Probing the ocean deep
I arrived on the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba on the afternoon of December 18, 2007, nearly two and a half years after Natalee Holloway disappeared while visiting there.
Houston shipping magnate Louis Schaffer is sponsoring a deep-sea search of the waters around Aruba by Texas EquuSearch, a search-and-recovery operation specializing in missing-person cases. Its founder and director, Tim Miller, was inspired to establish a horse-mounted search-and-recovery team in North Galveston County after his own daughter, Laura, was abducted and murdered in 1984. Incorporated in 2000, Texas EquuSearch has since expanded from its equestrian roots to mount high-tech search operations from the air and on land and on sea. For his part, Schaffer arranged for several underwater expedition firms to participate in this search including particularly the J. D. Silvetti Group, of Lafayette, La., which provided the search boat, The Persistence.
After landing at Queen Beatrix International Airport and checking into my hotel that sunny December afternoon, I soon met with Tim Miller along with Louis Schaffer and his search-project manager, Tim Trahan. Louis had just flown in for the first time also and, soon after dusk, he immediately suggested that we drive out to Fisherman’s Huts—almost certainly where the three suspects launched a boat with Natalee’s body contained a heavy cage used by local fishermen. The cage had been stolen from the huts on the same night that Natalee went missing.
Within six hours of arriving in Aruba, here we were—Louis, Tim Miller and I—standing in front of the now well-known Fisherman’s Huts—specifically the huts from which the cage went missing—gazing at out a placid sea. We envisioned the perpetrators’ desperately quick boat trip early on the morning of May 30, 2005. We discussed where my profile of suspects’ statements showed the body to be. Tim Miller’s intuition and experience pointed much in the same direction as my forensic analysis.
As the four of us talked there on the island’s northwest shore, Natalee’s dad, Dave Holloway, called Tim Miller on his cell phone. Tim shortly handed the phone to me. Dave asked me if things were as I had envisioned them over my two years of working the case from Birmingham. As we had previously discussed many times before, I told him the beach at Fisherman’s Huts was indeed a perfect spot to load a body into a boat and sail off into the night. I also reminded him that now he was finally reaping all the fruits of his labor—more than 30 months of work—to make sure this deep-sea search took place.
I will never forget that moment standing on that shore in front of those huts at night as the search was just getting underway talking to Natalee’s father and wondering what the search would reveal. Would we find Natalee’s body? Would Dave and Beth get the resolution they needed so badly? I thought of how long and hard Dave had pushed for this sea search—strongly believing his daughter’s body could be recovered from its secret ocean grave and praying for the chance to give her a proper burial. When Tim Miller had a hundred cases clamoring for his help, Dave calmly kept the focus on Natalee. Without the joint efforts of Dave and Tim Miller this search would never have taken place. Their unswerving determination was reflected in the name of the search boat, Persistence.
I tried to put out of my mind the untoward opinions of those folks on certain Web sites who mocked the search. I felt sorry for them. They seemed unable somehow to appreciate a parent’s need for closure—to know once and for all where his daughter was. Not to mention the need for justice to be served.
On the other hand, I knew many people all around the world were praying for success. Yet again I wondered, would those prayers be answered?
We were all excited about the impending search. Louis went over the specific plan—to use sonar to thoroughly scan the ocean floor, identify potential targets, use a magnetometer to rule out unlikely objects, and then to check out the various targets with a camera-equipped ROV (remote operated vehicle). Louis and Tim had invited me to join the search hoping that my profile might shed light on more probable targets once they were identified.
As we left the beach we drove across the main highway one block away onto another dirt road and there, from directly behind the huts, we could see the lights from the Racquet Club. This was on the same road where a gardener said he saw the three suspects shortly after 2 a.m. on the night Natalee disappeared.
Coincidentally, earlier that day (December 18, 2007) Aruban judicial authorities had released the three suspects claiming lack of significant evidence to win a conviction. Deepak and Satish Kalpoe had been re-arrested in Aruba on Nov. 21, and, after he was extradited from Holland, prime suspect Joran van der Sloot soon joined his two former buddies behind bars.
While many people were disappointed or even disgusted by the boys’ release, those involved in the search, including Tim Miller, saw certain benefits to that turn of events: now there’d be far less media attention to impede the search.
On the next morning (December 19), I boarded The Persistence along with Louis Schaffer and Tim Miller and remained aboard for the next 24 hours as they continued to scan the ocean floor. The staff was impressive—capable, bright, and extremely motivated. They worked virtually through the entire night. Clearly this was going to be one quality search effort.
