BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The parents of Natalee Holloway looked on somberly as a judge on Thursday declared their child dead, more than six years after the American teenager vanished during a high school graduation trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba.
"We've been dealing with her death for the last six and a half years," Dave Holloway said after a brief hearing. He said the judge's order closes one chapter in a long ordeal, but added: "We've still got a long way to go to get justice."
Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba on May 30, 2005. The 18-year-old was last seen leaving a bar early that morning with a young Dutchman, Joran van der Sloot. Her body was never found, and the ensuing searches for the young woman would reap intense media scrutiny and worldwide attention.
Thursday's hearing was scheduled long before van der Sloot — a suspect questioned in Holloway's disappearance — pleaded guilty Wednesday in Peru to the 2010 murder of a woman he met at a casino in Lima. Stephany Flores, 21, was killed five years to the day after Holloway, an 18-year-old from the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, disappeared.
Shortly after Flores' death on May 30, 2010, van der Sloot told police he killed the woman in Peru in a fit of rage after she discovered on his laptop his connection to the disappearance of Holloway. Police forensic experts disputed the claim.
Dave Holloway told the judge in September he believed his daughter had died, and he wanted to stop payments on her medical insurance and use her $2,000 college fund to help her younger brother.
The teen's mother originally objected, but her lawyer, Charlie DeBardeleben, said she subsequently changed her mind once she understood her husband's intentions.
Natalee Holloway's parents were divorced in 1993, and Beth Holloway sat in the back row of the courtroom, mostly staring at her hands in her lap through the hearing Thursday afternoon in a probate court in Birmingham.
Although Beth Holloway declined to speak to journalists, her attorney signaled it was a difficult moment for her to witness a judge signing the order declaring her daughter dead.
"She's ready to move on from this," DeBardeleben added.
Mark White, an attorney for Dave Holloway, told the judge just before he announced his decision that there was no evidence that Holloway was alive.
"Despite all that, no evidence has been found [to suggest] Natalee Holloway is alive," he told the judge, noting that exhaustive searches, blanket international media coverage and even the offer of rewards had turned up nothing new.
King had ruled in September that Dave Holloway had met the legal presumption of death for his daughter and it was up to someone to prove she didn't die on a high school graduation trip. He had set the hearing after a period of several months in the event anyone might come forward with new information.
However, investigators have long worked from the assumption that the young woman was dead in Aruba, where the case was officially classified as a homicide investigation.
That investigation remains open, though there has been no recent activity, said Solicitor General Taco Stein, an official with the prosecutor's office on the Dutch Caribbean island.
"The team that was acting in that investigation still is functioning as a team and they get together whenever there is information or things are needed in the case or a new tip arrives," Stein said in a phone interview Thursday.
Dave Holloway said he hopes the 24-year-old van der Sloot, who is awaiting sentencing in Lima, gets a 30-year prison term sought by Peruvian prosecutors.
"Everybody knows his personality. I believe he is beyond rehabilitation," Holloway said.
Attorneys said both parents also expressed hope that van der Sloot's next stop is Birmingham, where he faces federal charges accusing him of extorting $25,000 from Beth Holloway to reveal the location of her daughter's body.
Prosecutors said the money was paid, but nothing was disclosed about the missing woman's whereabouts.
"I expect to see him in Birmingham," Dave Holloway said Thursday.