Even before Joran van der Sloot’s arrest yesterday in Chile, the walls were starting to close in around him. He was no longer an official suspect in the disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005, but in many people’s minds, he was still very much at the center of the allegations, try as he might to shake them. Holloway’s body has never been found, and without it, Van der Sloot’s influential father, an Aruban lawyer, always argued that there was no case against his son. He was Joran’s protector and ensured he had the best legal counsel available.
The known details of both cases are hauntingly similar, right down to the date each woman disappeared: May 30, exactly five years apart.
But four months ago, Joran’s safety net began to unravel. In February, his father Paulus, age 57, died suddenly on the tennis court, sending the younger Van der Sloot into a downward spiral of depression. In March, things got worse when a vacationing Pennsylvania couple, snorkeling off the coast where the young American girl disappeared five years ago, took a picture with their underwater camera of what appeared to be a human skeleton adrift on the sea floor. Could it be Natalee? Suddenly, divers were searching the turquoise waters again, and all eyes were once more on Van der Sloot. The idea that Holloway’s body might be found was surely a terrifying prospect for her alleged killer. “That was a turning point,” says a source close to the Van der Sloot family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “First his father died, and then suddenly someone spotted what could be Natalee’s body.”
In April, Van der Sloot became reclusive, nervous, and angry, says the family friend. Then, on May 10, the 22-year-old Dutchman cracked. He allegedly attempted to extort $250,000 in exchange for providing Holloway’s mother with “the location of Natalee Holloway’s remains in Aruba and information regarding the circumstances of her death.” He accepted a down payment of $15,000, according to a criminal complaint filed in Birmingham, Alabama on June 3. Sources close to the case say he used that money to fund a trip to Peru, where he had signed up to play in an international poker tournament with a top payout of $1 million. He got to Peru on May 14. Two weeks later, he met 21-year-old Stephany Flores and, authorities believe, killed her in his hotel room.
Van der Sloot’s arrest in the Peru murder doesn’t necessarily mean that he had anything to do with Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba. Nor does the extortion case in Alabama—Van der Sloot has famously sold secrets of Holloway’s disappearance before, and even Holloway’s mother doubts he was selling the truth. Joseph Tacopina, the American lawyer who represented Van der Sloot in Aruba and got him out of jail twice there, told The Daily Beast that implication in one case “does not create evidence in another.”
But authorities in Aruba think that it might. They believe that any evidence against Van der Sloot that emerges in Peru could shed light on how Holloway might have died, if in fact she is dead and he is the killer. Details like the murder weapon and whether Flores was strangled, suffocated, or sexually assaulted might provide useful leads in the Holloway case. The known details of both cases are hauntingly similar, right down to the date each woman disappeared: May 30, exactly five years apart. In both cases, Van der Sloot was caught on surveillance tape leaving a nightclub casino with the girls. Hotel workers in Peru told investigators that Flores went to his hotel room with him willingly. In Aruba, Van der Sloot and Holloway were also caught on tape leaving a nightclub together without any sign of struggle.
Van der Sloot has not said anything publicly about the Peru murder yet, but over the years he has offered a multitude of possible scenarios about Holloway’s disappearance. The most telling was a confession on hidden tape commissioned by a Dutch journalist in which he described Holloway’s convulsions on the beach and how he and his friends dumped her at sea. He then changed that story several times, including once on the Dutch television program RTL when he said he dumped Holloway’s corpse in a swamp. He told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News that he sold her to sex traffickers for $10,000. In a book he wrote called De Zaak Natalee Holloway, Mijn Eigen Verhaal ( The Natalee Holloway Case, My Own Words) he paints the Aruba scene as one of wild sexual debauchery in which girls like Natalee were easy prey.
Holloway’s own parents, each of whom have written books about the case themselves, firmly believe that Van der Sloot was involved in their daughter’s death and that the authorities in Aruba badly botched the investigation. Beth Holloway says that she believes that Van der Sloot sexually assaulted her daughter as she came in and out of consciousness and that she either suffocated or was unconscious when he disposed of her body. They have conducted their own investigation, including digging up landfills and swamps across the Caribbean island. "He has always placed himself as the last person seen with Natalee alive,” Holloway’s mother said in a television interview just days before Flores’ body was found. “That is our one continuous thread."
Now there is new hope for the Holloways to finally find out what happened to their daughter. Whether the tragedy of Stephany Flores will help bring peace to the family of Natalee Holloway is a question on everyone’s minds.
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.