By KIM CHANDLER
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Joran van der Sloot, the chief suspect in Natalee Holloway’s 2005 disappearance, pleaded not guilty Friday in Alabama to charges he tried to extort money from the missing teen’s mother in exchange for revealing where to find her daughter’s remains.
Although he’s not on trial for harming Holloway, the extortion and wire fraud charges are the only alleged crimes that link the Dutch citizen to Holloway’s unsolved disappearance on the Caribbean island of Aruba. The 18-year-old went missing during a high school graduation trip with classmates and was last seen leaving a bar with van der Sloot, a student at an international school on the island where he grew up.
Van der Sloot, now 35, walked shackled into the Alabama courtroom Friday as Holloway’s parents looked on. He’d been extradited Thursday from Peru, where he’s serving a 28-year sentence after confessing to killing a Peruvian woman in 2010 — five years to the day after Holloway went missing.
Natalee’s mother, father and brother were in the courtroom Friday. Beth Holloway stared occasionally at van der Sloot but otherwise showed no obvious emotion.
“The wheels of justice have finally begun to turn for our family,” she wrote in a statement. “It has been a very long and painful journey.”
Van der Sloot, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, declined to use a Dutch interpreter offered to him, saying “I don’t think it’s necessary.” During the brief court preceding, he entered a not guilty plea through his attorney and answered “Yes” when asked if he understood his rights.
Afterward, Beth Holloway hugged friends who had come to offer support. She declined to comment outside the courthouse.
Her spokesperson, George Seymore, told reporters that seeing van der Sloot in court “was chilling but at the same time gratifying.”
The mysterious disappearance sparked years of news coverage and countless true-crime podcasts. Van der Sloot was identified as a main suspect and was detained for questioning along with two Surinamese brothers, weeks after Holloway went missing. No charges were filed in the case.
A judge declared Holloway dead, but her body has never been found.
U.S. prosecutors say that in 2010, van der Sloot sought money from Beth Holloway to lead her to the young woman’s body. A grand jury indicted him that year.
In 2012, van der Sloot pleaded guilty in Peru to killing 21-year-old Stephany Flores, a business student from a prominent family, in 2010.
Van der Sloot married a Peruvian woman in July 2014 in a ceremony at a maximum-security prison. He was shuffled between prisons in response to reports he enjoyed privileges like television, internet access and a cellphone, and accusations he threatened to kill a warden.
Peru will let van der Sloot remain in U.S. custody until the Alabama case is concluded, including any appeal if he’s convicted, according to a resolution published in Peru’s federal register. U.S. authorities agreed to return him to Peruvian custody after that, the resolution states.
Cindy Rysedorph, a friend of the Holloways, said the family is doing as well as can be expected.
“It’s progress,” she said. “I’m so grateful that he’s here.”