Throughout the tabloid frenzy, the international headlines, the years of rumors and myths of stranger danger and child trafficking, there was only ever one real main suspect in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway.
The Alabama teen, who vanished from a beach in Aruba while on her senior high school trip in 2005, became one of the most famous missing persons cases of the decade. But despite the relentless media attention focused on her abduction, the likely perpetrator seemed to evade all consequences.
And five years later, when he murdered another woman, Stephany Flores Ramírez, on the fifth anniversary of Holloway’s disappearance, the victim’s family could only react in horror when they realized their daughter’s killer was the same man suspected in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway: Joren van der Sloot.
On October 18, 2023, while still under a 28-year Peruvian prison sentence for Flores’s murder, van der Sloot finally confessed to authorities that he murdered Holloway. He did so as part of a plea deal in which he was sentenced to 20 years in US prison — not for murder, but for extortion and wire fraud. Those charges resulted from a 2010 scheme in which he extorted $25,000 from Holloway’s mother while providing her with false information about Holloway’s murder. This time, however, van der Sloot’s confession included grim details of the crime that satisfied the court.
The process of obtaining van der Sloot’s confession and sentencing him at last was part of a long, complicated fight for justice that started in Aruba and ended with his extradition from Peru to Alabama, where the charges were filed. The saga is a stark reminder of how difficult and how long the fight for justice can be, how hollow it can often feel, and how many lives can change because of one crime. This story is also one of a sensationalized media full of true crime stereotypes, and of a second victim, Ramírez, whose story is often completely left out, even as Natalee Holloway’s death continues to make her a household name.
The circus to end all media circuses
Natalee Holloway’s senior class trip should have been a tropical breeze. It was the end of May 2005, and the 18-year-old had just graduated from high school in the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, then one of the richest communities in the US. Friends described her graduating class of 124 students as “close,” and Holloway was popular, smart, and beautiful. Her senior creds were stacked with honors and extracurriculars, and she intended to study pre-med courses at the University of Alabama.
Their class trip destination would be Oranjestad, Aruba, a tiny island country and popular Caribbean tourist destination located just 18 miles north of Venezuela. Always reliable and an experienced traveler, Holloway should have been prompt for the return flight home. Yet when the students and their seven chaperones assembled in the lobby of the SunSpree Resort in Oranjestad on May 30, Holloway was missing — and alarm bells instantly sounded.
The resulting investigation into Holloway’s disappearance became an international media sensation, prompting weeks of nonstop coverage in the breathless 24-hour news cycle that had come to dominate the media of the aughts. Millions of Americans tuned in daily for coverage from media pundits who’d made reporting on Natalee Holloway part of their brand — including Nancy Grace, who first came to national prominence through her coverage of the case.
“The Holloway case is now one of the most popular reality shows in America,” Vanity Fair observed in 2006. When Lifetime aired a movie based on the disappearance in 2009, it became the highest-rated movie in the network’s history. Holloway’s senior photograph, showing her smiling with long blonde hair, became iconic, an indelible fixture of the media landscape. The media frenzy became one of the major moments that fueled public consciousness of Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS), the now well-known phenomenon in which young, pretty white women receive significantly more media attention than people of other demographics. Vanity Fair described Holloway as the syndrome’s “reigning princess.”
The attention missing white women get often means significantly more law enforcement efforts and resources are devoted to those cases than others. In this instance, however, the complexities of an international case, and the murky circumstances under which Holloway went missing, meant that Aruban authorities had their work cut out for them. Holloway had last been seen hanging out at a bar a few miles from her hotel the night before the students were due to fly back, and several people had seen her with van der Sloot, a local 17-year-old Dutch teen who allegedly had a reputation for slipping date-rape drugs into the drinks of tourists. From there, however, tracking her movements proved difficult.
Aruban authorities immediately launched an intense investigation that included offering a $20,000 reward for information, allowing FBI divers to survey the beach and ocean where Holloway could have gone missing, and arresting multiple suspects multiple times, including van der Sloot and several alleged accomplices. But the case quickly turned thorny, with Aruban authorities forced to release their suspects due to a lack of evidence, while Holloway’s parents, including her mother and stepfather, began to accuse the local authorities of corruption and cover-ups. Meanwhile, van der Sloot’s father, a wealthy and influential local attorney, had allegedly been pulling his own weight to protect his son from legal consequences — possibly even for years before Holloway’s disappearance.
For his part, van der Sloot gave multiple completely different stories to authorities and other people over the years, ranging from claiming complete innocence to implicating his father to saying he sold Holloway to a sex trafficking ring to saying she fell from a balcony or died of a seizure. In 2007, Aruban authorities arrested van der Sloot and two alleged accomplices on manslaughter charges, but then were ordered by a court to release them, due once again to lack of evidence. (Making a complicated case even more complicated, Aruba is a Dutch constituent and so adheres to the Dutch federal court system and legal standards.) Afterward, two different courts failed to grant arrest warrants in a subsequent investigation, and the case effectively went cold.
