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The Whole Natalee Holloway Story May Never Be Known: Inside a Journey of Frustration and Acceptance

Sixteen years after his daughter Natalee disappeared in Aruba, Dave Holloway talked to E! News about the search, the disappointments and what he realized about family that keeps him going to this day.

By Natalie Finn May 30, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Natalee Holloway: The Unsolved Case 16-Years Later

Natalee Ann Holloway still has her own page on the FBI's website, though not in the "Kidnappings/Missing Persons" section—unlike Kristin Smart, who for now remains catalogued that way since disappearing 25 years ago. A man whom detectives have suspected the entire time of killing Kristin back in 1996, when they were both 19-year-old college freshmen, was just charged with her murder in April, though investigators still haven't found her body. The suspect has pleaded not guilty.

No trace of Natalee has ever been found, either, and her whereabouts remain unknown—but her case resides under "Seeking Information" rather than among the missing.

And actively seeking information is exactly what Natalee's parents spent years doing, despite the reluctant acknowledgment that their daughter's life likely ended on the island of Aruba on the morning of May 30, 2005, hours before she and the rest of her fellow high school graduates who'd made the celebratory trip to the Caribbean were supposed to board a plane back to the U.S.

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Joran van der Sloot, the man Natalee's family is thoroughly convinced is responsible for her death, is currently serving a 28-year prison sentence in Peru for the murder of Stephany Flores—who was killed five years to the day that Natalee went missing. But, despite having spent several months in custody in Aruba in 2005 while police investigated, Joran was never charged with any crime related to Natalee's disappearance. 

The two guys he was hanging out with that night, brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe, were also arrested and released (in 2005 and again in 2007, along with Joran) but never charged. They first told police that they all dropped Natalee off at her hotel at around 2 a.m.; Satish later admitted that wasn't true, that they dropped Natalee and Joran off at hotel. Yet another version emerged when a hotel security guard (who was also arrested and briefly detained for questioning in the case) told police that one of the brothers told him while they were in custody that they left Joran and Natalee on the beach. 

Whichever the circumstance, the Kalpoe brothers have always maintained that Natalee was alive the last time they saw her.

AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch

All the while, Joran appeared comfortable in his notoriety, making claims about that night and then backtracking. "The last time I saw her, she was sitting on the sand by the ocean," he told ABC News' Chris Cuomo in 2006, having flown to New York for an on-camera interview.

The spotlight was on him yet again in 2008, when the Dutch program RTL Boulevard aired surreptitiously taped footage of Joran telling a man named Patrick (who was working with the show) that he and Natalee had gone to the beach and had sex, after which she started convulsing.

"She was shaking, it was awful... I prodded her, there was nothing," he said in the clip. So, he added, he had a friend dispose of her body. "He went out to sea and then he threw her out, like an old rag," Joran said. 

"This information may help considerably in the solution of the mystery of Natalee's disappearance," a spokesperson for the Aruba prosecutors' office told NBC News in January 2008 when word of the impending bombshell got out, a teaser for RT Boulevard promising, "The mystery of Natalee Holloway will be solved Sunday."

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After it aired, however, Joran called into another Dutch show, Pauw & Witteman, and said that what he told Patrick in the video wasn't true. "That is what he wanted to hear, so I told him what he wanted to hear." Then he claimed in an interview with Greta Van Susteren in Thailand that November that he had sold Natalee into sex slavery—but eventually called Greta back to tell her that was a lie.

Less than two years later, Joran traveled to Peru and—after being arrested as a fugitive in Chile for Stephany's murder and then returned to Peruvian authorities—that's where he remains.

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Untangling the Disappearance of Natalee Holloway

"I just can't believe I went through all that and stood strong with it," Natalee's father, Dave Holloway, told E! News in an exclusive interview, speaking from his home in Meridian, Miss., on May 17. "For five years it basically consumed me, until [Joran] was convicted and put in jail. Then we started moving away from it...thinking, if there's something else we can do [then we'll do it]." 

