Natalee Holloway was an 18-year-old girl from Mountain Brook, Alabama, who dreamed of being a doctor. Those dreams were crushed when she attended her senior class trip to Aruba, where Holloway disappeared and was never seen again.
Holloway had just graduated with honors from Mountain Brook High School, and had a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, where she was prepared to enter pre-med classes. On May 26, 2005, she and 124 other graduates of the high school, along with chaperones, flew to Aruba for an unofficial graduation trip. The drinking age in Aruba is 18, and so the students partied and drank nightly, with chaperones only checking in each day.
In the early morning hours of May 30, some of Holloway’s classmates said they saw her being escorted out of a nightclub and into a car with three men who weren’t part of the trip. It is the last time any of her friends would ever see her.
Holloway and her classmates were supposed to fly home on the 30th, so when she didn’t arrive for her flight, people became concerned. Her mother, Beth Holloway, was notified and immediately flew with Holloway’s stepfather to Aruba to search for her daughter.
They quickly learned that she had been last seen with a Dutch national named Joran van der Sloot who at the time seemed to have a promising future. The other two men seen in the car with Holloway were identified as brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe.
Beth and her husband, George Twitty, went to van der Sloot’s home with two Aruban officers to look for Holloway. Van der Sloot said at the time that he didn’t know Holloway, but soon changed his story to say that he and the Kalpoe brothers drove Holloway to a lighthouse because she wanted to see sharks. He said they then drove Holloway back to the Holiday Inn hotel where she was staying.
Van der Sloot further noted that as he and his friends were driving away, they noticed a man they thought was a security guard approaching Holloway outside the hotel.
Beth was able to get the hotel to review their security tapes from the night Holloway disappeared. Hours of footage proved that van der Sloot’s story was not true and that Holloway had never returned to the hotel that night, though Aruban police have suggested she could have used a different door to enter the hotel.
On June 9, van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers were arrested, suspected of being involved in Holloway’s disappearance. While in prison, the three changed their stories, now saying they dropped off Holloway at the Marriott Hotel beach near some fishermen huts. Van der Sloot denied hurting Holloway, but said he left her on the beach. When interrogated, van der Sloot again changed his story to say that the Kalpoe brothers dropped him off at home and drove off with Holloway.
The Kalpoe brothers were released from prison on July 4. Van der Sloot was released 60 days later. Following his release, van der Sloot gave numerous interviews where he gave varying accounts of what happened to Holloway. In 2008, van der Sloot gave an interview to then-Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren. Van der Sloot claimed on the program that he had sold Holloway into sexual slavery and told his father – a prominent judge – what he had done.
In 2007, van der Sloot and a reporter published a book, “The Case of Natalee Holloway,” which gave van der Sloot’s account of what happened the night Holloway disappeared. In the book, he apologized for his lying, but claimed he had nothing to do with her disappearance.
Numerous leads came in about where Holloway’s body was located, but searches of those areas – including a pond and a landfill – uncovered nothing. Searches by volunteers, Aruban authorities, the FBI, and Dutch authorities also found no trace of Holloway.
In November 2007, the Kalpoe brothers and van der Sloot were again arrested on suspicion of involvement in Holloway’s disappearance, but once again were released without charges. On November 18 of that year, Aruban prosecutor Hans Mos declared the case closed without any charges, citing a lack of evidence.
Just a couple months later, in February 2008, Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries aired footage of van der Sloot confessing to his involvement in Holloway’s disappearance. On the tape, van der Sloot was smoking marijuana while saying he and Holloway were on the beach when she began convulsing, soon becoming unresponsive. He claimed he tried to revive her, but when he couldn’t, he called a friend who disposed of her body. That friend denied the account and said he was in Rotterdam attending school.
Van der Sloot was suspected of giving date-rape drugs to women in Aruba, leading to speculation that he had given Holloway the drug and she overdosed.
Aruban prosecutors tried to obtain an arrest warrant for van der Sloot following the taped confession, but a judge denied the request. An appeal was also denied, with the judge saying van der Sloot’s confession was inconsistent with evidence collected in the case.
At the end of March 2010, van der Sloot allegedly contacted a legal representative of Holloway’s mother Beth. Van der Sloot said he would tell Beth where her daughter’s body was and what led to her death if she paid him $25,000 upfront and an additional $225,000 later. The legal representative, John Q. Kelly, went to Aruba to meet with van der Sloot and gave him $100, after which Kelly reported the encounter to the FBI. A sting operation was set up to catch van der Sloot, who accepted a $15,000 wire transfer to his bank account and a cash payment of $10,000, all of which was recorded by undercover investigators.
In exchange for the money, van der Sloot told Kelly that his father — a judge — buried Holloway’s body in the foundation of a house. When authorities checked his story, they learned the house hadn’t even been built when Holloway disappeared. Van der Sloot eventually emailed Kelly to admit that he lied.
Instead of arresting van der Sloot right then, the FBI allowed him to take the $25,000 and leave for Bogotá, Colombia. He wouldn’t be indicted on the charges for another month, and it wouldn’t be until 2014 that the Peruvian government announced van der Sloot would be extradited to the U.S. to face those charges – in 2023.
Months after he attempted to get money from Beth, van Der Sloot was arrested for the murder of Stephany Flores, a 21-year-old business student who went missing in Lima, Peru. She was found dead in a hotel room registered to van der Sloot.
Van der Sloot was sentenced in 2012 to 28 years in prison for the murder.
Meanwhile, Holloway’s father Dave filed a petition to have his daughter declared legally dead. Dave succeeded and Holloway was declared dead on January 12, 2012, more than six years after her disappearance.
In 2016, Dave hired private investigator T.J. Ward to find out what happened to his daughter. The two found an informant, Gabriel, who claimed to be friends with a close friend of van der Sloot. That friend was John Ludwick, who told Gabriel that in 2010, van der Sloot paid him $1,500 to dig up Holloway’s remains, have them cremated, and dumped the ashes in the ocean.
The claim was turned into a documentary for the Oxygen television channel, and featured Gabriel trying to get Ludwick to tell the story on camera and then lead him to where Holloway was buried.
Nothing was found at any of the locations Ludwick identified as Holloway’s burial site. After Dave and the film crew left Aruba, Ludwick and Gabriel sent footage of them finding a plastic bag with bone fragments Ludwick remembered he kept from the ordeal. The bone fragments were analyzed and turned out to be animal bones, but one was identified as a human bone, but not belonging to Holloway.
While serving his sentence for the murder of Flores, van der Sloot had an additional 18 years was added to his sentence this January for trafficking cocaine while in prison. On June 8, 2023, he was extradited to the U.S. to face federal charges of extortion and wire fraud connected to his extortion of Holloway’s mother.
No trace of Holloway has ever been found.