Tooling along in a Range Rover last month with a man he thought was his friend, Joran Van der Sloot acknowledged he was "relieved" to be able at last to talk about the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. But the smirk on his face surely would have vanished had he known the truth: that the rest of the world would soon be listening in as he described in chillingly callous fashion how Natalee, 18, went missing in the early morning hours of May 30, 2005 in Aruba. Asked point-blank by his supposed friend Patrick Van der Eem whether Natalee was dead, van der Sloot responded with the nonchalance of someone discussing a shopping list. "She is dead, of course," he said. "I think I'll never get caught for this."

That may be overly optimistic. Even before excerpts of his conversations aired on Dutch television Feb. 3, Van der Sloot, 20, who has denied any involvement in Holloway's disappearance, called another program to say that he had been lying, only telling Van der Eem what he wanted to hear. A judge in Aruba who reviewed the material declined to order Van der Sloot's rearrest. But head prosecutor Hans Mos, who had closed the case in December for lack of evidence, called the tapes "very impressive." Perhaps most important, the video evidence gave Natalee's family some idea of what might have happened to her. "I'm taking a lot of comfort and peace in this," says Natalee's mom, Beth Holloway. "This is the answer I've been desperately seeking."

The taping, done in Holland, was the result of an elaborate sting operation. Van der Eem, a businessman, had befriended Van der Sloot and then gone to Dutch television reporter Peter R. de Vries, who tricked out Van der Eem's vehicle with hidden cameras and microphones. (ABC News broadcast the video in the U.S. on Feb 4.) In interviews Van der Eem maintained that he sold out his buddy—he received roughly $35,000 for his part in the sting—because he wanted to help Aruba as well as the Holloway family. Over the past month, Van der Sloot spent roughly 20 hours in the car, often blabbing away about the case. During his drives with Van der Eem, Van der Sloot can be seen allegedly puffing away on marijuana and feeling sorry for himself. "Why does this s— happen to me?" he says at one point. But Van der Sloot's New York lawyer Joe Tacopina told ABC News that much of what his client said is "easily disprovable."

Perhaps, but there was no minimizing how disturbing the tapes were. Van der Sloot refers to Natalee, who was seemingly intoxicated that night, as a "bitch" and a "whore." He contended they had gone to the beach for sex and that she had suffered a seizure of some sort. "Suddenly she started shaking and she wasn't ticking anymore," he said. He maintained that he tried to revive her. When he couldn't, he said, he simply summoned a friend, Daury, who loaded her on a boat and dumped her at sea; Van der Sloot acknowledges he hadn't verified that she was in fact dead. (A friend named Daury came forward to deny that he had done any such thing, contending that he was not even in Aruba at the time.) According to Van der Sloot, he then walked home. As he breathtakingly boasted, "I didn't lose a minute of sleep over it."