Dave and Beth Holloway, who divorced in 1993 when Natalee was 7 and her brother Matthew was 5, were both on planes to Aruba within a day after finding out their eldest child didn't show up for her flight home. Upon arrival it soon became clear that navigating this unfamiliar legal system was going to be nothing like working with police in their own backyard. "It was June 1, 2005, our first day in Aruba, my daughter was missing and a detective was telling us to go to a local bar and have a beer," Dave recalled in his 2006 book, Aruba: The Tragic Untold Story of Natalee Holloway and Corruption in Paradise (co-authored with R. Stephanie Good and Larry Garrison).

Coupled with the franticness of searching for a lost child when the local cops weren't exactly operating with the same urgency, they didn't even realize at first that the whole world had stopped to take notice of their plight, media outlets pouring onto the island and Natalee's name and face leading every newscast.

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"The media attention put on additional stress, but it was absolutely helpful," Dave told E!. "If it hadn't been for the media and some Americans taking an interest, seeing it on TV…I believe [Aruban authorities] had intentions to investigate whatever, [then tell us to] go back home. I know in a couple of weeks it'll have been a situation where they'd call, [we'd ask] 'Anything going on?' 'No.' And it's forgotten about."

Soon enough the realization dawned that the answers that seemed so forthcoming early on—Natalee was, after all, seen leaving a crowded bar with three immediately identified local boys who admitted being with her—would prove endlessly elusive.

"Every media outlet in the country went to Aruba, it was a soap opera every night," Atlanta-based private investigator T.J Ward, who has worked with the Holloway family since 2005, recalled to E! News. "I went from hotel to hotel to hotel where the media was set up, every night, talking about what I did that day." In the early weeks of the investigation, he remembered, every time he got on a plane, flight attendants would recognize him from his TV appearances and invite him to the galley to pump him for the latest information. Sometimes the pilots would join the conversation, too.

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He first met Beth in 2005, having offered up use of his then-pioneering Layered Voice Analysis technology—which had indicated to him that Joran and his associates were lying through their teeth. In the course of flying back and forth to Aruba 10 times, he soon met Dave as well.

By the time 2006 rolled around, Aruban authorities made it clear they no longer considered this a missing-person case—not that her family thought they'd handled any leg of the investigation properly, Dave recalling in his book how early on police had suggested Natalee had just run off and that he and Beth were the ones combing the island with their respective teams looking for her.

"We feel strongly that she probably went into shock or something happened to her system with all the alcohol—maybe on top of that, other drugs, which either she took or they gave her—and that she... just collapsed," Gerald Dompig, deputy chief of police for Aruba, told 48 Hours Mystery that March.

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In early 2008, a person who identified himself as Marcos sent Dave a message, claiming he knew that drug runners had been paid to get rid of Natalee's body at sea but instead took the remains with them to Nicaragua and hid them on land. Private investigator Tim Miller, as he relayed on Dateline, went to Nicaragua and met with Marcos, who offered to go to the hiding place with a GPS tracker and look for the remains.

Instead, Marco disappeared.

When Dave was contacted in 2016 by a man named Gabriel, who said he had information about Natalee's remains, Dave asked T.J. to vet the tip—as he'd done with so many other alleged sightings, snippets of information and ultimately dead-end leads they'd received over the years.

"So we thought, well, maybe we've got something here, because I've had so, so many false leads, people who've just wanted to take you for a ride," recalled Dave, who had also gone to Aruba in 2015 with T.J. to meet with yet another person who falsely claimed to have information about Natalee's fate. "I thought, OK, this may be a new lead… Let's go on and see if we can develop it. That turned into a situation a little bit bigger than what I'd anticipated."

It led to the enlistment of a production company which, most importantly, would be able to provide resources for the considerable expense involved in returning to Aruba and conducting yet another search.

