Aruba’s prime minister said Thursday that finding a missing Alabama teenager was the country’s “No. 1 goal,” and police arrested three young men who acknowledged giving her a ride the night she disappeared.
Prime Minister Nelson Oduber said his government was working closely with U.S. authorities to solve the case of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway, who dropped from sight more than a week ago.
Oduber said Holloway’s disappearance had left the island nation “in a state of shock and disbelief.”
“The hearts of the people of Aruba are touched by Natalee and her family,” he said at a news conference. “Resolving this is Aruba’s No. 1 goal.”
Those arrested Thursday were two brothers from Suriname and a 17-year-old Dutch student who is the son of a high-ranking Dutch justice official.
The two brothers are identified as Satish and Deepak Kaploe of Suriname. The student is identified as Joran Andreas Petrus Van Der Sloot, a student at Aruba International School.
Van Der Sloot left his home in the middle-class Montana neighborhood of Oranjestad on Thursday with his head covered in a blue-and-green striped towel. He is said to have lived on the island for more than 10 years.
‘Hope is still alive’
The prime minister, who said he had met with Holloway’s relatives, pledged that police would not exclude anyone from their investigation.
“On this island nobody stands above the law,” he said, stressing that “hope is still alive” that Holloway will be found unharmed.
The 17-year-old met Holloway at a casino in her hotel, the Holiday Inn, two nights before she disappeared on May 30, Aruban Police Cmdr. Jahn van der Straaten told reporters.
In Mountain Brook, Ala., Holloway’s hometown, some of the 123 teenagers who went to Aruba with her on a graduation trip were quoted as saying the Dutch teenager was at several places the group visited, including the restaurant-bar where the honors student was last seen.
Third man recognized
Marcia Twitty, Holloway’s aunt, said the Alabama students recognized the Dutch teenager from photos shown them by FBI agents. “They had seen him around during the trip. He was just a local guy in the bar and the casino where all the kids were just kind of hanging out,” she said.
Attorney General Caren Janssen said the three men were arrested about 6 a.m. but refused to name them or say on what grounds they were being held. Authorities previously described them as students — two Surinamese brothers and the son of a Dutch justice official studying to be a judge.
“The three people have been arrested as suspects,” chief government spokesman Ruben Trapenberg told The Associated Press. Police also impounded a gray Honda; Holloway’s friends reported last seeing her leave in a silver car.
A source close to the investigation said the two brothers told police that Holloway had been drinking and fell down as she got out of the car, according to the source.
The source said that when Van Der Sloot tried to help her, she refused, saying, “I can stand on my own.”
The brothers added that a man dressed in a black security uniform and carrying a walkie-talkie went up to the teen, seemingly to offer his assistance. The suspects then drove off and did not see her again.
Previously ‘persons of interest’
The three are the same “persons of interest” questioned last week on this Dutch Caribbean island. At that time, they told police they took Holloway to a beach and then dropped her off at her hotel at 2 a.m. on May 30, the night she vanished. Hotel security cameras did not record her return, however.
The 17-year-old met Holloway at a hotel casino in the Holiday Inn where she was staying two days before her disappearance, Aruban police Cmdr. Jahn van der Straaten said Thursday.
The attorney general’s office earlier said the three were considered witnesses and not suspects.
Sufficient cause to hold two others
On Wednesday, a judge ruled there was sufficient cause to keep holding two former hotel security guards in connection with Holloway's disappearance.
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 the 18-year-old, defense attorneys said. Neither man has been formally charged.
Janssen confirmed the decision handed down at a closed hearing at a police station where the men are jailed.
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.
John and Jones 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 on 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.
June 15 key date
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 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, 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.”
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 a 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.