to her daughter. And the spot where the jawbone was found is almost exactly where the Van der Sloot once admitted on hidden camera to dumping her weighted body at sea.

The young suspect is in Castro Castro prison on the outskirts of Lima as he awaits trial for the murder of Stephany Flores, a 21-year-old Peruvian woman he allegedly killed on May 30, five years to the day after Holloway's disappearance. Flores' bloodied and beaten corpse was found in a Lima hotel room booked under Van der Sloot's name. CCTV footage shows the two of them entering his room the night she was murdered. Twitty, with the help of Dutch crime sleuth Peter de Vries, sat face-to-face with her daughter's alleged assassin and asked him for help. "I have not any hate in me, Joran, I have none," she told him as he sat a few feet from her, clasping his hands. "I want to know what happened, Joran. I want to move on... I cannot close the book."

The spot where the jawbone was found is almost exactly where the Van der Sloot once admitted on hidden camera to dumping her weighted body at sea.

Van der Sloot appears to vacillate between apologetic and aloof in his response, captured on hidden camera. He told Natalee's mother that he knew she "has a good heart… I know that for a fact." But he wouldn't say more, and instead insisted that if she would give him her address, he would to write to her, but first he needed "time to think about what to say," he said. "I owe you at least that."

Then, like a twist in a pulp thriller, the jawbone washed up on shore in Aruba. Officials there quickly handed over the specimen to Dutch authorities who have assumed investigative responsibility in this case. They have hinted that the bone is human, and asked for Holloway's dental records and imprints, which her father confirms were sent to the Netherlands via the FBI midweek. But they have not officially confirmed whether or not the jawbone is even human, let alone if it belongs to the missing girl. "The authorities haven't confirmed anything to me," Natalee's father Dave told the Associated Press. "It's pretty much total silence."

This is not the first time the Holloways have almost found the remains of their daughter while dangled under the puppet strings of Van der Sloot, who they continue to believe might one day tell them the truth. Van der Sloot, who has been arrested three times in connection with her murder, is the lone suspect in her disappearance. He once hinted he buried her in a swampy bird sanctuary on the island, which her father dredged to no avail. In March, an American couple from Philadelphia photographed what looked like a skull during a snorkeling expedition. An intense search of the area proved fruitless, but interest in the case was renewed. And just weeks before Flores was murdered in Peru, Van der Sloot extorted $250,000 from Twitty through her lawyer, in exchange for information about where he allegedly buried Natalee. He reneged on the promise and instead used that money to go to Peru.

Forensic experts are expected to determine whether the jawbone on the beach is Holloway's. If it's not, Natalee's parents will continue their desperate search for the truth about their daughter's disappearance. But if it is a match, at least they might begin the painful process of closure. Van der Sloot's trial in the Flores murder is expected to begin in 2011. In the event of his very likely conviction, he faces up to 35 years for her murder, only after which he could then be brought to trial in Aruba. For the Holloways, it would no doubt be worth the wait.

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.