As seen on the 2017 Oxygen series The Disappearance of Natalie Holloway, Gabriel led Dave and T.J. to his roommate John Ludwick, who claimed that Joran paid him $1,500 to help dig up Natalee's remains in 2010, after which they crushed most of the bones but doused the skull with gasoline and set it on fire—to destroy any hair follicles, he claimed. John also said that Joran told him Natalee died of a bad reaction to a drug he had slipped her, and that Joran's father helped his son carry Natalee's body to the site in question in 2005. 

The show's sixth and final episode notes that Aruban authorities were initially reluctant to let them film the site where John said he helped Joran retrieve the remains, but they eventually got permission to keep going. Meanwhile, the show's investigatory team was skeptical, considering how inconvenient the spot would've been to dispose of a body, even that of a petite 5-foot-4 young woman, at night.

Aruban Police Chief Dolfi Richardson agreed that there were "inconsistencies" in John's account. "What he was saying was not possible," Richardson said. "There were so many holes we could shoot in his story, we knew that he was not really a credible witness."

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T.J. and Dave then left the island, only to find out two weeks later that Gabriel and John had returned to Aruba on their own, separate from the production. The episode continued with video shot by Gabriel that shows he and John driving while talking about evidence kept as a "trophy," heading into a residential area and then digging up a plastic bag containing a few bone fragments. Gabriel got back in touch with Dave to tell them about their big find. Aruban police said they were aware of the pair's movements.

Dave and T.J. returned to Aruba, where Richardson tells them that they didn't bring Gabriel and John in for questioning because "you base your investigation on leads that are credible"—and those two simply weren't. The bones, the chief added, were "bogus. Not even human bones."

The production was able to bring the bones back to the U.S. for testing—and three were animal bones. A fourth was human, but didn't match Natalee's DNA. "The first thing I think in my mind," T.J. told E! News, remembering the realization that Gabriel had seemingly led them astray, "to put a grieving family out there for his own personal gain..." He trailed off.

Toward the end of production on the Oxygen series, the investigator's younger son—who had been recovering at a halfway house with nine months of sobriety behind him—died suddenly. So before T.J. flew back to Aruba for the final installment of the show, he buried his own child, and the quest for answers in Natalee's case became all that more personal.

"This is a family that has suffered for 16 years, not knowing what happened to their daughter," T.J. said. "I've been involved with this for 16 years, and a guy comes along and makes a story up...This family—I know what it feels like to lose a child. Bothers me even more because I can relate to the loss of a loved one and a child. But that's where we are now."

After the series ended, another possible route to finding out the ultimate truth about what happened to Natalee dashed, they had more questions for John, Dave said. But before he and T.J. could arrange another meeting with him, John—in yet another bizarre twist to this story—was fatally stabbed in March 2018 by a girl he used to date, Emily Heistand, while trying to kidnap her at knife-point from her driveway. Authorities concluded she acted in self-defense and she was never charged with a crime.

Emily said during an appearance on Dr. Phil that aired days later that John had been stalking her prior to the attack. But a few months after they first met, she told Phil McGraw, John had told her that Joran confided in him that Natalee died after being drugged. John also told her, she said, that he helped Joran dispose of the remains.

"He told me that Joran did do it and hid the body," Emily said. "John told me that Joran got this Natalee girl all drunk at a bar and Joran took her to the beach, and they were having a good time, and she started seizing and foaming at the mouth. And Joran called his dad and helped them dispose of the body."

AP Photo/Pedro Famous Diaz

Paulus van der Sloot, Joran's father, was also arrested on suspicion of being involved with the disappearance in June 2005 but was released after a few days of questioning. He died of a heart attack in February 2010. The next month, Joran got in touch with Beth Holloway's lawyer John Kelly and allegedly offered answers in exchange for $250,000, writing in an email that he wanted to "come clean."

With Beth's permission, Kelly met with Joran in Aruba, promising to start with a $25,000 payment. Joran said he knew where Natalee's body was. John asked what would happen if they didn't pay him, to which Joran allegedly replied, "Beth can wait another five years." The family then contacted the FBI, which helped orchestrate a plan to make Joran think he'd be getting paid in order to catch him committing wire fraud, a charge they could hold him on.