I can’t say enough good things about the crew, people like geologists Kyle Kingman and Rob Floyce who interpreted the data along with Brandon Hernandez of the ROV team.
We had several interesting discussions both on deck and in the relatively small galley. At one point, the boat-owner, Capt. John Silvetti (of the J.D. Silvetti Group), expressed his frustration about the lack of an exact description of the missing “crab cage” in which Natalee was likely enclosed. He’d been requesting one for several weeks, and Louis had expressed the identical frustration to me earlier.
From the best reports he could obtain, Tim had determined an approximate cage size. The search team commissioned the construction of a model cage and planned to drop it underwater to obtain as accurate a scan signature as possible to enable quicker identification of the actual cage.
The next day, Louis and I disembarked while Tim went back out on the boat. It was clear that the first part of the search (before the ROV team could be called upon) was going to take significantly longer, and we both had business in the U.S. So I took him to the airport the next afternoon, and he planned on returning after Christmas as did I. That afternoon (December 20) I met with Diario publisher Jossy Mansur in his office in Oranjestad for a couple of hours to discuss the case face-to-face. While we talked about my profile in more depth, Jossy also told me several things in person he had not been able to reveal over the phone. The veteran newspaperman gave me a good feel for the politics of the investigation and how future investigations may unfold should Natalee’s body be discovered.
Later that afternoon, I drove out to the California Lighthouse. Retuning to the cluster of seaside hotels just north of the city, I then walked north along the beach from the Holiday Inn to Fisherman’s Huts. Indeed, it’s a relatively short walk going right past the nearby marina between the Holiday Inn and Marriott where the Gottenbos boat had been moored on May 30, 2005. (Gottenbos family members had been friends with the van der Sloots.)
THE FISHERMAN AT FISHERMAN’S HUTS
Little did I know that my casual stroll along the white sand beach would soon help fill in the blanks for The Persistence crew about the exact nature of the fishing cage.
Three small buildings collectively known as Fisherman’s Huts sit next to each other on the beach separated by approximately 100 feet. They were built some time in the 1940s. (A fourth hut—the most distant one on the beach going north toward the lighthouse—was destroyed several years ago in a hurricane.) Each small building consists of four individual units very small in size approximately 9 feet by 15 feet. As I approached the first of the three tiny Fisherman’s Huts buildings, I soon learned that this was the one in which the 2005 break-in occurred. There a lone fisherman was cleaning out his fishing boat on the beach next to the first of the three Fisherman’s Huts. Uncertain as to his sympathies regarding the Holloway case, I engaged him in general conversation. He was pleasant, friendly and unfailingly polite.
Rather quickly it emerged that he was The Fisherman who had discovered the break-in to the units on the morning of May 30, 2005. He related the following story.
He had been at this hut at 6 am that Monday morning May 30, 2005. Before long, he noticed that someone had broken into the first three of the four units in this particular group, from north to south, prying off the padlocks with something like a tire iron or a crowbar. He showed me the still-visible marks of the break-in on each unit. He described in detail the contents of each unit and the nature of the break-in.
Facing the first of the Fisherman’s Huts from left to right (north to south): unit 1 contained a valuable stove, cooler and other equipment but nothing went missing; unit 2 had the lock pried off but was seemingly unopened because the door was stuck (and nothing was later reported missing); unit 3 also had its lock pried off with the only missing item being a brand new, large fishing knife (no rope was taken as had originally been reported, he said); finally unit 4 remained untouched. Clearly it seemed the perpetrator(s) had broken into the units in an orderly fashion until they found the specific item they were seeking—the knife. Indeed it struck the fisherman as odd that nothing else of value was taken.
Of the three Fisherman’s Hut buildings, only one was accessible to break-in. The units in the closest nearby building were going mostly unused with sand covering the entrance doors up to a couple of feet. The outermost building was seemingly abandoned and virtually in the water.
The fisherman also noticed that a large fishing cage stored behind the first of the three Fisherman’s Huts at the southern-most corner was missing. The cage had been there approximately a month since about Good Friday, March 25, 2005. The cage belonged to another fisherman who kept his boat next to these four huts. The boat was still there. But the cage was missing.
The fisherman described the cage as made of 3/8-inch iron (such as that used in concrete reinforcing—”rebar”) with a frame size approximately 5 ½ feet by 4 feet by 17 inches. He described it as a large fishing cage with its frame wrapped in chicken wire with its familiar hexagonal openings but with an opening in one panel which allowed them to trap fish. He believed that, given its size and weight, it would take two men to manage the cage. Once aboard, it would lay low on the floor of the nearby fishing boat.
