Natalee Holloway had her whole life ahead of her when she suddenly vanished on an unofficial school trip to Aruba in 2005. And, for years, her mom, Beth, searched desperately for any clues that might lead her to her daughter’s whereabouts. Then, nearly a decade and a half after the teenager disappeared, Beth returned to the Caribbean island for a very important reason.
A big move
Natalee was the oldest of two children born to Dave and Beth Holloway, who at the time lived in Tennessee. Following the couple’s divorce in 1993, however, Beth wed successful Alabama-based businessman George “Jug” Twitty, and Natalee and her little brother, Matthew, would subsequently relocate with their mother to Mountain Brook – a well-to-do city near to Birmingham, AL.
Natalee was a star student, too, as she graduated from Mountain Brook High School with honors. But the teen hadn’t always had her nose stuck in a book. You see, she had also packed her schedule with a number of extracurricular activities, including participating in the dance team and the National Honor Society. She was also due to start at the University of Alabama after having being awarded a scholarship to the prestigious school.
Prior to starting college, however, Natalee and her classmates planned to celebrate their graduation in style. In May 2005 a group of 125 former students of Mountain Brook High School therefore jetted out to Aruba for a short vacation. At the time, Natalee was just 18, but seven chaperones were also there to watch over her and the other kids.
Yet according to Natalee’s mom, her daughter was hardly a party animal. In a 2006 interview with Vanity Fair, Beth instead claimed that the teen was motivated and well behaved – and not typically one for boyfriends or raucous behavior. As a result, she had some worries about allowing Natalee to go on the hedonistic trip to Aruba.
Beth would later tell the magazine, “Natalee was very smart, but very naïve.” Nevertheless, the Aruba vacation was seen as a right of passage for graduates of the school, and the teen’s stepbrother George had actually done the same years before. Ultimately, then, the mom of two gave permission for her daughter to go.
So, in the early hours of May 26, 2005, Beth took Natalee over to a friend’s home ready for the trip to Aruba. And before leaving, the mom arranged to meet her daughter at the airport after her long weekend in the Caribbean. Tragically, though, the teenager would never return home, and her family would never see her again.
An ordinary moment
In November 2019 Beth recalled her final moments with Natalee on ABC’s 20/20, explaining, “I helped her get her bag out of the car and just kissed her goodbye, said ‘I love you, have a great time.’ And then she entered the door, and the door closed. Never could I have imagined that would be the last time.”
Then, once the Mountain Brook High students arrived in Aruba, they reportedly embraced the island’s famous party atmosphere. In fact, Police Commissioner Gerold Dompig would later tell Vanity Fair, “I don’t want to demonize them. But the group really went far – very far – in terms of having a good time.”
Dompig – who was in charge of the investigation into Natalee’s subsequent disappearance until 2006 – claimed that the students had participated in “wild partying, a lot of drinking [and] lots of room switching every night.” He added, “We know the Holiday Inn told them they weren’t welcome next year.”
And while Beth had asserted that partying was not in her daughter’s nature, the teenager reportedly let loose as well. In his Vanity Fair interview, Dompig added, “Natalee, we know – she drank all day, every day. We have statements she started every morning with cocktails – so much drinking that Natalee didn’t show up for breakfast two mornings.”
Of course, it could be expected that teenagers on their first trip away from home would test the boundaries of their new-found freedom. That’s why the graduates had been accompanied to Aruba by a group of chaperones in the first place. And with responsible adults around, parents may have been satisfied that their kids would be kept safe.
According to Mountain Brook High teacher Bob Plummer, who accompanied the graduates to Aruba, the adults checked in with the teens every day to ensure that everything was okay. That said, as trip organizer Jodi Bearman told Fox News in 2005, “The chaperones were not supposed to keep up with their every move.” The kids, then, were somewhat free to enjoy themselves.
Sense of security
What’s more, Aruba was considered a safe, tranquil place where visitors could enjoy themselves. The island may not feel all that foreign to most Americans, either. It’s well developed, for one, and there are familiar food chains – including McDonald’s and Taco Bell – that give tourists a taste of home.
Perhaps that’s why Natalee’s disappearance on the last day of her trip sent shockwaves through the United States and beyond. The last known sighting of the teenager took place at 1:30 a.m. on May 30. At that time, she was outside the Oranjestad venue known as Carlos ’N Charlie’s. Later that day, however, she didn’t turn up for her return flight home.
