LIMA, Peru — For all of his garrulous charm, Joran van der Sloot didn't do himself any favors in his online interactions, where his generation tends to reveal a lot about itself.
"If I would have to describe myself as an animal it would be a snake," he wrote on his YouTube page. Perhaps wistfully wishing the past undone, he continued: "however, I want to be a lion and one day I will be a lion."
At age 22, van der Sloot is now a caged animal. He sits in a bleak third-world prison, where he fears his fellow inmates. After requesting isolation, he shares a cellblock with a reputed Colombian murderer-for-hire.
Van der Sloot's journey from the quiet comfort of Aruba to being escorted briskly in handcuffs past Peruvian crowds screaming "murderer" is a tale of dissolution, deception and increasing desperation, according to friends and people who have chronicled his life.
Bracketing that journey are the May 30, 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba and, five years later to the day, the strangling death of Stephany Flores in his hotel room in Lima, Peru.
Bred in privilege on a Caribbean tourist island, a high school soccer and tennis star, the handsome, physically imposing young Dutchman has fallen about as far as a young man can fall. But between the disappearance of Holloway, one year his senior, and Flores, one year his junior, where was Joran Van Der Sloot? What journey led him from the ashes of one missing-persons case to the heart of a murder?
Who, really, is he?
'Joran isn't a monster'
The moment word got out that van der Sloot was suspected of Flores' murder, speculation swirled that he'd left a trail of young female victims in his travels — that he was something of a playboy killer for the globalized 21st century. He likes to travel, after all, and there were visits to Cambodia, Hong Kong, Venezuela, the United States.
Peruvian police officials called Van der Sloot a "psychopath." A New York detective who worked for the Holloways, Bo Dietl, branded him "a homicidal maniac."
But no evidence has emerged thus far linking van der Sloot to any other disappearances or killings, and he certainly does not fit the profile of a deranged loner. He has had plenty of interpersonal relationships — friends, girlfriends, ardent defenders.
"Joran isn't a monster and isn't a serial killer," his cousin, Natalia den Boer, told the AP. "I think that Joran needs help. Because something is bad in his head."
Before Lima, the only case in the past five years where he's known to have caused bodily harm was in January 2008. Then, he threw a glass of red wine in the face of Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries right after a live TV program on which the journalist called him a liar.
But the five years in between those brackets — Holloway and Flores — were bumpy ones for van der Sloot:
He is twice arrested in the Holloway disappearance, and twice released. He is harassed by crime-obsessed media and tracked doggedly by investigators hired by the Holloway family.
He relocates to Holland but, perpetually accosted, can't live a normal university student's life. He settles in Thailand, where he studies business without earning a degree. He buys a coffee shop.
In February, his prominent lawyer father collapses and dies of a heart attack on an Aruba tennis court at age 57. Van der Sloot flies home, lingering there after the funeral.
Then he moves. Strapped for cash, he reportedly obtains $25,000 from Holloway's mother in exchange for a promise to lead her to her daughter's body. The FBI secretly records the alleged extortion but van der Sloot is not arrested.
Instead, he heads off to Lima to play poker. He kills Flores, Peru's police say, after a night of poker with her at a casino in which he had about 10 drinks of whisky and pisco while she drank wine. The evidence against him is so overwhelming, Peru authorities, that he has no choice but to confess.
But what motivated van der Sloot, as his signed confession describes, to slam Flores in the face with his right elbow, strangle her for a full minute, then take off his shirt and asphyxiate her?
In the confession, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, he says Flores threw the first blow.
The two were playing online poker on his laptop, said van der Sloot, when an insulting message arrived mentioning the Holloway case and saying, "I'm going to kill you, you little Mongoloid." He said that after he explained the Holloway disappearance and how he'd been accused of it, she punched him on the left side of his head.
There is no mention in the confession about Flores and van der Sloot having sexual relations. Police say there is no evidence of sexual abuse.
Peru's criminal police chief, Gen. Cesar Guardia, says he's skeptical about van der Sloot's story. The defendant is, after all, a person who described himself as "a pathological liar" in a 2007 book he co-wrote when several of the figures in the Holloway saga cashed in on the case with published accounts.
Asked about his motive for killing Flores, van der Sloot told his questioners he didn't really know. "I lost control of my actions," the confession quotes him as saying. "I didn't know what I was doing."
Van der Sloot's Facebook picture is a near-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red whisky, corked, with a powerboat at rest in the ocean as a backdrop.
He likes the rapper Notorious B.I.G. and pop singer Katy Perry, the TV show South Park. He has 160 kills in the game "Mob Wars" and likes "Pissing in random places when totally drunk/wasted," Texas Hold'em Poker, Heineken beer and Barack Obama.
On his DateInAsia.com profile page, created when he was living in Thailand, he says he is attractive, agnostic, a smoker, regular drinker and a former professional card player. He retired from cards, he says, because it's "too much stress and ups and downs."
In the sleepy Bangkok suburb of Muang Ake, he attended Rangsit University in 2008 as a business major but dropped out and bought the Sawadee Cup cafe just off the campus, which served sandwiches and pizza.
One person who met van der Sloot there, a 35-year-old schoolteacher from Illinois named Matthew Lufcy, was struck by his cavalier attitude about his notoriety.
