Was Natalee Holloway drugged?

February 15, 2008 6:48:42 PM PST
Medical experts tell ABC News that the description Joran van der Sloot gave of convulsions apparently experienced by Natalee Holloway on the night she disappeared could be consistent with the date rape drug GHB, and not simply alcohol intoxication. The question has resurfaced after a Dutch undercover documentary aired last week on ABC News in which Van der Sloot, the prime suspect, describes in harrowing detail how Holloway went into convulsions during an amorous encounter on an Aruban beach the night she disappeared.

Doctors and pharmacologists who spoke to ABC said that it's in general unlikely that alcohol poisoning alone could have caused the otherwise healthy Alabama teen to convulse the way Van der Sloot described it to a man who he believed was a friend but who was actually working undercover for a Dutch investigative journalist.

The documentary rapidly revived the dormant case. Aruba's chief prosecutor hailed the work of Dutch journalist Peter R. De Vries, calling the information uncovered "valuable" and "important to the investigation."

Prosecutor Hans Mos said he believes the undercover tapes will be legally admissible in an Aruban court, but a judge late Thursday denied prosecutors' appeal for an arrest warrant, a bid that had been previously denied by a lower court judge, Joe Tacopina, Van der Sloot's lawyer told ABC News.

That means that unless prosecutors develop new information ? they have claimed to be receiving dozens of e-mail tips since the documentary aired last week ? it will be difficult if not impossible to bring charges against Van der Sloot.

The court ruled that Van der Sloot's admissions on the tape are inconsistent with other evidence and not sufficient to detain him. He has been arrested and released twice since Holloway's May 2005 disappearance.

Aruban prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday's court decision.

Van der Sloot has denied the claims he made on hours of undercover video over the course of several days last month, reportedly telling prosecutors in an interview last week that he made up the allegations because he was high on marijuana. He has also said he was trying to impress Patrick Van der Eem, 34, who was actually working undercover for a Dutch investigative reporter.

Van der Sloot's attorneys have vigorously denied claims from the documentary maker and Aruban authorities that Van der Sloot's damning admissions on the tape are legal proof that he is, in fact, responsible for Holloway's disappearance.

On the tape he said Holloway went into convulsions and then became limp. Fearing she was dead, he claimed on the tapes that he called an unknown accomplice who came and took the body out to sea, where it was dumped overboard about 2 kilometers off the Aruban coastline.

Searches by boats equipped with sonar detection have failed to turn up any evidence of a body off the coast. A private, nonprofit Texas search and rescue team has been scouring the waters off the Aruban coast for the last two months, according to Holloway's father, Dave.

Convulsions 'Consistent' With Date Rape Drug

"If you gave me a choice based on [Van der Sloot's description of the convulsions], alcohol would be lowest on the list and GHB the highest," said Paul Doering, distinguished service professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Florida's College of Pharmacy.

"Chronic alcoholics who suddenly discontinue the use of alcohol can experience convulsions, but it's generally not part of the acute toxic phase of alcohol poisoning,'' Doering said. "When people die from alcohol alone, the levels [of alcohol] get so high that they essentially tell the body's respiratory center to stop. They just stop breathing."

"When GHB [gamma hydroxy butyrate] was at its peak use, 10 years ago, [convulsions] would be a commonly reported thing," Doering said, adding that witnesses to GHB overdoses described a person as "looking like he was dead, and then, scarily, he would start shaking like a mackerel on the deck of a fishing boat."

Doering, like all medical experts who spoke to ABC News, cautioned that their impressions were entirely speculative and that without a body to examine it would be impossible to determine definitively what happened.

Holloway's father, Dave, said he's always suspected that she was given a date rape drug before she disappeared.

"The first thing that was told to me by the lead detective on the case when this first happened was that when you go to Carlos N Charlie's [the nightclub where Van der Sloot said he met Holloway], watch your drink, because people have a tendency to put stuff in them. He even indicated to me that he puts on a presentation at the local schools on a monthly basis, warning students about the dangers of date rape drugs."

Witnesses, police reports and Van der Sloot have described Holloway as being intoxicated at Carlos N Charlie's. Police reports say that Van der Sloot told them he bought her a shot of Bacardi 151 proof rum before the pair retired to a secluded beach on the northwest coast of the island.

Dave Holloway believes that Van der Sloot's self-described decision not to call for medical help when Holloway reportedly began to convulse and then went limp was because he knew doctors would discover the presence of a drug like GHB in the Alabama teen's bloodstream.

"A normal person would have called for medical attention," Holloway said Thursday. "My thought is that GHB would be been found present [in her blood]."

Paul Kolecki, of the emergency medicine department at Thomas Jefferson University's Jefferson Medical College, concurred that in general convulsions were more likely the result of a drug and alcohol combination.