A terrible call
That morning, the graduates all gathered in the hotel lobby in preparation for their flight. Then, when Natalee didn’t show, Bearman called Beth to make her aware of the worrying situation. Recalling this life-changing conversation, the mom of two later told 20/20, “They tell me that my daughter Natalee is missing and that no one has seen her.”
Hours later – and still with no sign of Natalee – Beth boarded a private jet to Aruba alongside her husband, Jug, and two of his friends. The party then arrived on the island at about 10:00 p.m. that evening. But while it was late, the group hit the ground running with their search for the missing teenager. And to begin with, they traveled to the last place where she had been spotted.
During the course of that first night in Aruba, Beth discovered that Natalee had last been seen in a car with Dutch teen Joran van der Sloot and his two friends Deepak and Satish Kalpoe. Van der Sloot – then 17 years old – was living on the island and studying at the International School of Aruba. And according to witnesses, he seemed like a fairly harmless character.
However, when Beth mentioned van der Sloot to an employee at the Holiday Inn, she had a different opinion. The mom later explained to Vanity Fair magazine, “[The woman] knew exactly who he was: Joran van der Sloot. And then she said – these were her exact words – ‘He tends to prey upon young female tourists.’”
It’s believed that Natalee met van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers at a hotel casino earlier on the evening of her disappearance. Surveillance footage also shows the young American woman sitting around a blackjack table with the Dutch teen. Then, later that evening, further CCTV captured her leaving Carlos ’N Charlie’s in a car with the three men.
Searching for clues
So, given that van der Sloot may have had vital information on her daughter’s whereabouts, Beth’s group went to visit him at home along with two local police officers. And while at first the student professed to have no knowledge of Natalee, he later admitted to spending time with the American teen on the night of her disappearance.
Chain of events
Van der Sloot claimed that he and the Kalpoe brothers had driven Natalee to Arashi Beach because she had wished to look at the sharks there. He also claimed that he and Natalee had had sex in the back of Deepak’s car near a local lighthouse before the trio dropped the American off at the Holiday Inn at around 2:00 a.m.
Early morning stumble
Van der Sloot also alleged that Natalee had tripped as she had left the car, although she didn’t allow him to help her. After that, he said that he had continued to watch Natalee as he and Deepak drove away – at which point he reportedly witnessed the teenager being approached by a man in a black shirt. And the Dutch student’s version of events was backed up by his friend Deepak, who was with him when police questioned him at his house.
In the meantime, a search operation was underway on the island. Streams of local and international volunteers looked for Natalee, while civil servants numbering in the thousands were given time off by the island’s government to join the effort. Dutch Marines also carried out an in-depth examination of the island’s coastline.
Then, in the days after Natalee had gone missing, initial arrests were made. The dark-shirted man that van der Sloot had claimed he had seen approaching the teen was believed to have been a security guard, leading police to subsequently detain two Aruban men who’d previously worked in hotel security.
But even at this point in the investigation, Beth believed that the authorities had gone after the wrong suspects. In fact, she had been convinced from the outset that van der Sloot was involved in Natalee’s disappearance. When talking about the night when she had first met the Dutch national, Beth told 20/20, “I thought, ‘You’re it.’”
And it soon emerged that the Aruban authorities shared Beth’s suspicions about van der Sloot. Yes, police ultimately released the two detained security guards without charge then arrested van der Sloot – along with both Kalpoes – on suspicion of Natalee’s kidnap and murder.
Their story changes
While detained, however, all three suspects altered their versions of events; now, they claimed that they hadn’t left the American teen at the Holiday Inn. Instead, van der Sloot said that the Kalpoes had left him and Natalee at a beach near the Marriott Hotel. He apparently then parted ways from Natalee there – despite the fact that she was supposedly struggling to stay conscious.
Altering the details
And while the Kalpoes initially backed up van der Sloot’s new account, the brothers later started pointing the finger toward their friend. In turn, van der Sloot changed his story for a second time – now claiming that Natalee had been escorted away by the siblings.
All three men appeared in front of a judge on July 4, 2005, although the Kalpoe brothers were subsequently released. Van der Sloot, on the other hand, was held for another 60 days before finally being let go. And while the trio were all later rearrested – twice for the Kalpoes – a dearth of supporting evidence meant that none were ever formally charged.
Then in 2007 the Aruban authorities decided to close the case – thus leaving Natalee’s disappearance unsolved. Her family had no remains to lay to rest, either, nor anyone to blame. That being said, Beth was still convinced that van der Sloot was involved. She would tell 20/20, “He’s a monster. I know that he was responsible for the demise of Natalee, and I’ll never, never not believe that.”