"I would describe him as arrogant, like nobody can do anything to me. He wasn't shy about it," Lufcy said. He said he met Van der Sloot's then-girlfriend, a blonde from California. Lufcy was surprised, given all the media attention on him, that she was with him.
Van der Sloot may have been a charmer, but he apparently wasn't much of a businessman. So says the young Thai woman who, with her American boyfriend, bought the cafe from him early this year.
"I looked at the documents and balance sheets he left. Many items just look wrong," said the woman, who would identify herself only by her first name, Siripat. Still, Siripat described him as "a very affable guy. He'd invite us for meals. Sometimes, he'd let us eat for free at his cafe."
One souvenir van der Sloot apparently picked up in Thailand is visible on his chest in a photo taken during a medical checkup after Chilean police handed him over to Peruvian authorities on June 4. It is a tattoo that says, in Thai, "never mind." The word reflects two prominent characteristics of Thai culture in foreigners' eyes: tolerance and forgiveness.
If Joran van der Sloot can be said to have a nemesis, it is De Vries, a no-nonsense 53-year-old investigative reporter who has refused to leave him alone.
In 2008, the Dutch crime journalist broadcast video of van der Sloot confessing in front of hidden cameras in the Netherlands to having a friend dispose of Holloway's body after, intoxicated, she went into convulsions. In the conversation with businessmen and ex-con Patrick Van Eem, van der Sloot describes how he wanted her to give him oral sex.
In the video, Van Eem comments on the huge media hype the Holloway case has caused. Van der Sloot, smoking what appears to be a large marijuana joint, smiles.
"But now," he says, "I can abuse that as well."
Nine months later, De Vries drops another bombshell. He airs undercover footage of van der Sloot in Bangkok alleging that he was trying to recruit Thai women to go to the Netherlands to work as prostitutes. No women were actually delivered, and Thai authorities have no record of ever opening an investigation.
Van der Sloot's next confession comes that same month — November 2008. He tells Fox News' Greta van Susteren that he sold Natalee into sexual slavery. But before she airs the interview, he calls to say it was all a lie.
In recent months, particularly after the death of his father, it appears van der Sloot got back into gambling in a big way online.
"I do not have a real job but am a professional poker player," he says on his YouTube page. He says he hasn't read many books, but if he had to choose a favorite it would be "Ace on the River" by Barry Greenstein, a poker strategy book.
A mother's defense
Jaap Amesz, a Dutch reality TV star, befriended van der Sloot and extracted yet another confession from him in the Holloway disappearance. In this one, she falls off a balcony drunk and is disposed of in a swampy lake.
On his blog, Amesz writes about how Van der Sloot was often broke and constantly losing at poker. Van der Sloot, Amesz acknowledges, has swindled him, too.
"He likes to think of himself as a gambler, but he's a loser," said Harold Copus, a former FBI agent who worked as a private investigator for Holloway's family.
The Van der Sloot family's finances were already depleted hiring lawyers to defend him in the Holloway case. Now his mother Anita, an art teacher at Aruba's international school, must pay for defense counsel in Peru.
"She is devastated. She just lost her husband a few months ago, and now she's essentially lost her son," said Julia Renfro, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Aruba Today.
Neither Van der Sloot's mother, his two younger brothers or his friends or neighbors would speak to the AP about the case. An old girlfriend, Aline Hibbert, replaced her Facebook photo with a picture of words:
"Mind Your Own Business."
On his TV show's blog last week, De Vries reported that its reporters "have gotten countless e-mails in recent months pointing to the money problems Joran had. He made up anything to get money, and did not hesitate to pry money from the pockets of friends or his own family."
The blog publishes an instant-message exchange it says is between Van der Sloot and a 20-year-old girlfriend five days before Flores was killed. In it, he asks her to wire him 300 euros in Peru. He claims his wallet has been stolen.
Separately, Amesz said on his blog that a close friend of Van der Sloot's told him Joran had run out of money, didn't know how he'd pay his hotel bill and was hungry.
In the Peru confession, Van der Sloot says he took the equivalent of $300 from Flores' wallet and that he also paid drivers who took him south to Chile with his digital camera, his watch and some clothing.
On the day he was arrested outside the Chilean capital, Van der Sloot told police an elaborate story of two bandits jumping him and Flores in his Lima hotel room. According to a transcript obtained by the AP, he asserted that one was armed with a pistol, the other with a knife.
The knife-wielder told them to be quiet, it says, "but Stephany starts to talk in a loud voice and he strikes her in the face, making her bleed from the nose." The same men, Van der Sloot claims, had pulled over Flores' car the previous day and robbed them, taking $4,000 from her and a Thai bracelet from him.
One person Van der Sloot didn't deceive in Lima was Roberto Blades, brother of the famed Panamanian singer and former government minister Ruben Blades. He told Peruvian media that he played poker at the same table as van der Sloot at the Atlantic City casino in Lima's upscale Miraflores district and said he warned casino employees about the Dutchman.
Blades, who lives in Miami, said he was surprised at how no one in Peru seemed to have heard about the Holloway case.
He also said in one TV interview that he was astounded by van der Sloot's brazenness in asking for help to find female companionship: "When you have that reputation, when you have history, how can you so openly be talking about how you want to pick up women?"
For an answer, he might have turned to his acquaintance's YouTube page. Listed by van der Sloot there as one of his favorite songs is "Fear," by the rap artist Drake.
In its refrain, the rapper sings plaintively: "Please don't be scared of me."
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