The day the cage went missing, the fisherman observed an iron stain in the grass on the south side of the huts. Only sometime the next day, Tuesday, May 31, did the fisherman learn of Natalee’s disappearance. Slowly he began to consider possible connections between the case of the missing American girl and the missing knife and cage. His suspicions rose when a rumor made its way around the island that Natalee had been disposed of in a container. (In retrospect, the missing knife could be explained by the suspects’ need to cut a larger flap in the cage in order to fit the body into it.)
All the suspects would have needed was a gas tank, the fishermen there had suggested as they discussed the case among themselves. The suspects could easily have “borrowed” one of several fishing boats anchored nearby. (Although I don’t believe the suspects used one of these boats.) The fisherman and his friends always left their boats anchored a short distance off shore.
ACTIVITY AROUND FISHERMAN’S HUTS
The fisherman pointed out the bushes immediately south of the huts. They were often associated with clandestine activity—possibly including illegal aliens, drug dealers and even peeping Toms. He noted how people could enter the beach surreptitiously from the road by using paths running through the bushes. The local beach boys would all be intimately familiar with the area which is also a likely location for furtive drug transactions.
Clearly the bushes next to Fisherman’s Huts were the first secluded area on the beach north of the hotels. Because of all this potential activity on the beach and in the bushes, the three boys would have been even more anxious to get rid of the body in the ocean that night. The reported police theory that the boys hid the body by placing it in the bushes for disposal the following night was highly unlikely. Certainly rigor mortis would have set in at 24 hours and they would not have been able to manipulate the body into the cage at that point. And the knife and the fishing cage were stolen on the night of May 29-30, 2005, not on May 31.
At this point I called Tim Miller now at sea on The Persistence to pass along the new information about the cage. He put me on the phone with John Silvetti who was pleased with my findings. From the boat they emailed a new copy of the model cage to the person constructing an actual model of the cage, and picked it up the following morning upon returning to shore. By December 21, the search team had an accurate model cage and was able to drop it into the water and obtain a sonar signature of the cage.
The on-site visit to Aruba had been helpful in clarifying several matters. In his crucial June 4, 2005 email Deepak had repeatedly referenced the “lighthouse” when describing their last night with Natalee. Was he unconsciously pointing to the body being dumped from the boat in that area? The sea waters there coming around the tip of the island were way too rough, however, and it was far more logical that the boys would have gone straight out from Fisherman’s Huts in the boat—as the profile had strongly suggested. Now Deepak’s emphasis on “lighthouse” took on a new meaning. He was trying to tell us Natalee’s body was in a “light house” or a cage which matched his other insistence that she was in a “crack house,” that is, a cage—a house with cracks in it.
As the deliberate, time-consuming sonar search progressed, I came home to Alabama but returned to Aruba on December 29 when the ROV team began their work. Throughout this visit I maintained regular telephone contact with Tim Miller on the boat and Dave Holloway back in Mississippi as we monitored the search.
I revisited Fisherman’s Huts for further discussion with the local fishermen. I specifically wanted to know how far out into the sea could a speedboat have taken Natalee’s body in May 2005, and how deep would the water be there. While the seas were rougher now, the fishermen noted that the waters were often calm and on those occasions a boat could easily go out 10 miles or more. Dave Holloway recalled the ocean being noticeably quiet on his visit to Aruba immediately after Natalee disappeared, and, typically, the sea remains even calmer at night.
One afternoon as I stood at the Fisherman’s Huts where the break-in occurred, a family in a small speedboat (approximately 14 feet) launched their craft into the water from right next to the huts. The family of two adults and four children easily made their way into the water, out 100 feet or more where you could see other bathers standing waist-deep in the water. One of the adults on the boat told me he had a larger, 20-foot craft which he often launched there. That simple observation confirmed for me that this key area was easily accessible for boats and the most convenient place to quickly and secretly load a dead girl’s body into such a vessel. It seemed to be the first place along this section of the beach (north from the Holiday Inn) suitable for launching watercraft.
Early one morning Tim Miller went with me to Fisherman’s Huts to go over the specifics of the break-in and location of the cage. We met with the fishermen there again. Tim agreed with me that these witnesses were very believable and that the three suspects would have disposed of Natalee’s body that first night without taking the risk of hiding it nearby.
Later we saw several people windsurfing in the area directly in front of Fisherman’s Huts and on down toward the lighthouse. It’s likely that Joran himself windsurfed here and would surely have been familiar with this stretch of the beach. Rental shacks for windsurfing and other equipment were located shortly down the beach toward the lighthouse. Just past that, about 200 feet out in the water off Malmok Beach, was the famous Antillla Shipwreck, the remains of a scuttled 400-foot German cargo ship that was anchored off of Aruba during WW2. Many tourists simply walk down to the shipwreck site, as did several kids on the 2005 trip with Natalee.