So, while it appeared that police were no longer on van der Sloot’s tail, Beth made it her mission to prove that he was involved with Natalee’s disappearance. As she told 20/20, “Did I know what was to come? No. But I knew that I was gonna hang onto him ’til my last breath.”
And over the years, van der Sloot gave conflicting accounts about what had happened to Natalee. In 2008 he suggested, for instance, that she had died on the morning of her disappearance and that a friend had subsequently gotten rid of her body. In addition, he claimed that he’d sold the American teen as a sex slave. The Dutch student later retracted both of these stories, however.
Reward for information
Yet Beth was still determined to prove van der Sloot’s involvement in her daughter’s disappearance. In one desperate last-ditch effort, then, she sent the Dutch student $25,000. The money acted as a initial payment, as Beth had pledged van der Sloot a total sum of $250,000 if he gave any details regarding the whereabouts of Natalee’s remains.
After Beth sent van der Sloot the cash, however, he left the country. In an email, he told the mom’s lawyer John Q. Kelly, “I did not tell you the truth, so the information you have is worthless… I’m sorry for making a fool out of you, if that is why [sic] you think. I think you are a nice man and a man of your word, and I am most definitely not.”
Killer strikes again
That could have very well been the end of the story. Then, exactly five years after Natalee disappeared on May 30, 2010, a 21-year-old woman was deemed to be missing in the Peruvian capital of Lima. That woman was Stephany Flores Ramírez. And like Natalie, Ramírez had been captured on CCTV at the same casino as van der Sloot in the hours before she had vanished.
Arrested and convicted
Lima authorities subsequently raided a hotel room booked under van der Sloot’s name, where, tragically, they found Ramirez’s dead body. The Dutchman had already escaped to Chile at that point, but he later returned to Peru to face questions over the young woman’s murder. And on June 7 he confessed to the killing, receiving a 28-year sentence for the crime in January 2012.
Inadvertent financial aid
Beth has since been haunted by the idea that van der Sloot may have traveled to Peru with the money she had sent him in exchange for information about Natalee. However, the mom of two refutes the suggestion that she’s in any way to blame for Ramírez’s death. As she told 20/20, “Whoever was responsible for letting Joran leave that island, Aruba – they are the ones that have to [lose] sleep at night over Stephany Flores’ death. Not me.”
Van der Sloot’s prison term was scheduled to come to an end in 2038, but Peru has an extradited agreement with the U.S., and on May 11th, 2023, it was announced that Van der Sloot would indeed be extradited to America on extortion charges. For now, though, Beth and her family are attempting to piece their lives together in the wake of Natalee’s disappearance. And Natalee’s mother returned to Aruba to make peace with the island.
Speaking on 20/20, Beth explained, “14 years later, Aruba has become a lot less significant to me. It’s interesting how all these landmarks that were such a driving force in our search for Natalee are just — I mean, they’re gone. Carlos ’N Charlie’s is gone. This whole area is gone. This place doesn’t control me anymore.”
To this day, no one besides the killer themselves is certain of what happened to Holloway. Some theories even suggest that she is still alive today, or remained alive for years after her disappearance. One thing everyone can agree upon? This case is one of the most shocking tales out there. But the shocking details don't even end with Natalee.
Years after her disappearance, Natalee's mother Beth actually started dating John Ramsey. If that name doesn't sound familiar, maybe you'll remember him from his late daughter's name: JonBenet Ramsey. And looking back at John's family history only makes the whole affair that much more suspicious.
See Patricia Paugh was only 23 years old when she married 36-year-old divorcé John Ramsey on November 5, 1980. Then seven years later, she gave birth to a son named Burke. John, meanwhile, was busy building a successful career, launching his own – ultimately lucrative – company in 1989.
Then on August 6, 1990, the couple’s daughter, JonBenet, arrived. The year after the girl was born, the family subsequently relocated to Boulder, Colorado. There, John’s career went from strength to strength, while Patsy stayed at home and focused on raising the children.
In the spotlight
In her own youth, Patsy had been a fan of beauty pageants, and she herself won the crown of Miss West Virginia in 1977. What’s more, as JonBenet grew older, her mother took delight in introducing her daughter to the same world. Before she’d even reached her seventh birthday, in fact, JonBenet had won several titles despite her young age. Yet tragedy was soon to follow.
