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Finding Natalee: A human needle in a haystack

Former FBI Profiler Clint Van Zandt:  Some question whether the Aruban police chief  has been looking in the right haystack for Natalee Holloway, or if he even wants to find the missing needle.  Others in both the US and Aruba have found yet more bizarre theories to explain how a young woman could be there one moment, and gone the next.

“It’s worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.”  These are the words of Gerold Dompig, Aruban Deputy Chief of Police, as he talks about his efforts to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway.  However, some question whether he has been looking in the right haystack, or if he even wants to find the missing needle.  Others in both the US and Aruba have found yet more bizarre theories to explain how a young woman could be there one moment, and gone the next. 

Over 750,000 people are reported missing in the U.S. every year; 15,000 are believed to be victims of homicide.  Why has our national and even international attention centered on this one young girl from Mountain Brook, Alabama?  Name a topic other than the war in Iraq that has received more cable television coverage over the past 10 months.  At times, it has seemed that television news, like the soap operas that have graced the small silver screens in our living rooms for the past 50 years, has needed to continue to report the saga to bring us back to our seats to watch night after night.  Yet, were it not for the pressure from the American media, this story would probably have disappeared from the Aruban police blotter the week after Natalee’s disappearance.  Further, the sudden, unexplained nature of her disappearance, the young promise of her life, lost, and the devotion of her mother and family members in the search for Natalee has gripped us.

While most know her name, what we don’t know is what happened to Natalee after she climbed into a car with three young men she’d just met in Aruba, Joran van der Sloot and brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe.  Natalee’s mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, says the answer is easy, just ask these three young men, the last three people that Natalee was with.

Deputy Police Chief Dompig says police did ask them, many times over a period of months, starting three days after Natalee’s disappearance.  The three suspects initially suggested her assailants could have been a couple of security guards at her hotel.  This was just one of three or more major, and 25 plus minor, alterations or changes to their collective stories, or perhaps just plain lies. 

Parents like Beth Holloway Twitty want the best for their children and ache if their child is hurt, or maybe lost, perhaps forever.  Beth has asked for just one thing – the one thing she has not been able to obtain – an answer to what happened to her daughter.  In a recent cable talk show the host interviewed Joran van der Sloot and allowed him to spout his latest version, basically unchallenged, of his two dozen plus versions of what happened to Natalee after she joined him in the back seat of the Kalpoe’s car.  Dompig says profilers have characterized Joran as a sociopath, someone, in layman’s terms, who wouldn’t know the truth, or at least tell the truth, if it hit him in the head like a coconut. 

After Joran’s latest version of the truth we have Chief Dompig’s interview, perhaps taped one or two months ago, wherein he tells us he feels confident that this case will be solved and that the case is in its “critical last phase.”  Evidently this characterization was related to a telephone call received by an Aruban bar manager last January with information that identified a specific burial location for Natalee’s body, strangely enough in the sand by the lighthouse at the far end of the island – a location the police have known about since they first interviewed Joran and the brothers Kalpoe.  Why, now, is this information better than the information that previously led the police to search the area with men and cadaver dogs, then, as now, to no avail?

A ground penetrating radar (GPR) unit, either pulled or towed along the ground, sends pulses of ultra high frequency radio waves into the ground.  The energy is reflected from a buried object and a good operator can tell the difference between different buried materials. These signals are plotted on the GPR’s visual profile as different colored bands, with the signal reaching depths of up to 100 feet in dry sand.  Such a device was recently brought in to look beneath the sand near the light house, searching for the skeletalized remains of a young woman who had the whole world ahead of her and may have made one fatal error in judgment – she left her friends and went off into the night with strangers.  But the GPR didn’t find a body where the tipster said it would be found, therefore this new tip appears useless, as were the earlier flyovers by Dutch photo recon F-16s.  So much for what was described as “a new and valuable lead.”  We’re back to no body, no case, therefore case closed.  The attitude, it seems is let’s get everything back to normal, with American tourists, and their dollars, pouring back into Aruba by the plane full and ship full.