Kelly and Joran met again, and Kelly wired him $25,000. In turn, Joran led Kelly to a house near the Aruba Racquet Club, where he claimed he had hid Natalee's remains in 2005 in what was then a freshly poured foundation, before the house was built. The attorney said on Dateline in 2010 that Joran claimed he had been on the beach with Natalee, they argued, and then he "got angry and actually threw her. He actually made the gesture in the car, on video, showing me how he threw her in anger, because she wouldn't leave at that point. And according to him, she hit the back of her head, lots of blood and she was dead."

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John told Dateline's Chris Hansen he was skeptical of Joran's overall story, which was that he first hid Natalee's body at the beach with his father's help, and then the next day they buried her in the foundation. But he still hoped that this encounter was a means to an end.

"When I got on the plane May 11 [2010], I thought it was a done deal," John said. "And he was going to be arrested at some point. That he'd be talking at some point, and we'd get some closure at some point."

But the house Joran pointed to hadn't been under construction in 2010, according to Aruban authorities, who said they didn't find his story credible enough to make an arrest. He wasn't arrested on suspicion of wire fraud, either.

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John said that Joran remained in touch with him up until May 25, claiming he would turn himself in. Instead, the young man flew to Peru. Stephany Flores was beaten to death on May 30; authorities discovered her body a few days later in a hotel room rented by Joran. Joran eventually pleaded guilty to murder, maintaining he was suffering from "extreme psychological trauma" from the Holloway investigation.

Knowing Joran was locked up did provide some satisfaction, Dave admitted. "That was our focus," he said.  But, he added, "You still had in the back of your mind, 'What really happened?' Paulus van der Sloot died of a heart attack. I always thought he was the one who really took care of things." Dave, Beth and T.J. believe it's likely that, despite the competing accounts of that night that Joran has given over the years, that the father stepped in to help clean up his son's mess after Natalee was already dead, at the very least by lying for him.

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"I remember the day I met with Paul at the prison," Dave once said, per CNN. "And the thing that stuck out in my mind was I asked him all the questions, why he hid from the news media. And the last question that I had was, was he involved, and he said no. He said, 'Dave, I can understand your position, but you've got to understand mine. Joran's my son and I'll do everything I can to protect him.' And I believe it."

Recalling how she felt watching Joran seemingly confess on RT Boulevard, Beth told Dateline in 2010, "I wanted to come to the TV and kill him. I wanted to peel his skin off his face." (More recently, on 20/20 in 2019, she called Paulus, whom she met in Aruba in the weeks after Natalee disappeared, "the most pathetic human being I've ever seen. Because he knows what happened. He knew.")

Later in 2010 Beth went down to Peru with a Dutch documentary crew to meet with Joran at Penal Castro Castro Sala, where he was awaiting trial. He didn't provide any new information, but, she told B-Metro magazine in 2015, being able to get up and leave him there, in prison, "allowed me then to move onward… I hadn't found peace and joy and happiness yet—but I began to recognize it and learned how to embrace it, and then I think it just led to the place where I am now, which is a good place."

AP Photo/Karel Navarro

Dave told B-Metro in 2015 that "probably one day" he too would travel to Peru to see Joran—but six years later, he no longer sees the point.

"No, that would be a waste of time," he told E! News. "I know some of the news outlets have interviewed him a number of times. All it did was turn into a bunch of lies, just upped his status as a sociopathic, narcissistic...whatever they thrive on." 

"Beth, I don't blame her for going," Dave continued, "but she didn't get any answers, either...I would be wasting my time and effort doing the same."

Beth did not respond to interview requests for this article. She told 20/20 in 2019, speaking of Joran, "Is it the justice I wanted? No, but it's the justice I'll take."

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Moreover, Dave explained, he didn't want Joran to have the satisfaction or be under the impression that he still has power over his family in some way by withholding the answers that they want. "I'm not going to let somebody have that over me," he said.

