How CT lawyer helped FBI in disappearance of Natalee Holloway case

GREENWICH — Greenwich attorney John Q. Kelly has strong memories of his encounters with Joran van der Sloot, especially the time he spent with him in a hotel room in Aruba in 2010. That’s when the chief suspect in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway had promised to give information about the case — for a price.

“Big. Scary. Boastful. Full of himself. Tough guy. Tats. Shaved head,” recalled Kelly, an expert in “wrongful death” litigation, who was retained by Natalee Holloway’s mother, Beth Holloway, to seek justice for her daughter.

Natalee Holloway was legally declared dead in 2012, years after her disappearance in Aruba in May 2005 at the age of 18. She was last seen with two other men and van der Sloot, now, 35, who is considered the prime suspect in her disappearance and presumed killing. He was never charged. 

Years after the disappearance, which has been described as an international murder mystery, van der Sloot had reached out to Kelly, promising to provide the location of her body in exchange for $250,000, Kelly said during a recent interview at a favored dining spot on Greenwich Avenue.

Kelly, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement officials, went to van der Sloot’s hotel room to make the initial payment — $10,000 in cash, followed by a $15,000 wire transfer from Natalee Holloway’s mother, currently living in Alabama.

The feds, who had set up a command post in an adjoining hotel room, had prepped Kelly for the exchange of money, he said, which would eventually lead to felony counts of extortion and wire fraud.

“I was wired everywhere,” said Kelly, who works in Greenwich at the Ferguson Cohen law firm. “They gave me a belt with some kind of tracking device. I was wearing an earpiece. I was getting instructions all the time.”

He was also given a code word to say if he needed the feds to break into the room where the money was changing hands. “If I said that, I was in deep (trouble),” he recalled. 

The cash was turned over to van der Sloot, a native of Holland, and the wire transfer was eventually paid to him later (after a power outage on the island complicated the intricate cat and mouse game). The meeting and payment was to be followed by van der Sloot providing the information on Holloway’s disappearance.

For reasons that were never made clear to Kelly, van der Sloot was not arrested promptly. He left the island and remained at liberty for months afterward.

But that encounter with Kelly in the Aruban hotel room has now caught up with him.

Van der Sloot was arraigned last week in Alabama on extortion and wire-fraud charges. The indictment said van der Sloot “would show Mr. Kelly the specific location of Natalee Holloway’s remains and provide specific information on the manner of her death … in exchange for an initial payment of $25,000.”

He never followed through on the information about Holloway’s disappearance, Kelly noted, which was the expected outcome. 

Van der Sloot had already been in custody in Peru, where he had served 15 years on a 28-year sentence for the murder of Stephany Flores, 21, at a hotel and casino in the Peruvian capitol of Lima in  2010. He was extradited on the U.S. charges and is now being held in a lock-up in Alabama without bail. 

A lengthy negotiation with Peruvian law enforcement authorities, Flores’ family, the U.S. State Department and the federal prosecutors in Alabama led to the extradition and indictment, Kelly said. He praised the work of Greta Van Susteren, another celebrity lawyer and broadcaster, for working behind the scenes to expedite the extradition. 

Van Susteren, who is close to the Holloway family, said this week, “I’m delighted that justice is happening, and I hope he (van der Sloot) gets a fair trial.” About Kelly, a longtime friend of hers, Van Susteren said, “He’s a very skilled lawyer. Smart, and he isn’t afraid of anybody. A very strong advocate.”

The indictment last week was warmly greeted by Holloway’s family, and Kelly’s client, Beth Holloway.

“She’s ecstatic that he’s locked up 10 miles from her home,” Kelly said. “She’s very happy about that. And there’s hope he’ll disclose what he knows. Every day he’s in jail in the U.S. is a good one for her.”

Natalee Holloway’s father, Dave Holloway released a public statement June 9 that van der Sloot’s arraignment was an “important step toward accountability and hopefully, justice.” 

Continuing, he said, “I am trusting that this prosecution will lead us to the truth about Natalee.” 

As part of the extradition deal with Peruvian authorities, van der Sloot would be returned to Peru to serve out his sentence there following any conviction and jail time in the U.S. He is facing 20 years on each federal count, Kelly noted.

The Greenwich attorney, who worked previously as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, has been working on a number of other high-profile cases. He represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in its wrongful death action against O.J. Simpson, resulting in a major financial judgment against Simpson. Kelly delved into the horrific 1984 murder of 13-year-old Matthew Margolies in Greenwich, which remains unsolved, and produced a podcast about it.

Since the arraignment, Kelly has been on the “Today” show, and an appearance on ABC News is forthcoming. Discussions about a documentary feature on the Holloway case with the streaming service Max, formerly HBO Max, are in the works, he said. 

The Holloway case has been Kelly’s longest one, 18 years. “The arraignment represents a significant step forward, though the pursuit of justice is far from over,” he says. 

The lawyer said the van der Sloot indictment was a high point of his professional career, and the work he carried out in the Caribbean hotel room in 2010 left memories he would never forget.

 “I love it,” he said, “I love thinking and acting outside the box.”

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