On Thursday, February 5th, more than 300 people filled the gymnasium at Rossville Christian Academy to hear Beth Holloway talk about her daughter, Natalee, who vanished May 30, 2005, during a school trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba.
The 18-year-old's disappearance sparked a media frenzy, and Beth Holloway began her talk by bluntly stating what she believed happened to her daughter almost four years ago: "Natalee was kidnapped, raped, and killed. She went there to have fun, but she ran into others who had a different agenda."
According to police investigations, Natalee was last seen in the company of three young men on the evening of May 30th. Her school group was supposed to return to her hometown of Mountain Brook, Alabama, the following morning, but the young woman didn't show. That morning, said Holloway, "I got the call every parent would dread — one that would change my life forever."
She and her husband immediately flew to Aruba, and a quick glance at her daughter's hotel room, showing her clothes neatly packed and her passport on the bed, told her "something was terribly wrong."
One problem was that the chief suspect, 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot, was the son of a prominent judge. The police claimed they didn't have enough evidence to arrest the young man or two others also seen with Natalee that evening, "so we were left to search on our own," Holloway said.
She and her family investigated every tip they could, including bizarre tales that Natalee had been kidnapped and sold into prostitution or was being held prisoner in one of the many island crack houses that the police pretended didn't exist.
"The hidden underbelly of the island had been exposed," she said, "and it wasn't pretty."
Holloway believes she knows what happened. She said that van der Sloot finally confessed to killing her daughter: "He gave her a shot of rum, and that produced a seizure. He then got friends to help him dump her body in the sea. We'll never know if she was alive or not when that happened."
The case, however, is still considered unsolved. "There is nothing I can do to get justice for Natalee," said her mother, "because they don't do things [in other countries] the way we do here."
So now Holloway is speaking to groups like those who gathered at Rossville Christian Academy.
"The best way to honor Natalee," she explained, "is by talking with students about personal safety. It's not a safe world — not on Internet chat rooms and not on island vacations."
Holloway recently founded an organization called TravelEd to teach personal safety to students and young men and women who travel abroad. That effort has taken her to schools in 23 states.
"You can never feel too confident or too safe," she said. "My daughter let her guard down for a moment, and in that moment she vanished."
Holloway ended her talk with a video tribute to her daughter and then autographed copies of her book, Loving Natalee.
"People often ask what keeps me going," Holloway said. "The human spirit can withstand a lot — more than I ever thought possible. And I talked to Natalee and I pledged never to give up. Never."