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In case of vanished tourist, Aruba also suffers

June 04, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

ORANJESTAD, ARUBA — A siren blares and whistle-blowing waiters race in to the hectic beat of the "Mexican Hat Dance." It's time for the hourly tequila attack at Carlos 'n Charlie's.

The target is an already inebriated blond with seven gal pals, a sunset-colored rum drink and a sunburned nose. The waiters crown her with a giant sombrero, toss a serape over her bare shoulders and pour a stream of golden liquid into a mouth turned up like a baby bird's.

Liquor-plying mission accomplished, a DJ swaps the peppy Mexican melody for a blaring rendition of dance group T-Spoon's "Sex on the Beach."

Alcoholic excess and abandon are back in vogue at the cantina, where a pretty blond teenager from Alabama named Natalee Holloway was last seen by her high school classmates -- drunk and supine on the bar as a boy slurped Jello shots from her navel.

Two years later, it may be business as usual at Carlos 'n Charlie's, but the mystery of the missing American girl lingers. No body has been found, no evidence of a crime has been uncovered, and the 18-year-old's disappearance is dangerously close to being labeled a cold case.

The sad trajectory of the case mirrors that of the increasingly bitter relations between Holloway's parents and the people of Aruba, arcing downward from the moment two years ago when islanders took the tragedy to heart and joined in the hunt by the thousands to today, when locals mutter about American media distortions and "missing white woman syndrome."

Holloway's parents -- and the cable TV crime analysts who followed their plight for months -- have cast affluent Aruba as a dangerous den of iniquity, its police force as inept bunglers and its government and people as co-conspirators in covering up what happened to the hearty-partying teen.

As in the cases of slain child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, missing congressional staffer Chandra Levy and murdered expectant mother Laci Peterson, the ill fate presumed to have befallen Holloway made her a cause celebre for vigilante justice-seekers and a ratings boon for cable TV crime mavens.

Although they have recovered from the initial economic fallout, Arubans say the accusatory free-for-all was a blast-force end of innocence -- danger could indeed lurk under wind-sculpted divi-divi trees or on sugar-white beaches. Yes, it was a blow to their livelihoods, as U.S. visits fell 7% last year. More painful, though, it was a wound to the heart for all who had joined the prayer vigils and searches, Arubans such as restaurant manager Edwin Trimon say.

"Last year was a tragedy for us. Many people's businesses were ruined. But what hurt the most was what they were saying about us on TV," said Trimon, a fixture in the Aruban tourism industry "since there was just one hotel on the island."

Marcelino Maduro, who has had a taxi service for 17 years, angrily defends his island nation. "The truth is, Aruba is safe. We don't have people begging. There's no bad neighborhood where a tourist feels he could be in trouble. We were all shocked when whatever happened to this girl happened."

In the first days after Holloway went missing, hundreds of tourists joined Aruban police and U.S. private investigators in combing the island's beaches, coral outcroppings and cactus-studded fields. The Aruba government gave thousands of civil servants a day off to join the hunt. A pond was drained near the Marriott, where Holloway was reported to have gone after she left Carlos 'n Charlie's with three locals. North shore sand dunes were scoured. F-16s flew in from the Netherlands to infrared-scan the entire island for signs of freshly turned earth.

No trace of Natalee Holloway was found. Now, the period defined by Dutch jurisprudence for bringing suspects to trial is about to expire.

Under Dutch law, prosecutors can designate suspects for arrest and interrogation without probable cause but must bring a case against them within "a reasonable time," which judicial precedent has defined as about two years unless fresh leads justify extension.

It was on June 9, 2005, 10 days after Holloway's disappearance, that Aruba police arrested 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch citizen, and Surinamese brothers Satish and Deepak Kalpoe, who were respectively 18 and 21 at the time. They were released that September after a magistrate who had granted numerous extensions ruled that police had insufficient grounds to further detain them.

"I hope we can close the case against them," said attorney David Kock, who represents the Kalpoe brothers. "They have been living with this sword over their heads for two years now."

Vivian van der Biezen, head of legal and policy assistance for the Aruba prosecutor's office, says that authorities are prohibited from discussing an active case and that a new phase of the investigation began six weeks ago.

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