BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An Alabamba judge signed an order Thursday declaring Natalee Holloway dead, more than six years after the American teenager vanished on the Caribbean island of Aruba.
Judge Alan King signed the order at the end of a hearing in a Birmingham courtroom that was attended by the missing woman's divorced parents, David and Beth Holloway.
David 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. Thursday's hearing was scheduled before a suspect questioned in Holloway's disappearance, Dutchman Joran van der Sloot, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Peru to the 2010 murder of a woman in Lima.
Natalee Holloway disappeared on a high school graduation trip to Aruba on May 30, 2005. The 18-year-old was last seen leaving a bar with van der Sloot early that day. Her body was never found and the case garnered intense media scrutiny and international attention.
King acted on a petition by David Holloway to have the missing 18-year-old declared dead.
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 during the hearing Thursday afternoon.
She declined comment, but her attorney said, "She's ready to move on from this."
Mark White, an attorney for Dave Holoway, 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 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 now to allow some months for anyone to come forward.
Dave Holloway said he had expected to hear the judge would declare his daughter dead because he had no doubt about that.
"We've been dealing with her death for the last six and a half years," he said.
He added that the judge's order closes one chapter in a long story, but added: "We've still got a long way to go to get justice.
Authorities 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.
In Peru, Van der Sloot, 24, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to the murder of a 21-year-old woman he met at a Lima casino. Stephany Flores was killed five years to the day after Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old from the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, disappeared. She was last seen leaving a bar with van der Sloot.
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 said he hopes van der Sloot gets the 30-year sentence sought by Peruvian prosecutors.
"Everybody knows his personality. I believe he is beyond rehabilitation," Holloway said.
Attorneys said both parents said they hope 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.
Online: AP interactive - http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/natalee-holloway