BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Joran van der Sloot, the chief suspect in Natalee Holloway’s 2005 disappearance on the island of Aruba, walked shackled into an Alabama courtroom on Friday as her parents looked on.
He pleaded not guilty to charges that he tried to extort money from the missing teen’s mother in exchange for revealing where to find her daughter’s remains.
Although he’s not on trial for harming Holloway, the extortion and wire fraud charges are the only alleged crimes that link the Dutch citizen to her disappearance on the final night of high school graduation trip with classmates. The 18-year-old was last seen leaving a bar with van der Sloot, who was a student at an international school on the island where he grew up.
Van der Sloot, now 35, was extradited Thursday from Peru where he’s serving a 28-year sentence after confessing to killing a Peruvian woman in 2010—five years to the day after Holloway went missing.
Natalee’s mother, father, and brother were in the courtroom Friday. Beth Holloway stared occasionally at van der Sloot but otherwise showed no obvious emotion.
“The wheels of justice have finally begun to turn for our family,” she wrote in a statement. “It has been a very long and painful journey.”
Van der Sloot, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, declined to use a Dutch interpreter offered to him at Friday’s arraignment, saying “I don’t think it’s necessary.” During the brief court preceding, he entered a not guilty plea through his attorney and answered “Yes” when asked if he understood his rights.
Afterward, Beth Holloway hugged friends who had come to offer their support. She declined to comment outside the courthouse.
Her spokesperson, George Seymore, told reporters that seeing van der Sloot in court “was chilling but at the same time gratifying.”
The mysterious disappearance sparked years of news coverage and countless true-crime podcasts. Van der Sloot was identified as a main suspect and detained for questioning along with two Surinamese brothers, weeks after Holloway went missing. No charges were filed in the case.
A judge declared Holloway dead, but her body has never been found.
U.S. prosecutors say that in 2010, van der Sloot sought money from Beth Holloway to lead her to the young woman’s body. A grand jury indicted him that year.
In 2012, van der Sloot pleaded guilty in Peru to killing 21-year-old Stephany Flores, a business student from a prominent family, in 2010.
Van der Sloot married a Peruvian woman in July 2014 in a ceremony at a maximum-security prison. He was shuffled between prisons in response to reports he enjoyed privileges like television, internet access and a cellphone, and accusations he threatened to kill a warden.
Peru has agreed to let van der Sloot remain in U.S. custody until the Alabama case is concluded, including any appeal if he is convicted, according to a resolution published in Peru’s federal register. U.S. authorities agreed to return him to Peru’s custody after that, the resolution states.
Cindy Rysedorph, a friend of the Holloway family, said they’re doing as well as could be expected.
“It’s progress,” she said. “I’m so grateful that he’s here.”
By Kim Chandler