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In Aruba mystery, more questions than answers

As the mystery of a missing Alabama student drags on, questions abound about Aruban authorities’ handling of the Dutch Caribbean island’s highest-profile case in recent memory.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the mystery of a missing Alabama honors student drags on, questions abound about Aruban authorities’ handling of the Dutch Caribbean island’s highest-profile case in decades.

Why were the young men last seen with 18-year-old Natalee Holloway left free for days after she disappeared May 30, the last day of a five-day high school graduation trip with 124 other students?

Why did police wait 16 days after she went missing before searching the home of the Dutch youth who was flirting with her? Why did Aruban officials ask the FBI to send divers, who came to the island but never searched its waters?

Criminal experts say these apparent mishaps could make it harder for Aruban investigators to crack the case and may ultimately prevent the Holloway family from ever knowing what happened.

Attorney General Caren Janssen refused to comment on the criticism, saying only: “I can’t comment on the investigation until it’s over. Investigators must be allowed to do their jobs.”

Joran van der Sloot, 17, and Surinamese brothers Deepak Kalpoe, 21, and Satish Kalpoe, 18, were the last ones seen with Holloway, an honors student from Mountain Brook, Ala. Her passport and packed bags were found in her room.

After a night of eating, drinking and dancing at Carlos’ N’ Charlie’s restaurant, the three men told police they took Holloway to a northern beach before dropping her off at her hotel around 2 a.m.

The three were questioned soon after she disappeared but were not arrested until June 9. At the time, Janssen cited “tactical reasons” and there was speculation authorities hoped the freed young men might lead them to a clue.

That was an error, according to Joseph Pollini, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York, where he spent 33 years as a homicide detective.

“Once released, it’s problematic because somebody surely coached them,” he said. “A lawyer wouldn’t be worth his weight in salt if he didn’t tell them simply not to say anything.”

Pollini doubted any confession was now possible.

Instead, authorities arrested two former hotel security guards, apparently because the young men told police they had last seen Holloway in the parking lot of her hotel, being approached by a black security guard.

The guards, both black, were released a week later, and one, Antonius “Mickey” John, said that while in jail one of the brothers told him they had never taken Holloway back to her hotel but had dropped her off with van der Sloot at a beach neighboring the Marriott Hotel.

Investigators led a massive and fruitless search of Malmok beach June 14.

Delayed search of home
Only the following day, 16 days after Holloway went missing, did investigators search the van der Sloot house, seizing two vehicles, computers and cameras.

“They should have immediately done a forensic sweep of van der Sloot’s house, his car, his clothing, and done the same with the Surinamese boys,” said Ron Watson, a retired Alabama police chief who runs a crime scene reconstruction business. “You’ve got 48 hours after a disappearance, after that you are in the red zone and may never find the person.”

Police did not interrogate the Dutch suspect’s father, Paul van der Sloot, until June 17. In a surprise move, they arrested him Thursday.

A court appearance for the father, a judge-in-training on the island, was postponed from Saturday to Sunday because the judge was unable to make it to Aruba from nearby Curacao.

Also Saturday, a defense lawyer confirmed that Satish Kalpoe admitted lying to police when he told them that he, his brother and his Dutch friend dropped Holloway off alone at her hotel on the night she disappeared.

Satish now claims that he and his 21-year-old brother, Deepak, dropped Holloway and 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot off together at the Marriott hotel, then went home.

He lied initially “to help his friends, but said at a certain moment, 'I can’t help you anymore,”’ his lawyer, David Kock, told The Associated Press. He did not elaborate.

Authorities also have arrested a 26-year-old party boat disc jockey, Steve Gregory Croes.

Nobody has been charged in the case.

Beth Holloway Twitty, the missing girl’s mother, has said the younger van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers know more than they are saying. She also said before the elder van der Sloot’s arrest that she might suspect authorities were protecting the son because of his father’s standing as a high-ranking judicial official.

Aruban authorities have defended their handling of the case, saying meticulous police work takes time.

“You have to build up an investigation. You can’t just go in there like a cowboy,” Janssen said last week when asked why investigators waited more than two weeks to search the van der Sloot home.

Questions over search efforts
There also are questions about efforts to find Holloway.

Aruban police, Dutch marines, seven FBI agents and thousands of tourists and locals have done island-wide searches that proved fruitless. Aruban authorities also appealed for the FBI to send expert divers. The U.S. agency sent two search-and-rescue divers, but they never got in the water.

“They never had any information like: she could be in this place or that area,” FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said. “That target would have come from the investigation of Aruban authorities because we can’t investigate in a foreign country.”

The decision not to dive was “bizarre,” said Joe Huston, a rescue diver with Dickinson-based Texas EquuSearch. The volunteer group began a new search in Aruba on Saturday that included divers and sonar equipment.

“If her body was put in the ocean, there’s a good chance now she’ll never be found,” Huston said.

The director of Texas EquuSearch, Tim Miller, said searchers were focusing on “five or six areas of interest” on land, but declined to be more specific.