I spent last week in Aruba looking for answers in the Natalee Holloway missing person case. On the four-and-a-half hour flight to the island almost all of the seats were full, and yet it's the off season. Clearly, Americans -- who make up about 70% of Aruba's tourism base -- are not avoiding this vacation spot because of a missing teenager. As you step off the plane the heat hits you smack in the face. It's really hot here, but that's why most people come to Aruba -- for the sun, the beaches, and a good time. Many people from the U.S. believe Holloway's disappearance is an aberration, a blip on the radar screen of life that may be as much her fault as anyone else's. "She should have known better," or "Why'd her parents let her come here in the first place," are some of the responses you get from tourists and locals alike.
Arubans are happy to share their theories of her being kidnapped by slavers or of her running away from her family, escaping her dull life in Alabama, aided by Joran van der Sloot who is now in jail. Or perhaps, it is said, she simply went for a swim and drowned. A popular story that's told by locals concerns an Aruban man and his sons who were fishing off the coast about a decade ago. The engine on their boat failed and they begin a slow drift that eventually carried them over 700 miles to the Panama Canal. Residents told me this story to emphasize how a person, or a body, once in the local waters could quickly drift from sight and never be found.
When you look around in any city, island, or country you find that all have their secrets, things they don't want outsiders to know. In Aruba's case a few warts are beginning to show. Last week the FBI indicated that at least three American women have come forward since Natalee's disappearance to report that they had been sexually assaulted while vacationing in Aruba. Are these women aberrations, too? Did they contribute to their own victimization? And, are these alleged crimes related in any way to Natalee Holloway's disappearance? To my knowledge none of the reported victims have identified any suspect in the Holloway disappearance as their alleged assailant, yet other women are still coming forward and, as the police say, "the investigation continues" concerning the now three prime suspects.
Natalee's last night in Aruba was at Carlos'N Charlie's, a local nightspot that every tourist knows. As you turn down the small, nondescript cobble stoned side street in Oranjestad, the capital city of Aruba where the cruise ships dock, you first spot the construction project across the street from Charlie's, something that dwarfs the otherwise well known local bar. Big bouncers (probably wrestlers in high school), stand out front of the bar, eyeing everyone who enters. Why, I'm not sure, since children, young adults, and seniors alike are found inside. Visitors tell me they have been approached to buy drugs in this same area.
Once you enter Charlie's you know you're in the islands, and, indeed, as the tourist brochures say, you're on "One Happy Island." The melodic tropical sounds are booming throughout the main room, and, as if being played by an Aruban pied piper, and as you follow the tunes inside you see all of the people dancing in the bar. Upstairs, a DJ in a little booth plays the music, which he blasts through large speakers. Multiple bars are pouring liquor into tall, pink plastic glasses (by the yard), as two employees with microphones work the crowd. These guys are there to set the ambience, to get you singing, dancing, and drinking. The congo line soon begins to wind around the bar, with patrons induced to join in, as if they needed any inducement, by the offer of free shots of tequila. The young, singing attendant leads the human chain around the relatively small bar, with everyone doing their own dance, singing, and ultimately pausing ever so briefly next to yet another bar employee standing on a chair. As promised, he uses a squeeze bottle to shoot shots of tequila into the willing mouths, and sometimes on the bodies of those in line who dance up to him. The women appear to get a little longer shot, but this is the islands. People are here for fun, and this is the place to have it.
You have to ask yourself, if you're young, or even not so young, why else would you pay for a plane ticket to Aruba if you didn't expect to have fun? I didn't stay late, but the fun continues late into the night, every night. Please know that I'm not the bar police. Young and old were having fun, something they paid for, something that almost seemed expected in this environment. And, though appealing, it seemed artificial at times on this small rock, coral, and sand island covered with upscale and downscale hotels and motels. Some local citizens tell me that fresh water, for example, is so expensive on the island that they bring it home from work to their families.
As I walked out of the bar the cabs and cars drove by. Some were looking for fares, while some were just cruising, checking out the nightlife in the area. In Aruba it can be hard at times to tell a private car from a cab. If you play detective you can spot the special license plate decal on registered cabs, if, that is, you go to the rear of the car to look for it. Sometimes there's a small, plug-in sign on the dash of the car that says "taxi," and sometimes the driver even has a CB-like radio. But other times a car rolls up and when you climb inside you see nothing that suggests it is a cab. This happened to me twice. When I asked, the driver said his "real" taxi was being repaired, so he was driving a friend's car. The reality is that you have about five seconds to decide whether to get into the car or not. It's hard to know if it's a real taxi, perhaps a situation that Natalee, like me, accepted at face value. What we do know from witnesses is that at about 1:45 a.m. she drove off in the back seat of a car with Joran van der Sloot while the two Kalpoe brothers were in front, and she was never seen again.
