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Portrait of a Monster

An interview with Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson about their new book chronicling the life of Joran Van der Sloot, his recent crime in Peru and the ongoing mystery of Alabama native Natalee Holloway.

by Erin Z. Bass

I’ve always been interested in missing persons cases, so when news of Birmingham, Alabama, teenager Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba broke in 2005, I wondered along with the rest of America what had happened to her. Since then, I’ve followed news reports related to the case. I thought when Joran Van der Sloot confessed to reporter Peter de Vries in the car that time, he would finally be convicted. But it seems like Joran’s lies always manage to save him, kind of like more recent criminal Casey Anthony. I can see how after six years, some people may be tired of hearing about the Holloway case, but I wonder how many of them realize Joran went on to kill another young girl in Peru named Stephany Flores (yes, I’m assuming he was responsible for Natalee’s death here) and even though he’s currently in jail, he hasn’t been convicted of that crime yet either. So, for the naysayers who think they wouldn’t be interested in a new book about the case, I’d say reconsider, because authors Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson have done an excellent job of deconstructing the Aruba mystery and Joran’s latest crime in Peru. Their book, “Portrait Of A Monster,” was released in July and is based on interviews and several thousand pages of police reports made available to the authors.

Having access to both of the case police files certainly helped the authors pack this book with accurate, important details, but at the same time they’ve managed to make it read like fiction by filling the reader in on the sights, sounds and smells of each location. Chapters go back and forth between Peru and Aruba, so parallels in the cases become evident, and by the end the reader has a pretty clear picture of how Joran operates. Instead of just writing a straight review, I decided to take Jessica at St. Martin’s Press up on her offer of an interview with the authors. I wanted to ask them what they thought happened to Natalee, whether Joran’s second murder could have been prevented and if they agreed with Beth Holloway that there are some scary similarities between Joran and Casey Anthony. I also found out that both of the authors have Louisiana ties; Lisa’s family hails from New Orleans, and Cole attended Loyola University.

Read their answers below, and pick up a copy of this book on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

How did this project come about, and why did you want to write this book?

Lisa: I started on the book in 2005 when the case first broke, because I had done a book down in Tortola several years earlier about an American woman who had gone down there. She was found murdered on a beach, and they suspected four guys from the United States of the crime. That’s kind of my beat, sort of women who are victims of crimes. I went down there for St. Martin’s Press and started to look into the story. The case kind of went cold, and both parents had started to put their own books together, so I decided there was absolutely nothing that I could say that could trump what a parent could say, so we put the book on the shelf and we kind of moved on. Then, when the murder happened in Peru of Stephany Flores, the publisher of St. Martin’s asked me to pick up the story again.

When you first went down to Aruba, what did you think about the way things were being done?

Lisa: The way that their justice system works, and their law enforcement and the rules that they follow are so different from what we do here, so it was very difficult to get information or to really understand what exactly the investigation was turning up. They really are under very strict rules not to discuss anything with anybody, including the family, so it wasn’t until we were provided with the documents much later on that I was able to really see how the investigation had gone about. I feel like they were very criticized for the way that they were running the investigation. I think that what happened is, very early on in the case, that first 24 hours was crucial, and I think that because of the very low crime rate and especially murder rate on Aruba, I don’t think that the police really dug in until a couple of days had passed. I think they lost precious time, and there was nothing they could do to backtrack and collect that evidence in the case.

I know the police originally thought Natalee was just off somewhere and would come back.

Lisa: That’s an interesting point, because when I was in college, I lived on a Greek island for two years, and I understand that island mentality. People tend to get into vacation mode, and suddenly they meet somebody or you’re having a great time and your plans change, and I think that was a typical and common thing to happen in Aruba, as it does on many vacation locations that are idyllic like that. I think in the beginning, they really did feel that the girl had just sort of gone off and would turn up. And the parents were treated with that in mind, and while they knew that was very atypical for their daughter, the island mentality and the way that things had unfolded in past situations, had them feeling that she was just another one of those partying girls.

Cole: Murder’s actually quite rare on Aruba. They deal with maybe five homicides a year, and they usually know exactly what happened – it’s a domestic dispute. For a tourist to get murdered, it just didn’t happen.

