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Holloway case a mystery after a year of 'catch and release'

Tactics illustrate difference between Aruban and U.S. law

By Ann O'Neill

Alabama teen Natalee Holloway disappeared without a trace in Aruba one year ago.


Missing Persons

(CNN) -- A year has passed since Natalee Ann Holloway, accompanied by three young men, walked out of a nightclub in Oranjestad, Aruba, and into oblivion.

It was about 1:30 a.m. on May 30, the wee hours of what would have been Holloway's last day on the island, where she and about 100 classmates were celebrating their graduation from Mountain Brook High School in suburban Birmingham, Alabama.

Holloway's passport and her packed bags were found in her hotel room after she didn't show for the flight back home.

That was the last trace anyone had of the 18-year-old, 5-foot-4-inch blonde despite an exhaustive search and investigation that became a media sensation in the United States, Aruba, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The case riveted attention on a small island with white sand beaches off the coast of Venezula. About the size of Washington, D.C., Aruba knew little crime. Now, says Jossy Mansur, editor of Diario Aruba, the island has lost its innocence.

"People don't give opinions in Aruba," Mansur said. "But I think that everyone here is aware that this case was mishandled from the beginning."

A landfill was searched, a pond drained, sand dunes and beaches combed. Boats and planes equipped with radar and infrared gear searched offshore.

At least 10 men -- including an Aruban judge whose son was the last person seen with Holloway -- were arrested and identified as suspects either in Holloway's disappearance or in a cover-up. All were interrogated and released.

No suspect in custody

A year later, no one is in custody and authorities appear no closer to finding Holloway -- dead or alive -- than they were in the first feverish days of their search.

"It's hard to remember a case where even as something emerged as a possible breakthrough, it was shot down," said Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Theodore Simon, who has represented clients in Aruba.

With each false lead, Holloway's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, spoke freely about how her hopes have been raised, and then dashed.

"We just get our hopes up, another arrest, and then he's released, and we still have no answers, you know. It's just getting more and more difficult," Twitty told CNN earlier this month when an arrest appeared to breathe new life into the case, then went nowhere.

The unfolding investigation had all the dramatic elements needed to captivate television audiences, said Simon, who has commented widely on the case.

"An American on an idyllic island supposedly celebrating her graduation goes missing under less than clear circumstances," he said.

"It's a mystery that desperately wanted to be solved, with parents who were energetic and active and fully engaged in trying to get to the bottom of the matter at whatever cost."

'Catch and release' justice

As she pushed for answers,Twitty was as much a fixture at Aruban police headquarters as on television crime shows.

She led the criticism of what plays in the United States as a bungled investigation under what has been characterized in the media as a "catch and release" system of justice.

"They have really had just such a botched investigation from the beginning, and whether that was due to incompetence or corruption or cover-up, I mean, we don't know," Twitty said during an appearance on CNN Headline News' Nancy Grace show earlier this month.

Legal experts say differences in Aruba's criminal justice system should be taken into account.

The U.S. system, based on English common law, holds that no one can be arrested unless authorities can show a judge there's probable cause a crime was committed and the suspect did it.

Grand juries investigate and trial juries decide innocence or guilt in an adversarial process.

Aruba's system is based on Dutch law, a descendant of the Napoleonic code.

In Aruba, a "reasonable suspicion" that someone knows about or is involved in a crime is all that's needed for an arrest.

Magistrates investigate and judges determine guilt or innocence. There are no jury trials.

Arrest as an investigative tool

Simon, the Philadelphia lawyer, said Twitty is doing exactly what the parent of a missing person should by keeping the case in the news.

On the other hand, he said, the authorities in Aruba are being judged by a skewed standard.

"Someone could look at the Aruban system and say, 'My God, that's an outrage that someone could be held without probable cause.' We don't believe you can go around arresting people on a whim," Simon said.

"But there are people looking to solve the case that might say that's a good system. Arrest becomes an investigative tool," he said. "Civil libertarians would say this is an outrage. Someone from a law enforcement perspective would say this is a wonderful tool."

The three young men who left the club with Holloway -- Joran van der Sloot, now 18, and brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe, now 22 and 19, have told varying stories, and were held the longest. All maintain they are innocent of wrongdoing.

They initially led authorities to two security guards, who were questioned, released and never formally charged.

Steve Croes, 27, a disc jockey on a party boat anchored offshore from Holloway's hotel, was arrested after one of the teen suspects pointed to him. After being released for lack of evidence, he admitted he lied to authorities to protect his friend Deepak Kalpoe.

Rights waived

Van der Sloot's father, Paul, was arrested and suspected of helping to cover up what happened to Holloway. Authorities said he told his son that police had no case without a body. He was released after three days of questioning.

While Aruba has no Miranda warning of the right to a lawyer and the right to not incriminate oneself, it does have something similar, called a cautio, Simon said.

And, Aruban law does not require parents and children to testify against one another. U.S. law does not recognize that privilege.

The van der Sloots waived their cautio rights and the parent-child privilege during interrogation, Simon said.

During the summer and into the fall, a drained pond yielded nothing, a bone was found but wasn't human, a lead about strands of hair found on a piece of duct tape went nowhere.

The revolving door of arrests and multiple dead ends contributed to the perception Aruban authorities were "flapping around," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, Florida.

Political pressure increased. Governors of three U.S. states -- Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia -- threw their weight behind a boycott of Aruba's tourist industry to protest the lack of progress in finding Holloway.

Mansur, the Diario editor, said tourism has been hurt. As long as it doesn't decline further, he said he believes Aruba's economy will recover.

Twitty and Natalee's father, Dave Holloway, increased the pressure with a civil lawsuit filed in New York against Joran van der Sloot and his father.

The suit asks punitive damages from father and son and accuses the younger van der Sloot of "malicious, wanton and willful disregard of the rights, safety and well-being of the plaintiffs and their daughter." The case is pending.

Aruba pushes back

Aruban authorities began to push back. Gerold Dompig, Aruba's former lead investigator, said Holloway may have overdosed or died of alcohol poisoning, The Associated Press reported.

In April and May, interest was aroused again with the arrests to two other young men. Both were questioned and quickly released.

Dompig told the Birmingham News that his son, under questioning by authorities, might have falsely incriminated suspect Geoffrey van Cromvoirt in April, because of a personal dispute.

''He's a kid; he got confused and frustrated and he said things he shouldn't have said,'' Dompig told the Alabama newspaper. ''It went too far.''

Earlier this month, another apparent lead fizzled when Dutch teenager Guido Wever was arrested on an indictment from Aruba. He was released, and his lawyer and family vehemently maintained his innocence.

Coffey, the former U.S. prosecutor, said the last two arrests fed the perception that officials in Aruba were desperate.

"When there's extreme pressure to 'do something,' rather than having a methodical, well-planned investigation, there's an appearance of flapping around with a 'go find me a suspect, arrest somebody' approach," he said.

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