Days before the end
On December 22, 1996, six-year-old JonBenet performed a festive routine at a Boulder mall. As she sung the hit “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree,” she seemed just like any other young girl excited to see what presents Santa Claus might bring. But days later, she would have her life wrenched from her in terrible and mysterious circumstances that have haunted America ever since.
Call to 911
At 5:52 a.m. on December 26, Patsy placed a phone call to 911. Apparently, JonBenet had disappeared, and a lengthy ransom note had been left behind. Addressed to John, the note detailed a demand for $118,000 in cash – threatening JonBenet’s life should the Ramseys decide to go to the police.
Officers arrive on scene
Nevertheless, John and Patsy opted to contact the authorities, and at about 6:00 a.m. two police officers arrived on the scene. But although they searched the house, the officers couldn’t find any indication of a break-in. Meanwhile, John, by then CEO of a billion-dollar company, began attempting to raise the cash.
Searching the house
At first, police focused on JonBenet’s bedroom as the scene of the crime, believing as they did that the young girl had been kidnapped from her bed. Then, however, at 1:00 p.m. a detective instructed John to take a look around the house while keeping an eye out for anything unusual.
In the basement
So it was that down in the basement John opened a latched door and stumbled upon a terrible sight. There was JonBenet’s body, covered in a white blanket. A piece of duct tape had been placed over her mouth, and her neck and wrists were wrapped in cord. Bizarrely, she was also wearing different clothes to those that she’d had on the previous night.
Cause of death
Soon it was revealed that JonBenet had died by being strangled and having her skull fractured. So what exactly had happened to this innocent young girl after she’d gone to sleep on Christmas night? As the only people known to have been in the house at the time, John, Patsy and Burke presently found themselves under suspicion.
And as the media circus descended on Boulder, theories began flying thick and fast. Had Patsy herself killed her daughter in a fit of anger? Or had Burke, just nine at the time, accidentally taken the life of JonBenet, with his parents then faking the ransom note in an effort to conceal his guilt?
The Ramsey's defense
At the same time, as the Ramseys fought accusations from the press, the police were having difficulties of their own. Indeed, although they had identified more than 1,600 persons of interest by October 1997, mistakes that had been made by officers meant it was proving difficult to narrow the number down.
Contamination at the scene
Apparently, for instance, the Ramseys’ friends and family had descended on the scene of events soon after Patsy’s 911 call. Unfortunately, though, this meant that vital clues and evidence had been disturbed. And by removing his daughter’s body from where he’d come across it, John had himself managed to change the state of the crime scene.
Still no DNA match
Despite these issues, however, several suspects emerged over the years. Yet even though DNA was successfully recovered from JonBenet’s clothing, a match for it has never been found. Meanwhile, investigators have continued to argue over whether a family member or an unknown intruder was responsible for the girl’s death.
Ten years after her daughter’s murder, Patsy herself died, succumbing to ovarian cancer. And, sadly, it would be two more years before the police finally cleared the Ramseys of involvement in their daughter’s death. However, that was far from the end of the mystery, and JonBenet’s case has remained a subject of debate ever since.
Then in 2016 private detective Ollie Gray announced that he had made a major breakthrough in the investigation. Having initially been hired by John and Patsy themselves to track down JonBenet’s killer, Gray continued to work on the case even after his arrangement with the Ramseys had come to an end.
According to Gray, a Boulder man named Michael Helgoth, who was 26 at the time, was responsible for JonBenet’s death. Key to this theory is the testimony of John Kenady, a man who worked at the Helgoth family’s junkyard. Apparently, Kenady had heard Helgoth discussing a great financial deal – as well as pondering what it would “be like to crack a human skull” – in the lead-up to the murder.
"Police had absolutely no interest"
And although Kenady claims to have attempted to relay his suspicions to the police, Gray believes that they did not listen to what he had to say. “I got the distinct feeling that the Boulder police had absolutely no interest in anything that took away from their theory that John and Patsy Ramsey killed their daughter,” Gray told InTouch in 2016.
Additionally, Kenady claims that somewhere a tape exists which contains Helgoth’s confession. But sadly the full truth may never be known. In February 1997 Helgoth was found dead in his home. And although it appeared to have been a suicide, Gray believes Helgoth was murdered by accomplices who were afraid that he would talk.
At any rate, Gray is still holding out hope that one day the crime will finally be solved. “If they could find out who killed Helgoth,” he continued, “it could lead police to his accomplices in her murder.” So, will justice ever catch up with whoever so cold-bloodedly ended the life of JonBenet Ramsey? In such a high-profile case, we can only speculate as to what twists and turns might still be in store.