Lisa: It feels like it [happens all the time] because of the amount of publicity that was given to the case, and now we have the second missing woman presumed dead, so that’s what makes it feel like it’s an island riddled with crime, but in fact, this was very out of the ordinary. And so the initial response from police to Dave Holloway was very lax in terms of this girl will show up. That was where crucial evidence that could have been collected, I think, didn’t get collected, and they really lost time, and because there was no body in the case, they needed other evidence, and they just couldn’t find it.

How did you get involved, Cole?

Lisa and I had worked on several other books together, and she called me and told me just right after Joran turned up in the Peruvian news, so we flew down there. We were there a total of about a month, and we were very lucky. We hit all the key locations, got a feel for the place, we did all the things you’re supposed to do in reporting. We went out to the prison where the rest of the media was gathered. We started driving around Peru, and somebody told us that they knew somebody on the police force, so we met with this guy and it turns out he’d gone to the police academy with the lead investigator on the case, and he got us an introduction and for some reason the police trusted us. They’d done some research on us themselves. They had googled us, and they knew Lisa was a Pulitzer. They kept calling her “Pulitzer,” and I’d worked on the Scott Peterson book, which was a bestseller, so they nicknamed me “bestseller.” They kind of opened up their investigation to us.

How difficult was it to get access to police and other records?

Lisa: On the Peru case, they were also under orders not to talk to the media, and so I think the fact that we were working on a book as opposed to a deadline story got us some access. In Aruba, I had made some inroads when I was down there and had the whole police file in my hands not long after I left Aruba, so Cole and I really had both police files when we were working on the book. I don’t know if anybody’s ever been able to obtain the police files from either case.

Cole: It was crucial, but at the same time it was a nightmare. We were dealing in documents in Dutch, Spanish and even Papiamento, which is kind of a Creole dialect they speak in Aruba.

Lisa: We had to have everything translated. We had to translate before we could even start writing and we had to make sure that our translators were translating correctly, because you don’t want to misquote something.

Do you think Joran killed Natalee?

Lisa: I think the closest confession to what the truth is is the one that he made in the car to the journalist in Holland. I think Natalee was out, they weren’t sleeping very much, I don’t know if they were eating very much, they were drinking, which I don’t think she was accustomed to doing. She’s a tiny girl, and perhaps she had heat stroke or something happened on the beach, but I think at that point, the fact that he didn’t get help, he’s an accomplice to a murder. I think we’re never really going to know what happened that day on the beach, however, there’s no question in my mind that he was involved in whatever happened to Natalee.

Cole: I think I started pretty much in the same place, thinking possibly it was some sort of an accident, something bad happened, and he reacted poorly and set into motion this domino effect. But in hindsight, knowing what we know about the Peruvian crime, there was just such brutality involved. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had killed her in Aruba.

Lisa: I think it was very similar. The case in Peru – he beat Stephany within inches of her life – however, she was still alive on the floor when he went to take a shower, and the fact that he came out and saw that she was still alive, but didn’t call police, didn’t call 911, but actually killed her …

Cole: He picked up his shirt like it was the most natural thing in the world and just smothered her until she was dead.

Lisa: And that’s what led both Cole and me to believe that something similar probably happened to Natalee. Perhaps something that happened between them angered him. He may have harmed her and then took it one step further as he did with Stephany. And the police in Peru, the homicide detective who has worked on dozens of cases in the past, said the amount of brutality, the actual brutal assault on Stephany, indicated that his crimes had escalated over time, that this was not his first murder. He had murdered someone before.

After all of your research, do you feel like Stephany’s murder could have been prevented?

Cole: If this, if that. If the father hadn’t been a judge, if the Holloway family hadn’t given him $25,000 for the location of their daughter’s body, he wouldn’t have had the money. If the FBI had picked him up on Aruba, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.

Lisa: If he had been committed when he first left Aruba and he went for counseling. If he had stayed locked up. If he hadn’t gone to Thailand and perhaps committed himself at that point. There are so many moments in time that there could have been an intervention.

Tell me what’s going on with Joran’s case now.

Cole: Under Peruvian law, they can only hold a suspect for 18 months without taking them to trial, otherwise they have to be released. That doesn’t mean they go free. They’d seize his passport, he’d be under sort of house arrest. He’d have to stay in Peru while they’re still investigating and deciding what charges to bring, but in December, we’ll hit the 18-month mark and the family, I think both families, are furious that this case hasn’t gone to trial yet. The attorney for the Flores family is just accusing the prosecutor of being inept, saying she’s not treating this case as the high-profile case that it is, and so the trial is kind of stalled, and there’s a bit of an uproar in Peru about it.

