Only a month ago, a friend of Rafael Vertiz told him about a Dutch man suspected in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway. Now the same man, Joran van der Sloot, is being sought in the vicious murder of Vertiz’s 21-year-old cousin, Stephany Flores, in Peru.
Vertiz had just learned of his cousin’s death on Wednesday, when police in Peru discovered her battered body in a Lima hotel room registered to van der Sloot. Still in shock over the murder and the eerie coincidence of van der Sloot’s suspected involvement, he spoke via satellite to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira from Miami Thursday.
Vertiz told Vieira that when relatives called to tell him about Stephany, he immediately called the friend who had told him about seeing a TV report about van der Sloot. “I called her and I told her. I was shocked. It was unbelievable that this was happening to our family, the same person,” Vertiz said.
The death has hit the family hard, he added. “We’re destroyed by it. She was our little cousin. She was full of life. It’s hard to believe.”
Stephany Flores was last seen early Monday on hotel surveillance video in the company of the 22-year-old van der Sloot. A hotel worker reported seeing the couple enter van der Sloot’s room around 5 a.m. Four hours later, van der Sloot, who had been in Lima since May 14 while participating in a poker tournament, left the hotel and took a bus out of the country to Chile.
Video: Holloway suspect sought in Peru killing Police say Flores was killed around 8 a.m. Monday, on the fifth anniversary of Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba. Holloway was a high school student on a senior trip to the island when she disappeared after a night of drinking. She had last been seen in the company of van der Sloot, son of an affluent Dutch family.
Van der Sloot was twice arrested for Holloway’s murder, but was released both times for lack of evidence. He has since reportedly told some people he murdered her, but he has also said she died from too much alcohol and that he merely disposed of her body, which has never been found. He remains the prime suspect in the Holloway case.
Video: Sad anniversary for Natalee Holloway’s mom According to media reports, van der Sloot had been in Colombia before going to Lima for the poker tournament.
Murder, not kidnapping
Stephany Flores’ body was not discovered until Wednesday. When she went missing, her family’s first thought was that she had been kidnapped. She is the daughter of Ricardo Flores, a prominent Peruvian businessman, race-car driver and one-time presidential candidate, and as such would be a candidate to be kidnapped for ransom.
“It happens in our country,” Vertiz told Vieira. “The problem was that nobody had contacted our family, so that was a concern. Usually they do right away when you’re kidnapped, so that was bad. We didn’t hear from her for two days.”
The head of the criminal-investigation unit of Peru’s national police, Gen. Cesar Guardia Vasquez, said Wednesday that “homicide personnel are convinced, due to the incriminating evidence we’ve found, that this Dutch citizen is the person responsible for killing Stephany Flores.”
‘Bull’s-eye on his back’
But van der Sloot’s American attorney, Joe Tacopina, told The Associated Press that his client has not been convicted of either killing.
“Joran van der Sloot has been falsely accused of murder once before. The fact is, he wears a bull's-eye on his back now, and he is a quote-unquote usual suspect when it comes to allegations of foul play,” Tacopina said.
Who's who:Ann Angela, a spokeswoman for the Aruba prosecutor’s office, said, “What’s happening now is incredible. At the moment, we don’t have anything to do with it, but we are following the case with great interest, and if Peruvian authorities would need us, we are here.”
Rafael Vertiz said that his cousin had four brothers in Peru. His mother and two of his sisters have gone to Peru to be with the family.
“We will always remember her as a 21-year-old girl that was full of life and always friendly,” Vertiz said of his cousin. “She loved her family. She loved her many friends.
“That will be how we remember her.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.
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