OTHER IMPRESSIONS REMAIN CLEAR IN MY MIND.
For instance, the second cover-story all three suspects tried to spin was that Joran had concluded that night’s travels by spending time alone with Natalee on the beach. While there was absolutely no evidence that such an event ever occurred, one thing was crystal clear, never in a million years would Natalee stay by herself in the isolated area of Fisherman’s Huts. The huts were surrounded by bushes which would’ve blocked her from seeing or being seen from the Holiday Inn.
The same ridiculous spin the boys tried to put on their first cover-up story emerged with a visit to the Holiday Inn lobby where they claimed to have lost her between the driveway and the door. The two well-lighted driving lanes are strikingly public—less than 25 feet wide (eight paces) each separated by a four-foot-wide curb between them—opening to an extremely wide door with the easily visible check-in desk immediately inside. Furthermore, the hotel is in a busy part of town just off two main streets.
In their story, the boys depict Natalee falling out of the car’s right back door which would have been facing toward the hotel door as cars can only enter the driveway from one direction. The first myth implied that Natalee got lost in the 30 feet between the car and the hotel door. As impossible as this scenario is, it vividly reveals how glibly the suspects tried to pass off a completely illogical story. Each of these scenarios—dropping her off at the Holiday Inn and leaving her on the beach alone—simply strain credulity beyond belief.
At 19.5 miles long and 6 miles wide, Aruba is an extremely small island and one can travel virtually anywhere on it within 15 minutes. That’s particularly true at night when traffic is light and activity in the business district has slowed to a crawl. Cover-up endeavors, including trips to Joran’s or the Kalpoes’ houses, Fisherman’s Huts or wherever, were certainly doable in the early-morning hours when Natalee went missing after leaving Carlos’n Charlie’s at 1 am.
Before leaving Aruba Louis Schaffer, Tim Miller and I again reviewed in detail where I thought the body had most likely been dropped. I developed my theory based on my profile of the suspects’ various communications. Louis and Tim each remained in close contact with John Silvetti. Dave Holloway—with whom I had had repeated discussions— revealed to both Louis and John his own reasons for coming to similar conclusions as mine. Tim Miller also continued to believe the body was in the ocean.
Certainly this had been a very deliberate search taking longer than most had anticipated for various reasons including the weather. How aptly named was the search boat—Persistence !
As I write this in January 2008, the ocean search is now progressing into deeper waters, the body’s most likely location. The Persistence has demonstrated excellent capability to spot underwater targets. Various anonymous tips have been received about where Natalee’s body was dropped. One of the most intriguing has been a tip from a reported friend of Deepak. He claimed that on one evening while they were doing drugs together, Deepak confessed that they had dropped the body 10 miles out into the ocean.
Chances of Success & Beyond
Certainly the chances of finding Natalee’s body are 50/50 at best due particularly to the largely translucent nature of the cage which sonar could have difficulty detecting. If the body is not found, however, that doesn’t mean the case is over. The perpetrators will continue to live with what police call “the prison of the mind.”
I can assure you that they will suffer immeasurable unconscious guilt. They will also—unquestionably but unconsciously—inflict punishment on themselves of one type or another. They will continue to be prone to confessing. And as Deepak demonstrated in his email to his former American surrogate grandmother, Betty, they’ll harbor hidden suicidal wishes.
A final note from Betty serves to highlight my point.
Through most of 2007, Betty continued to defend Deepak as a pleasant young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then she re-encountered him on a recent visit to Aruba after my book was published last August. She visited Deepak at his Internet café, intending to continue her friendship with him. When she approached him, however, she found that he was extremely upset with her for releasing his email. Betty had innocently shown it to a friend because she believed it exonerated him, that Deepak defended himself well within its lines. Now, though, he was getting nasty with her. He threatened her with litigation, and Betty’s impression was that he was scared. In short, she saw another side of Deepak she had never seen before—a vindictive, angry, frightened side.
Combining this experience with her reading of my profile of Deepak’s email, Betty informed me she is now convinced of Deepak’s guilt. For his part, Deepak will continue to act out irrationally as he continues to experience paranoia, sensing that others are coming after him. While the authorities do, in fact, still have Deepak, Satish and Joran in their distant sights should further evidence arise, deep down, it is Deepak’s own conscience that’s most closely chasing him.
Deepak, you can run but you can’t hide from your soul.