I talked to 21-year-old Deepak Kalpoe last Friday, finding him at his job at an Internet café in the downtown tourist district. When you stand next to him, he doesn't look as big as he does in the picture you see on television of him, his 18-year-old brother Satish, and 18-year-old Joran van der Sloot. As I walked in I spotted him behind the counter. "Hi. You're Deepak aren't you," I said. His eyes opened wide, and in a soft voice he answered, "Yes." I told him I was there helping MSNBC and that while I assumed he might not want to talk to the media, I still had a question for him. While tourists pecked away on the computer keys in the Internet café we had a one-on-one talk. I told him I'd seen a statement attributed to van der Sloot in which Joran said he believed (or similar Dutch words) that Deepak had assaulted and murdered Natalee and buried her body. "How could a friend of yours say such a thing?" I asked. "You need to ask him," he said. (In reality this was a good response to my question; I thought, "he'd probably been asked it once or twice before.") "Look Deepak," I said, "I've got two sons like you and your brother, and if someone accused them of such a horrific crime, I'd tell them to confront the person who accused them. Have you asked Joran why he said such a thing?" "No," he said, he'd not seen Joran in jail nor had he had any other opportunity to speak to him.
"Deepak, I think you and your brother somehow got into something over your heads the night you were with Joran and Natalee." (He seemed to shrink further into himself, growing even smaller in front of me as we talked.) "I think things may have gone very wrong that night and you and your brother got sucked into something you didn't want to be a part of. Were you my son, I'd tell you to level with the cops and deal with the stories being told about you."
"Nobody will believe me," he said. "That's why I don't do TV interviews; nobody believes me. They all think I'm lying." "Do you want to be believed?" I said. He looked me in the eyes and again quietly said, "Yes." "You know Deepak, you need some way to prove to the world that what you want to say is the truth. Do you know what a polygraph is?" "They don't use them in Aruba," he quickly answered. "But what if you were offered the chance to prove yourself by passing such a test; would you do it?" I asked. "I'd have to ask my lawyer," he replied. "And if he agreed, would you take it?" "I'd have to talk to him," he said. (He and his brother may soon be offered their chance to take such a test.)
Continuing with Deepak, I said, "September 4th is a big day in this case. Joran either gets held for another 30 days or he's set free. If he's released is this case over?" "No," he quickly replied, "it will never be over -- Beth [Natalee's mother] will never let it be over, and the prosecutor is under pressure to do something in this case. It may not look like things are being done, but under the surface they are." ("I hope you are right," I said silently to myself.) "Would your mother let this go if you were Natalee?" I said. "No," he replied, and I thought, "and neither would I."
As I looked into this young man's face, I thought about my life, my two sons, and my 25-year career in the FBI that allowed me to interview and arrest many criminals, including suspected kidnappers and murders. Most don't look like Dennis Rader, or have a history like the infamous BTK killer from Kansas. Most are people who simply got in over their heads. Someone who made a terrible mistake that they'd take back in a second if only given the chance to do so. That's the way Deepak impressed me. He wasn't smug nor did he try to be cool. He was a concerned, threatened young man whose life was now caught in a time warp until this matter is resolved. He told me that he wanted to go to college in Florida, but now he must consider schools in Canada. "Why?" I asked. "Because I'm too well known in America," he said, suggesting his belief of his lack of anonymity because of this case. His work shift was over and as he left I told him "this is not something that you want hanging over your head for the rest of your life." He just looked at me -- expressionless.
What's the truth in this matter? I have my suspicions, my working theory, and like Beth Holloway Twitty, I believe that Deepak and his brother could help solve the mystery of Natalee's disappearance. You find out a few things quickly regarding this case in Aruba. You have what you know to be true, what you think may be true, what others tell you to be true, and in my case what I can write or say on TV. Very different levels of "proof" are needed for each.
As you attempt to unwind this story you find that this little island is a maze within a maze, a human anagram. Secrets, personal concerns, fears both justified and unjustified, and wild, "off the wall" conspiracy theories abound concerning Natalee's disappearance. What I do know is that with the possible exception of the current suspects in this matter, no one has apparently come forward who really knows what happened to a missing 18-year-old girl. One who would have started college this week.
What about Beth -- Natalee's mother? She is there every day and night with one stated goal, "to bring Natalee home." When we talked she could only hope. When she asked my opinion I said that I'd never turn off her emotional porch light that could lead Natalee home. After all, there's the Elizabeth Smart story, "the runaway bride," and others that have come back to their loved ones when it appeared they might never be seen again. Beth Holloway Twitty holds out for a similar miracle-like conclusion. But she's smart enough to know the odds are growing against her. Yes, she tried psychics to no avail and of course she knows there's a war going on in Iraq, that children and adults go missing every day, and that there is a crisis in Gaza. But this is her crisis and she wants answers, too. Beth, her family, and friends as well as Joran, Deepak, Satish, and their respective families are all caught in this same island time warp -- an "Aruban Triangle" where they can't go forward, and they can't go back.
And, all the while, the cruise ships continue to come into port, the planes take off and land, and at Carlos 'N Charlie's the music continues to play, all on this "One Happy Island."
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."