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Was race a factor in Aruba arrests?

Answer depends on nationality, culture

By Christy Oglesby
CNN

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(CNN) -- The last people to see Natalee Holloway on the night she disappeared in Aruba were the white teenage son of a local judge and two middle-class young men of Surinamese descent, according to local police.

Within days of when Holloway was last seen in the early hours of May 30, Aruban police arrested two black security guards who worked at a hotel near where she was staying.

One question swirling around the investigation was whether police initially targeted the security guards -- who were released without charges eight days later -- as suspects at least in part because of their race or class.

Views on that question depend on who is speaking and on what may be differing cultural frames of reference for people living in Aruba and in the United States.

Police have not said why or how they identified the guards, Abraham Jones, 28, and Mickey John, 30, as suspects.

But apparently they were led to them based on the words of three young men who were the last people reported seen with Holloway the night she disappeared.

The men reportedly told police they took her to a beach after leaving an Oranjestad nightclub and not long afterward returned her to her hotel, the Holiday Inn.

Two of the men, brothers Satish Kalpoe, 18, and Depak Kalpoe, 21, reportedly described Holloway as stumbling on the way into the hotel, possibly as a result of alcohol, and that a "dark-colored" man in a black T-shirt with a radio helped her, according to police statements.

They said their friend, Joran Van Der Sloot, 17, the son of an Aruban judge, was with them when they dropped her off. Police allowed all three to go after initial questioning.

Jones and John were released Monday. The Kalpoe brothers and Van Der Sloot were arrested last Thursday and remain in custody without charges. Their attorneys maintain the men are innocent.

After his release, John told reporters Depak Kalpoe confided to him while they were in jail together that he had lied to police. John said Kalpoe also apologized for getting him and Jones into "that mess."

"He [Depak] told me that the story about dropping the girl off at the Holiday Inn was all made up," John said.

Not long after they were arrested June 5, the mother of Mickey John told CNN why she thought her son and his co-worker were detained.

"The problem is, and I will say it plain, they have a color question in Aruba." Ann John said.

Alvin Cornet, one of the suspect's cousins, implied the reason was socioeconomic, saying their arrest was "on something about money-wise -- who is rich and who is poor."

Some Americans might have had a sense of déjà vu as they watched two black men being taken into custody while the three young men remained free.

Take the case of Susan Smith, who in 1994 claimed a black man kidnapped her toddler sons but was later convicted of drowning them herself.

Or that of Charles Stuart, who committed suicide in 1990 after stoking simmering racial tensions in Boston, Massachusetts, by claiming a black man shot his pregnant wife.

Jennifer Wilbanks tried to cover up the reason for running away from her April wedding by concocting a story that a Latino man and a white woman kidnapped her.

Frankie Bailey, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany, said such reaction is common in America "because of the history of race in this country, and because historically, black males, Hispanic males, males of color, have been seen as the typical assailant."

Law enforcement in the United States, however, is becoming more savvy, said Bailey, who specializes in crime and culture, particularly racial attitudes.

"People have become more cynical about believing the stories because there have been these racial hoaxes in recent memory and because the media have reported on it," Bailey said.

"So police and other officials are being more cautious in terms of how they approach this."

"In Aruba, I don't know what the situation is there, but it was interesting that these young men could tell the story, and that it was believable ... and that people did act on the story that they were telling," Bailey said.

Julia Renfro, editor of Aruba Today, an island newspaper, said her publication received more than 200 e-mails from Americans after police arrested John and Jones.

"These horrible e-mails, just horrible," Renfro said. "They were from both blacks and whites from there in the United States, only the United States, criticizing Aruba and how they planned to never set foot on Aruba ever again ... because of the cruelty against these two security guards, how it was so obvious to anyone around the world ... that this was discrimination."

Renfro, a white American who has lived in Aruba for 15 years and is the mother of biracial children, said racial profiling does not have the same foothold on the island nation that it does in the United States.

"Aruba's colorblind," she said of the nation heavily dependent on the tourism industry.

"Interracial ... is not a word we would use here," she continued. "It doesn't exist. Most of the marriages are mixed. All of the children are mixed. Nobody can say I'm black, I'm white."

She insisted the reasons behind the guards' arrest had nothing to do with race.

"Locally there was never even a mention or a breath of concern that this was a racial issue nor a status issue," Renfro said.

As for Ann John's comments, they came from a mother grasping for an answer, Renfro said.

"What she's saying is there has to be a reason because she knows her son was not there," Renfro said.

"You just have to come up with something, because there really, really is no differentiation between the blacks and the whites here and the browns. ... Nobody gets preference in that regard."

Renfro said police arrested the black guards "because the three boys pointed their fingers at these two security guards, and they couldn't leave that out of the loop. There was no reason to believe the boys were lying."

As for the guards' release Monday, "The boys changed their story," she said. "So there's no reason to hold them anymore."

Noriana Pietersz, Mickey John's lawyer, said she did not believe race played a role in her client's arrest, and she said locals did not make that assumption.

"The people locally were surprised that after [police briefly detained] the three persons last seen with her, they finish [by] coming up with a detention of two security guards," Pietersz said.

"People thought that they should have focused the investigation on the three persons that were last seen with Natalee," Pietersz said.

"As an intelligent person, I refuse to believe that the racial issue is penetrated in our judicial system."


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