Courtesy Beth Twitty/ZUMA Press

He does have one question for Joran that he wouldn't mind the 33-year-old getting wind of, however: "Hey, how's that prison life workin' out for you?" he offered with a wry chuckle.

Undoubtedly Dave's life forever changed in 2005, and losing Natalee is not something he'll ever actually get over. "It puts you in a different state of mind where I think now, 'Wow, did that really happen?'" he shared. "You were in a total different state of mind, shock or whatever...it's like a car accident." In that, it's hard to remember what it was like experiencing it, but the damage was done all the same. And the experience of going back and forth to Aruba and still only learning what maybe happened to Natalee took its toll.

But after admittedly putting his life on hold for five years, depleting his savings in the course of all that travel and related investigatory expenses (his $5,000 cell phone bill from that first month in 2005, the days of roaming charges and pricy add-ons, remains a vivid memory), the father of son Matt, with Beth, and daughters Brooke and Kaitlyn with his wife of now almost 26 years, Robin, realized that he had to start being more present for his family.

Courtesy Beth Twitty/ZUMA Press

"At some point in time," Dave said, "you've got to decide for yourself, I've exhausted what I could do and everything I could do within my means. I have a son and two daughters, and a wife, and our family needs to enjoy life as God planned us to, you know, and we do. You still think about it a lot, what could I have done differently and all this kind of stuff, but I certainly don't want to put any ammunition or anything in the hands of Joran van der Sloot."

He recalled a time when he was having several conversations a week with psychiatrist Andrew Hodges—ostensibly for the doctor's 2007 book Into the Deep: The Hidden Confessions of Natalee's Killer, but they ended up doubling as counseling sessions for Dave.

"Here's my advice on one thing," Dave offered. "You've got to remember that your other children are hurting, and if you have them, your household and surrounding friends and family, you can't stay focused entirely on the missing. You've got to take care of the rest of the others and make sure you meet their needs...For the first five years, I missed out on that."

Courtesy Beth Twitty/ZUMA Press/KEYSTONE Press.

He tries not to get too caught up in how much his daughter Brooke reminds him of Natalee, both her physical appearance and in her discipline and drive. When she disappeared, Natalee—an honors student and a member of the dance team and Bible club, who somehow also found time to volunteer and have a part-time job at a health food store—was bound for the University of Alabama with a full scholarship and planned to study medicine.

"You look at kids, some are motivated some are not. She was very motivated, had her goals set," Dave said. "She knew what she wanted to do and went out and got it."

Brooke (a blonde beauty like her sisters Kaitlyn and Natalee) graduated in 2020 from Ole Miss, having made the spring honor roll, and is finishing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing this year at University of Mississippi Medical Center. Her proud dad shared that her plans are to go to work for a little while before going back to school to become an RN. Dave also became a granddad in 2015 when Matt and his wife welcomed daughter Rylee.

Though everyone's often busy with school and work, the Holloways love a family vacation, flying out to a distant city such as Los Angeles or Denver, renting a car and driving through as many states, visiting as many locations as they can, in a week, before heading home. Dave is thinking perhaps North Dakota may be a good starting-off point for their next adventure.

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These days, Dave estimates he still gets one insistent would-be fraudster a year, someone who swears he saw Natalee and will tell him all about it, but first he'll need a plane ticket or a few hundred dollars to fix his car, and no, he doesn't have a photo because his phone battery died...

"In the beginning it was every day, someone trying a scam," Dave said. And while he's certainly open to real information, because as a father he has no other choice than to follow up if he thinks there's a possibility of learning something solid about Natalee, but he doesn't expect any more developments.

"So many people have tried, tried, tried," he reflected. "I just don't really think that there will ever be another lead to come out, [unless] some farfetched drug dealer or whatever has something to do with it, something totally obscure or whatever, but I've got to think that someone other than Paulus van der Sloot knows the truth."

Ultimately, "if it comes out, it comes out. If it doesn't, it doesn't, so you just have to live with that."