The 18-year-old girl's disappearance sparked a media frenzy, and Beth Holloway began her talk by showing video clips of Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, and even Dr. Phil. Walters began her news segment in typically dramatic fashion, calling the case "every parent's worse nightmare: A daughter goes away on holiday and never returns."
And this is essentially what happened to Natalee Holloway. Surrounded by ads for Collierville Screen Print, the Bank of Fayette County, Wilson Furniture, and Zellner Equipment, and facing a banner painted, "Go Lady Wolves!", Holloway began her talk in the school gymnasium by bluntly stating what she believed happened to her daughter in Aruba three years ago: "Natalee was kidnapped, raped, and killed. She went there to have fun, but she ran into others who had a different agenda."
According to police investigations, Natalie was last seen in the company of three young men on the evening of May 30th. More than 100 members of her school group were supposed to return to her hometown of Mountain Brook, Alabama, the following morning, but the young woman didn't show up. That morning, says Holloway, "I got the call every parent would dread -- one that would change my life forever."
She and her husband immediately flew to Aruba, and a quick glance at her daughter's hotel room, showing her clothes neatly packed and her passport on the bed, told her, "It was more than just intuition. I was certain that something was terribly wrong."
One problem was that the chief suspect, 17-year-old Joran van der Sloot, was the son of a prominent judge on the island. According to Holloway, he told "more than a dozen" different accounts of what he did with the missing girl that evening, though insisting that he later dropped her off at her hotel and never saw her again.
The police claimed they didn't have enough evidence to arrest the young man, or two others also seen with Natalee that evening, "so we were left to search on our own," Holloway said, by putting up "KIDNAPPED" posters with her daughter's picture, and pleading for tips and information. "It was such a paradox," she said, "to see such natural beauty [on the island] and yet experience such horror at the same time."
She and her family investigated every tip they could, including bizarre tales that Natalee had been kidnapped and sold into prostitution or was being held prisoner in one of the many island crack-houses that the police pretended didn't exist. "The hidden underbelly of the island had been exposed," she said, "and it wasn't pretty."
After four days without sleeping, eating, or even bathing, Holloway told the Rossville audience that she finally asked a cab driver to take her to a chapel.
"I had descended to the lowest place a human spirit could fall, but I knew Natalee wouldn't want me to give up," she said. "My faith in God was my only hope, and I needed to pray harder -- to get someplace where God could hear me."
She was taken to a beach on the island where someone had erected a row of crosses, and it was here, she said, "that a complete peace blanketed me. I know Natalee is with God. He wrapped his loving arms around her and helped her get through whatever ordeal she went through that night."
Holloway said she believes she knows what happened. She said that Joran van der Sloot finally confessed to killing her daughter: "He gave her a shot of rum, and that produced a seizure. He then got friends to help him dump her body in the sea. We'll never know if she was alive or not when that happened."
The case, however, is still considered unsolved because -- confession or not -- she said the Aruban police don't want to pursue it.
"There is nothing I can do to get justice for Natalee," said her mother, "because they just don't do things [in other countries] the way we do here."
So now Holloway is speaking to groups like those who gathered at Rossville Christian Academy.
"The best way to honor Natalee," she explained, "is by talking with students about personal safety. It's not a safe world -- not on Internet chat rooms, and not on island vacations. So don't get yourself into situations where you can't defend yourself."
Holloway recently founded an organization called TravelEd, to teach personal safety to students and young men and women who travel abroad. That effort has taken her to school campuses in 23 states. She offered many tips, from being aware of your surroundings to forming a "safety circle" with friends, and noted, "You can never feel too confident or too safe. My daughter let her guard down for just a moment, and in that moment she vanished."
Holloway concluded her hour-long talk with a video tribute to her daughter, then sat at a table in the gym and autographed more than 100 copies of her book, Loving Natalee. Everyone in the audience also picked up commemorative bookmarks and bracelets woven by Natalee's friends, the colored strands representing "faith, hope, and love."
"People often ask what keeps me going," Holloway said. "The human spirit can withstand a lot -- more than I ever thought possible. And I talked to Natalee and I pledged never to give up. Never."