Lisa: I think he [Joran] feels that if he can just stall to that 18-month mark, and he can get out, maybe he’d be able to sort of slip out of the country again. However, what the attorney told us, is at 6’5 in a country where the average man is 5’8, he stands out like a sore thumb, and he is the most hated person in Peru. So they could never really let him out of jail and let him walk on the street, because he would be either beaten or stoned. There would be some kind of street justice in Peru.

Cole: Once he’s sentenced, he won’t stay in Castro Castro, the current facility he’s in. His former attorney, whose name is Maximo Altez, he told us that Castro Castro is like a hotel compared to the rest of the Peruvian prison system. They could send him to like a fortress up in the mountains where it’s cold and damp, and he’d catch tuberculosis, AIDS.

I want to switch gears a bit. So, I saw Beth Holloway on TV a lot during the Casey Anthony trial talking about the similarities between Casey and Joran, and I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. But when I was reading the book, I really started to agree with her and it was almost scary to see the similarities in their personalities. What do you think about that?

Cole: I think this type of personality, lying is just so natural to them. His own attorney told us this, that Joran often doesn’t know when he’s telling the truth, that he’s not able to separate truth from fiction, and I’m willing to bet both of them could pass a lie detector test.

Lisa: Their lies are so similar that what I see is the most similar piece of their personality is that they tell a story that’s rooted in truth and then they expand on it and the story changes with whatever evidence is collected in the case. Somehow, they’re able to sort of mold or revise the story and, not having to think about it, right on the spot both of them can come up with another piece to their lie.

Cole: Even if it means selling out their own families. Both Joran and Casey did that.

Lisa: They both sold out their fathers. Casey pointed the finger at George, and Joran pointed the finger at his father … They both stole from friends and family. Everything about their cases is so similar. With Joran, he was out and everybody was thinking that perhaps he could turn his life around, he could go to college, he could move on and get past it, and as you see, he went on to commit another crime. I just hope that is not the case with Casey. She’s already talking about wanting to have another child.

Cole: At the very least she shouldn’t have children.

I think it could also be similar in that respect. It could happen to her again.

Lisa: If you look at his story and you look at her story and the similarities, it’s frightening to think that five years down the road, where are we going to be and what is she going to be involved in?

Cole: Scott Peterson had the same mindset too. He lied with such ease, it was amazing. I think they’re a similar personality type. It’s some sort of social disorder. I don’t think they’re insane, I think they know what they’re doing, and they know what they’re doing is wrong, they just do it.

Lisa: The scary part is that both of them, initially, got off.

I’m afraid that says to criminals, if you keep lying maybe you’ll confuse everybody enough to get off.

Cole: We told you that Joran faces a possible release from prison around Christmastime, which is true, it’s a 180-day deadline. In Aruba, they have a similar law in that it was 116 days. If you haven’t charged somebody by 116 days – Paulus, the father, instructed the kids on this – you walk. No body, no case. Just keep your mouth shut for 116 days, don’t cooperate, and you’re outta here. And we’ve heard it’s a very common legal strategy in Peru. Don’t cooperate, don’t talk to people and just keep your mouth shut for 180 days, and you walk. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of concern down there that this is a very high-profile case. The family feels like they’re just treated like an ordinary case.

While reading the book, it really seemed like Capt. Callan [pronounced “cayenne’ like the pepper thanks to an explanation by Cole] was doing everything he could to make sure Joran was convicted.

Cole: Nobody’s blaming the police. It was a top-notch investigation. We were shocked at all the tools they had. It was nearly as sophisticated as an investigation would be here, and they spent a ton of resources on it, and they’ve got the guy going in on video and walking out alone of the hotel room, so they’ve done everything they needed to do to secure a conviction. But now that it’s in the hands of the prosecutors, the case is just stalled, and that’s where the fury lies.

I want to end on the latest disappearance in Aruba. I know that guy is being held for the 116 days.

For those not familiar with this case, 35-year-old Robyn Gardner went missing last month while snorkeling in Aruba with friend and suspect Gary Giordano. She’s presumed dead, but her body hasn’t been found.

Cole: He’s in another similar series of holds. After 116 days, this guy could be on his way back to the United States.

Lisa: What’s remarkable is that yet another body has disappeared, and they cannot find the girl. Where do these bodies go? Where is Natalee, and where is the latest victim?

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