A judge ruled Wednesday there was sufficient cause to keep holding two former hotel security guards in connection with the disappearance of an Alabama high school honors student.
The decision means authorities may hold Nick John, 30, and Abraham Jones, 28, for nearly four months while prosecutors investigate possible murder and kidnapping charges in the disappearance of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway, defense attorneys said. Neither man has been formally charged.
Attorney General Caren Janssen confirmed the decision handed down at a closed hearing at a police station where the men are jailed outside the capital of Oranjestad.
Holloway, of Mountain Brook, Ala., vanished May 30 while on a five-day trip with 124 classmates celebrating their high school graduation on this Dutch Caribbean island.
Police and the FBI kept up their search for Holloway but said a lack of any solid leads was hindering progress. Local officials have asked the FBI to bring in dogs trained to search.
Police and volunteer land searches continued Wednesday with no results, while water searches, also unsuccessful, had been suspended “at this time,” police spokesman Edwin Comenencia said. “We’re getting tips,” he said, adding nothing has panned out yet.
The two men were arrested Sunday on suspicion of first- and second-degree murder and capital kidnapping, the latter of which is invoked when a kidnapping victim is killed, according to court-appointed defense attorneys Noraina Pietersz and Chris Lejuez.
Judge J.S. Kuiperdal will review the case June 15 and every eight days after that if needed, officials said. Authorities may hold the suspects for 116 days without filing formal charges.
The former security guards worked for a hotel two blocks from the Holiday Inn where Holloway stayed. Their work contracts had expired May 29.
Investigators have not found any solid proof of what happened to Holloway, despite land and water searches. Holloway’s parents were holding out hope that she is alive.
Lejuez has said the suspects deny any connection to Holloway. Both men are Aruban citizens, although one is originally from Grenada, Lejuez said.
In an interview after the hearing, Pietersz said prosecutors asked that the defendants be kept in jail at least until June 15, when they hope to conclude their investigation.
Vivian Van Der Biezan, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said investigators must come up with some evidence to hold the suspects beyond that date.
Der Biezan also said she would check into whether Dutch law allows a charge of murder if no body is found. Investigators “cannot exclude the possibility of a criminal act because of the days that have passed.”
Under Aruban law, only serious suspicion from investigators — not solid evidence — is needed for a judge to rule that suspects can be held, Pietersz said.
“I do believe my client is innocent, that’s all I can tell you,” she added.
At least one of the suspects had a reputation of trying to pick up women at tourist hotels on the Dutch Caribbean island, police said. But both men insist they never met Holloway, Lejuez said.
Suspect's common-law wife: 'He was home'
Jones’ common-law wife, Cynthia De Graaf, said she and her husband were together continuously May 29 and May 30.
“He was home. He was even sick,” De Graaf said, breaking down in tears as she waited for the hearing to start. “They ruined everything. My daughter has been asking for her father.”
Jones’ mother, Cynthia Rosalie Jones, 54, added that the only way her son knew about Holloway was from seeing the television news.
“They have my son there for something he knows nothing about,” Jones said emphatically. “My son is innocent.”
Police last week questioned and then released three men they referred to as “persons of interest.” The three told police they took Holloway to a beach and then dropped her off at her hotel the night she vanished. The attorney general’s office said the three were considered witnesses and not suspects.
Authorities have not said Holloway was a victim of foul play and have not ruled out any possibilities, including that she may have drowned, Janssen said Tuesday.
“I haven’t seen any proof she is not alive,” Lejuez said Wednesday, adding that regarding his clients, “In my opinion, there is no evidence whatsoever that they are involved in the disappearance of Natalee.”
Investigators searched the suspects’ homes and impounded three vehicles, carrying away bags of items, but said they had not found any of Holloway’s belongings.
A graduation trip gone awry
The night she disappeared, Holloway ate and danced at Carlos’ n Charlie’s bar and restaurant. She did not show up for her flight hours later, and police found her passport in her hotel room with her packed bags.
Seven chaperones accompanied the students on the trip.
It was not clear if Holloway had been drinking the night of her disappearance, though her relatives say she does not party much and is a straight-A student who had earned a full scholarship at the University of Alabama.
The Aruba government and local tourism organizations have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to Holloway’s rescue, her family and benefactors in Alabama have offered an additional $30,000, and Carlos’ n Charlie’s donated another $5,000 for a total of $55,000.