This week, Joran van der Sloot pleaded guilty to charges of extortion and wire fraud, related to the 2005 disappearance of Alabama high schooler Natalee Holloway. With the plea, Van der Sloot, who is already serving 28 years in Peru for the death of another young woman, also confessed to the murder of Hollway. But the statement, given 18 years after Van der Sloot was first questioned in Holloway’s disappearance, brought not just peace to her family, but an ending to a case that has captured the public’s attention for almost two decades. 

“One minute you have this girl who’s living her best life, celebrating graduation, and has a bright future ahead of her, and within moments, she’s gone and her whole future is snuffed out,” Dr. Amy Shlosberg, a criminology professor and a host on the Women & Crime podcast tells Rolling Stone. “I think people can’t help but be drawn to those stories.”

When Holloway visited Aruba with her classmates in May 2005, she was a high school graduate ready to take on her first year of college. According to reports from the FBI that featured interviews from the 100–plus students with her on the trip, teens on the trip drank heavily throughout the week, as the drinking age in Aruba is 18. Holloway was last seen on May 29 at a bar in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital. Witnesses told the FBI she was last seen leaving around 1:30 a.m. in a silver Honda with Van Der Sloot and two brothers, Deepak and Satish Kalpoe, who were also at the bar. When her classmates got ready to fly home the next day, Holloway wasn’t there. A search of her hotel room found her packed suitcase, passport, but no Holloway. 

The months following Holloway’s disappearance were marked by a fervent and swift media spotlight. Holloway’s parents, Dave and Beth, were in Aruba less than 48 hours after she went missing, and spent weeks speaking to the press in an effort to get eyes on Holloway’s case. Police spoke to the Kalpoe brothers and Van Der Sloot, but never found enough information to indict anyone for the murder. Halloway’s body has never been found, but the desperation of her parents, which continued even after Aruban authorities closed the case, laid the groundwork for a media frenzy — one that shaped a brand new genre of entertainment. 

According to Shlosberg, it is hard to imagine what today’s true crime landscape would look like without the enduring interest in Holloway’s case. According to the New York Times, it was fodder for hours of cable TV programming, at least 6 nonfiction books, several Law & Order episodes, a play, and a documentary-esque series hosted by Holloway’s mother — and that doesn’t even count the endless hours of podcasts that detail Holloway’s case and her last days alive. 

“When Natalie first went missing, it became an international sensation,” Shlosberg says. “Her family were well connected and they had means. They galvanized media attention and an international response. And let’s be honest, the fact that she was an attractive young white woman, people grabbed onto that story. She was almost the face of innocence and purity. People felt like if this could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.”

Another aspect of Holloway’s case that kept people invested was the mystery. While Van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers were the last people seen with Holloway, and Holloway’s parents believed Van der Sloot was hiding information, the police were never able to find Holloway’s body and no one was ever convicted. Over the years, Van der Sloot has also told both private individuals and public officers at least a dozen versions of his story, before finally revealing on Wednesday that he killed her after she rejected his sexual advances. Shlosberg says the unknown aspects of the case, combined with the persistence of Holloway’s parents, made people continually interested in the Alabama teen’s story. 

“Natalie’s case happened around that time where [the] true crime genre as entertainment was starting to take shape, and over the years has continued to be in the spotlight of true crime,” Shlosberg tells Rolling Stone. “There really was hope for a long time that she would be found alive. And unfortunately, people love a good mystery. So it leaves the door open for the possibility that she’s out there somewhere.”

Unlike other widely covered cases like JonBenét Ramsay and the disappearance of Madeline McCann, which involved young girls, Holloway was a young woman who was scrutinized for the series of choices she made prior to her death, including consuming alcohol and leaving with relative strangers. Van Der Sloot’s most recent confession even mirrored a belief that was commonly held in 2005, that he killed Holloway after she rejected his sexual advances. 

Shlosberg says people, and especially true crime’s majority female demographic, remain interested in cases like Holloway’s for both morbid curiosity and the hope they might learn from the victim’s mistakes.  When done well, interest in true crime can lead to critiques and potential reforms of law enforcement, but a dominant portion of the sensationalized genre relies on the theme of women being in danger simply because men find them attractive — something completely unpreventable. 

“Some research suggests women are so interested in true crime because they hear stories that teach them something and it makes them feel safer,” Shlosberg says. “So when you hear stories about other women being victimized, you’re learning about how to maybe better protect yourself. But I also think we can’t ignore the fact that human beings by nature are curious and want to understand.”


Van der Sloot’s confession wasn’t an altruistic decision, but a condition of his plea deal with American prosecutors, in which he admitted to wire fraud and extortion in a 2010 attempt to extort over $250,000 from Holloway’s mother. But there are still questions over what this will mean for Holloway’s case. The Aruban statute of limitations for murder has already passed, but according to CNN, the public prosecutor’s office has not “closed the door” on legal action. While true crime listeners might think this seems like an uncinematic end to a case that has captured international attention for almost 18 years, Holloway’s parents have said they consider Van der Sloot’s confession justice for their daughter. And Shlosberg hopes that as the true crime genre continues to evolve, there can be more ethical considerations for all types of victims. 

“We see time and time again, depending on your means, and depending on your race, you get different treatment in our country,” Shlosberg says. ”That’s one of the biggest issues with our media and the true crime genre in general, is not giving enough attention to cases where people have less means or are people of color. Some people are very upset and may feel that he got a sweetheart deal. But I think we have to understand that for Beth Holloway, her daughter’s not coming back. For her to have some understanding of what happened to her daughter, that is worth it for her.”