Cracking the Holloway Case?

Despite years of work, neither Aruban authorities, nor Dutch investigators, nor American searchers brought in by her desperate family could find out what happened to Natalee Holloway. The 18-year-old Alabama girl vanished during a school graduation trip to Aruba in May 2005. The investigation quickly came to focus on three local teens who were the last people seen with Holloway as she left a bar: Joran van der Sloot, 17, and a pair of brothers, Deepak and Satish Kalpoe, 17 and 18, respectively. They were questioned extensively and held in jail, released, re-arrested—and then released again. Last December the case was officially closed for lack of evidence. But Peter de Vries, a Dutch TV crime reporter, may have broken the case, secretly filming van der Sloot saying he had witnessed Holloway's apparent death and had arranged the disposal of her body. Van der Sloot's attorney has since said his client made the story up to impress his friend, and maintains his innocence. But Aruban prosecutors say they believe the film to be admissible evidence of guilt and have introduced it into the case.

Ruggedly handsome, with cropped silver hair and steely blue eyes, de Vries could be the John Walsh of Dutch TV, hosting a weekly hourlong crime show in the Netherlands. "Peter de Vries, Crime Reporter" focuses on cold cases, unsolved crimes and missing persons. De Vries began his reporting career in the late 1970s at de Telegraaf, the largest Dutch daily newspaper; he soon became the paper's crime reporter. In the 1990s he switched to television and in 1995 got his own program.

When the Natalee Holloway story hit the front pages of Dutch newspapers, de Vries thought the story of an American girl's disappearance on an island far away would be of little interest to his viewers. But when the van der Sloot name emerged—Joran's father, Paulus van der Sloot, is a prominent attorney and a Dutch judge-in-training—he started paying closer attention. De Vries spoke to NEWSWEEK's Catharine Skipp about the case and his role in it to date. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When did you first become involved in the Natalee Holloway case?
Peter de Vries:
We started receiving a lot of e-mails from all over about the case. At one point we decided to go to Aruba and have a look. We spoke with lots of people, including former law enforcement, and we were able to find out quite a lot. We found out that Joran had lied about a couple of things. We heard that there was a secret meeting between Joran's lawyer, Antonio Carlo, and the prosecutor, Karin Janseen, where the lawyer says he wants to clear his own conscience and that Joran is very much involved, that he played a major part in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway—but that Carlo is leaving it to the police to find the evidence. [Another van der Sloot attorney has denied that this happened.]

What happened after you aired your first show on the case?
We were getting information from everywhere and hearing very strange things. For example, when the police came to search Joran's house, they tried knocking on the door and are greeted by a justice official. We uncovered a lot of new stuff, but we didn't solve the case. But we knew there was something rotten.

How do you come to meet Patrick van der Eem, the man who befriended Joran van der Sloot?
After the broadcasts everyone in Holland knows we are the Natalee Holloway specialists. One day van der Eem came to our offices and says, "I met Joran and we've become friends. We drive around, smoke weed and play cards a lot. I have the feeling he is not telling the truth about Natalee Holloway." He says that he saw Joran in the casino fours months earlier. He called him "murderer" in a joking way, and Joran came over to talk. Van der Eem said, "I have a feeling that he knows more than he is telling." Patrick is a father and an Aruban. He has gotten close to Joran by telling him he doesn't want to know about Natalee, that he is not interested. He is the only one that has said this to Joran. Joran trusts him. Van der Eem asks us if there is anything he can do to help.

How did you turn this into your huge break?
We think about where is the mostly likely place that Joran will talk. We don't think he will talk at home—also that is illegal—or in a cafe or somewhere there are people around. Patrick and Joran drive around a lot together talking about the weather, football, poker and girls, so we are pretty sure he will be at ease in a car. We are thinking that's the place. We are pretty sure he will deny anything he has said, so we hire a Range Rover and we have hidden cameras and microphones put in.

What is in this for van der Eem?
Patrick tells us he just wants to help solve this. He has two children and he is Aruban. He hates what this case has done to Aruba.