One question to be answered is why would an otherwise bright and savvy person (for her age) like Natalee go off with three strangers in the first place?  Dompig believes he knows, or at least he’s now told anyone in America who will listen his current working theory.  Everyone seems to acknowledge that Natalee, at age 18, was legally drinking while in Aruba (80% of 18-year-olds from her high school acknowledge drinking in the past year).  However, Dompig tells us that Natalee had drunk to excess, had consumed some unknown quantity of an unknown drug, and simply collapsed and died of alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, or some combination thereof.  “We’re not talking about killers here,” says chief investigator Dompig, suggesting that the three young suspects evidently found themselves with a body on their hands the night Natalee disappeared.  If the three committed any crime, so says the Chief, it was the illegal disposal of an already dead body.

If Dompig’s latest theory is that Natalee died of an alcohol and drug overload, next week we’ll probably be told that this was the strangest case of suicide police in Aruba have ever seen.  Why, she must have forced these three men to drive her to the sand dunes while holding them at shovel point, the same shovel that Natalee evidently used to dig her own grave and bury herself, most likely along with Joran’s missing shoes. 

If the only crime these three suspects committed was to bury a foreigner who overdosed accidentally or of her own volition, why not own up to it?  Simply because they didn’t save her -- in their case didn’t drive her to an ER -- would be, according to Dompig no crime.  The “Chappaquiddick defense” has worked in the past; it could work again.

In addition to the Aruban Police, their Dutch counterparts, and even a few FBI Agents, were allowed to look in on the investigation; but not right away, and not to the degree that these agencies may have wanted to participate.  It was an Aruban investigation – their island, their case.  The challenge to the investigation, according to Dompig, was not his department’s inability to first identify and then break down the three current suspects and their various stories.  No, it was the tenacity of Natalee’s mother in demanding answers.  So, there we have it; it was Natalee’s and later Beth’s fault that the case was not solved.  But why weren’t the police able to explain to 17-year-old Joran that if all he did was to conduct an improvised Aruban funeral, then he and his two buds were guilty of only some minor offense?  (Dompig does suggest though that Joran’s father and perhaps other unidentified co-conspirators were also somehow involved.)   “There were several moments where Joran almost broke.  Several moments, ” says Dompig.  Beth Holloway Twitty says she has a copy of a written report of a police interview with Joran wherein he admits that he had sex with Natalee when she couldn’t resist.  Dompig says no such report exists. 

Dompig believes that Natalee did not die at the hands of others, but by some if not all of her own actions.  He believes she was thereafter buried, dug up, and reburied by some combination of his three prime suspects and their identified and unidentified supporters.  Come on!  Even with this theory you’ve got to consider that while one burial may have been done in panic, the second has got to be evidence of something done on purpose, something done based upon a plan.

We recently witnessed the police investigation of the disappearance and murder of New York City graduate student Imette St. Guillen.  A big difference, of course, was that the victim in that case was found, along with a large amount of physical evidence linking her death to her believed killer.  In the case of Natalee, we have no body and no evidence to link her to the suspects in her disappearance, nothing other than her driving away with them and their inability to tell a straight story as to what they did with, or to her.  No known evidence in Joran’s apartment, where Dompig believes Joran may have taken her?  No evidence in the Kalpoe’s car – no fingerprints, no hair, and no fibers – nothing?  And, nothing anywhere else on or in the polished blue waters around the island?

Should the chief find a body under the sand, mitochondrial DNA from bones or teeth could be compared to Beth’s DNA to establish the identity of the deceased, and any drug consumed by the victim could be in evidence should human hair be present.  The science is ready and waiting.  We just need the investigation to be completed successfully.  But what if Natalee was not buried, but somehow dropped in the water off the lighthouse?  Dompig suggests that tests have been conducted that show a body dumped in the ocean surrounding the island would float back to shore.  But there has been no discussion as to what would happen to a body if it was weighted down.  Additionally, Dompig’s says that every local boat that was in the water the night Natalee disappeared has been accounted for.  Anyway, any boat that went out two miles or more, something that many find hard to believe. 

At the end of the day we are left with the Chief Dompig’s promise: “A crime like this cannot go unsolved.”  Try telling that to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.  Many of you have followed this story from the beginning.  How do you think this crime (or case) can be solved?  What do you think happened to Natalee Holloway?                 

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , 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."