"It doesn't happen with alcohol but with GHB it can happen, " he said. "GHB was used by anesthesiologists back in the '50s or '60s, and they had to stop because they were seeing these convulsions," he said. "To convulse and go limp, GHB is classic for that," he said, adding that other drugs like cocaine and ecstasy can also cause convulsions when mixed with too much alcohol.

But Bruce Goldberger, a toxicology expert and the director of Florida's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, noted that convulsions could have simply signaled Holloway's death from alcohol poisoning.

"When people die, often times their bodies will seize," he said.

More Than Two Dozen Detectives Chasing Leads

Meanwhile, the investigation into the disappearance appears to be back in full swing, with 25 detectives working the case, compared to just four last month, according to the Dutch newspaper het Algemeen Dagblad, which quotes Aruban authorities as saying they have hired drug experts to evaluate Van der Sloot's claim that he made up the stories he told in the undercover tapes because he was high on marijuana.

The newspaper says that the experts' initial impressions seem to be that drug users generally do not make up stories when they've used drugs.

"That means that Joran's story is most certainly an important supporting piece of evidence in our further investigation," a spokesman for the prosecutor's office told the newspaper. "We are also awaiting reports from experts about the way in which Joran says Natalee Holloway died."

The appeals court decision denying prosecutors an arrest warrant for Van der Sloot significantly complicates the investigation. Whereas previously Aruban authorities have arrested Van der Sloot on suspicion of homicide, the tapes would seem to indicate that Holloway may have died in his arms. In that case, all prosecutors could charge Van der Sloot with would be involvement in the disappearance of a corpse, a crime that carries a maximum penalty if convicted of six months in prison. Aruban law does not allow for pre-trial detention for crimes that carry a prison sentence of less than four years.

Record Breaking

The documentary had a powerful impact on Holland, according to Peter R. De Vries, the investigative reporter who recorded more than 20 hours of conversations between Van der Sloot and Van der Eem, an ex-con who served a year in a Dutch prison for drug trafficking.

Van der Eem independently targeted Van der Sloot and befriended him, before going to De Vries with his belief that he'd won Van der Sloot's confidence and that the younger man would finally reveal what he knew about Holloway's disappearance.

The documentary broke viewership records in Holland, De Vries said, drawing 7 million of the country's approximately 17 million residents to their televisions. ABC News' "20/20" special on the case also drew record-breaking audiences.

"People in Holland were flabbergasted and shocked and everyone's talking about it," De Vries told ABC News.

De Vries has a history of pursuing Van der Sloot. At the end of a taping of a Dutch television show late last year, Van der Sloot picked up a glass of wine and threw it in De Vries' face, challenging the reporter to promise to apologize to him publicly if his allegations that Van der Sloot was involved in the disappearance were proven false.

But unknown to Van der Sloot, De Vries already had some of the young man's compromising statements about Holloway on tape.

De Vries says he doesn't buy Van der Sloot's defense that he was high on marijuana.

"Everyone who does a little thinking or who has smoked soft drugs themselves at some point, has to realize that Joran's story of the weed cigarettes can't hold up," De Vries wrote on his Web site.

"Joran made elaborate statements during five different car rides, on different days ? sometimes with more than a week in between. In every subsequent ride he repeated his confession, and confirmed and expanded them. Not once did he say that he was talking nonsense the previous time because he was under the influence."


"It's a big deal here," said Ineke Oomens, 58, who lives in Breda, about 100 kilometers from Amsterdam. "There's a discussion going on whether De Vries was doing a good job, because he had a deal in a car with marijuana and now some are thinking here in the Netherlands that that is not a serious confession [from] Joran. And there is another discussion going on about why is Joran on trial by newspapers and television and why isn't he on trial by the justice system?"

"Some people are now saying, 'this is over for Joran ? he can never get a job here [in Holland], he can never have friends here,' which is OK, but we would like now his trial."

Oomens said many of her fellow citizens admire De Vries for what he's done, but still entertain conflicting feelings about the case.

"He has done a good job, because he did what lawyers and the police couldn't do, but it's still a trial by newspapers and television."

Fransje van der Waals, 57, said many of the Dutch people point out that Van der Sloot was raised in Aruba, not in the Netherlands.

"This boy grew up not in the Netherlands he grew up in Aruba and that's a different situation," Van der Waals said. "People think there was too much freedom, not good schools, not enough supervision."

Holloway, Natalee's father, declined to characterize his feelings about Van der Sloot after watching the undercover video. At one point in the tape, Van der Sloot describes "shaking the b--" when she went limp and saying to himself, as Holloway apparently laid lifeless in his arms, "Why does this sh-- happen to me?"

"As you could imagine, as a father, it goes without saying," Holloway began, pausing and seeming to choose his words carefully.

"As anyone would, you're ? you're looking for blood," he said. "That's a cold, callous sociopath," Holloway said of Van der Sloot.

"It wasn't easy to watch."