Was he compensated for his assistance?
We paid him 25,000 euros over five months.

So you have the car all ready to go—and then what happens?
Just before the first ride, Joran gets arrested the day before. Joran is released after two weeks and the first thing he does is call Patrick. He is bragging to Patrick on the phone, and we have it on tape. He says, "I didn't say a thing to the police; they don't know shit." We prep another Range Rover and work with Patrick. We tell him to let Joran do all the talking. We tell him to see if he can ask, "Do you think they will ever find her?"—to start with that. Joran wants to talk about his arrest; he is cocky and bragging. He is bragging about the big damage claim his father is filing for Joran being in prison for no reason. Patrick asks him, "Are they ever going to find her?" And Joran says, "The ocean is big, Patrick. The ocean is big."

At some point you appeared on Dutch television with Joran and his parents?
Yes, it is the next day and I've already heard the tapes. Joran says his father thinks this will be very good support for their damages claim. He tells Patrick that they can show how the case is now closed and he is off the hook. On the show I am asking him hard questions, but I don't let on what I know from the tapes. He says, "I don't have to answer your questions. The Natalee Holloway case is closed." And he is getting very frustrated. After the show is over he stands up and throws a glass of wine in my face.

Were you itching to get him back in the Range Rover studio?
Oh, yes. On the second drive he admitted that she died in his arms. He says, "She stopped ticking." He tells Patrick the whole story. He tells for the first time how he got rid of the body; he got very emotional. At the end he says, "I'm relieved I told you this," and then they shook hands. For the next ride our instructions to Patrick are to get him to tell the story from the beginning: from Carlos 'n Charlie's [the bar where they were partying] until he got home. Now it is quite easy for Patrick to ask him anything; Joran was not reluctant to talk at all.

On the tapes he tells Patrick a friend named Daury brought his boat to dispose of Natalee's body. But there is a Daury in Aruba who says he is not involved, doesn't have a boat, and wasn't even in Aruba when this happened. If you believe he is telling the truth about how Natalee died, do you think he is lying about this?
In one of the drives he tells Patrick that he will never mention the name of who helped him; that he will take it to his grave. The next day Patrick is pushing and pushing for Joran to tell him the name. Patrick is saying, "Don't you trust me?" Then Joran finally says Daury and a last name. We bleeped out the last name, but we get the feeling that he is concealing something. We had doubts that this was the real name; we think he just said it to get Patrick to stop asking. We don't believe the Daury who has been on television is the person that helped him. We think it was someone else.

Do you believe that the Surinamese brothers, Satish and Deepak Kalpoe, were involved in any way?
No, not at all. On the tapes Joran calls them stupid. I don't believe they were involved.

You've met Joran and watched him in secret in hours and hours of tape. How does he strike you?
There is something wrong with Joran. He has no respect for anyone; he shows no remorse. He calls Natalee a bitch and a whore. He says after this he went home and "I just slept. I wasn't awake for more that a moment." He is spoiled. He was raised in Aruba and hung out in the casinos. I think he had weak parenting. His parents didn't know what he was doing, even at 17, when he was in the casinos.

Joran now says he was just joking, just making up a story to impress his friend. How much credibility do you think he has?
In eight or nine hours of raw tape over two weeks he never once says he is joking. Over several days and several times he tells Patrick how she died in his arms, how he got rid of the body, how he panicked. Who do you think he is most likely to lie to? The police, who are going to put him in prison, or a trusted friend? And how would you impress a friend by telling them a girl died in your arms and you had her thrown in the ocean—and then lied to her mother for three years about the disappearance of her daughter?

How did the Arubans greet this news?
We showed it to the Aruban prosecutors and they were stunned. They are in Holland now gathering evidence and are reopening the case.

Have you shown the tapes to Natalee's mother, Beth Holloway?
We've had very good contact with Beth all along. When we told her, she said she would come right away. It was very emotional. She kept saying, "Oh my God, Oh my God." She was convinced. She kept saying, "I knew it, I knew it." She feels Natalee may have been alive when they threw her into the ocean—that she could have been saved. But at least now she knows what happened.