A messy investigation gets messier and darker
Then, in May 2010, van der Sloot received $25,000 from Holloway’s mother in exchange for details he provided about her murder — details that, according to van der Sloot himself, were “worthless.” He then attempted to extort another $225,000 from the family in exchange for leading them to Holloway’s remains. This never happened.
Instead, on May 30, 2010, just 20 days after the exchange between van der Sloot and Beth Holloway, and on the fifth anniversary of Natalee’s death, van der Sloot attacked and murdered Stephany Flores Ramírez. Ramírez, a bubbly 21-year-old who loved soccer and poker, had been majoring in business administration at the University of Lima when she met van der Sloot, who was in Lima for a poker tournament.
According to van der Sloot — whose confession should be taken with a grain of salt, given his propensity for lying on the record — the two of them were in his hotel room playing online poker when he told Ramirez that he was the prime suspect in Holloway’s murder, at which point she attacked him, hitting him. He then struck her in the head with his elbow and “strangled her for a minute.” Then he wrapped his shirt around her head and smothered her. “In this way I think I caused her death,” he said. He fled to Chile but was arrested shortly after.
Initially, according to an interview Ramirez’s brother Enrique Flores gave to CNN, the family thought the friendly man who’d been caught on hotel security footage with Stephany was a positive sign. “The people at the hotel told us, ‘Yeah, she was with this guy. He seemed nice,’” Flores said. “‘He looked like Brad Pitt.’” Authorities left Ramirez’s stricken family to learn for themselves who van der Sloot was.
“We came back home and searched his name on the Internet,” Flores told CNN. “I cannot tell you the shock we felt.”
“My wife typed ‘Joran van der Sloot’ into Google and started screaming,” he recounted. “I couldn’t believe it. How could it be that guy?”
Van der Sloot was sentenced in 2012 after pleading guilty to Ramirez’s murder and given 28 years in prison in Peru. That same year, Holloway was legally declared dead. A long effort then commenced by the US to extradite van der Sloot from Peru on the charges of extortion and wire fraud that he’d been facing in Alabama since 2010 over his exchange with Beth Holloway. Initially, Peruvian authorities wanted van der Sloot to complete his sentence for Ramirez’s murder before he could be extradited to the States. But finally in 2023, they allowed van der Sloot to appear stateside to face the charges. He arrived in the US in June and initially pleaded not guilty, but ultimately changed his plea and delivered a full confession.
In this graphic and hopefully final confession, van der Sloot claimed that he and Natalee were kissing on the beach when he pushed her down into the sand. When Natalee attempted to push him off, he began to attempt a sexual assault, at which point she kneed him in the groin. At that point, he said, he kicked her and then picked up a nearby cinder block and bludgeoned her with it, before pulling her body into the ocean and pushing it out to sea.
Although this confession satisfied the courts, it has several troubling and inconclusive aspects. For one thing, as websleuths have noted, if Holloway’s body had been pushed into the sea from the shore, the currents likely would have pushed it back onto the shore within a few days. (Van der Sloot has previously claimed he and his father together disposed of her body by transporting it by boat out to sea.) It’s impossible to know whether these details are true at this point, but given van der Sloot’s long history of fabricating details about Holloway’s death, it’s unlikely he could ever present a fully convincing narrative.
Even if Aruban authorities could find enough evidence in this confession to finally obtain an arrest warrant, the statute of limitations in Aruba for Holloway’s murder expired in 2017. That makes the bar to prosecute van der Sloot even higher than it was in the years following her disappearance. And apart from his latest confession, which is, after all, just one of many, police so far have no new compelling evidence that could elicit an arrest warrant.
Still, the Natalee Holloway case remains open in Aruba — and something like an open wound for the community. The country’s mythos as a place for wild beach parties and illicit lifestyles became even more entrenched due to the constant media attention Holloway’s disappearance received, even though in reality the country has a low crime rate.
Culture clashes also impeded the investigation’s progress, as detectives accused the family of trying to steamroll a delicate process; in Aruba, Natalee’s family became brash, swaggering American stereotypes, and the media blitz surrounding her disappearance still smarts today. “It is essential to separate these critiques of the investigative process from perceptions of the Aruban people or the country as a whole,” one Aruban blog wrote earlier this year, summarizing the impact the case still has on the community today.
There are other open questions, as well. In 2010, Thai authorities were reportedly investigating van der Sloot for his alleged involvement in a local sex trafficking ring that resulted in the disappearances of two Thai women. It’s unclear what became of those allegations. What does seem clear is that van der Sloot’s predatory history likely predates Holloway and continued without stopping up until Ramírez’s death. In all that time, he evaded legal consequences again and again.
The invisibility of these two missing Thai women, and the utter lack of information we have about them, is a bleak reminder that even in one of the most highly publicized true crime cases in history, women of color can still be all but completely erased. Because of the dominance of Natalee Holloway’s name in every headline, Stephany Flores Ramírez continues to be a side note in her own murder; often, press write-ups of the developments in Holloway’s case mention her simply as an unnamed second victim.
As for Natalee Holloway, her still-technically-unsolved murder will forever be a question mark over the annals of criminal justice and the small island in the south of the Caribbean. Instead, what will last is her image as the smiling, vivacious teenager who captivated the nation in an outpouring of shock and support.