US man free in Aruba but still under legal cloud

AP News
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Posted: Nov 30, 2011 2:00 AM
US man free in Aruba but still under legal cloud

A U.S. man is out of jail for the first time in nearly four months, but prosecutors hope to persuade an Aruba appeals court to put him back behind bars as early as Wednesday as a suspect in the disappearance of his female traveling companion.

Businessman Gary Giordano left prison Tuesday night, getting in an SUV with his Aruban and American lawyers behind a concrete wall that hid him from journalists waiting outside. He could be seen smiling in the back seat but made no statement and they drove off in the rain to a hotel in the center of Oranjestad.

Giordano is free under a judge's order to leave the Dutch Caribbean island, and prosecutors expect him to go at the first opportunity, although his immediate plans were not clear.

"Gary Giordano is happy to be out of prison, yet he is very uneasy," his Aruban attorney, Chris Lejuez, told The Associated Press. "He still feels something could go wrong and he could be back in prison."

Giordano denies any wrongdoing in the disappearance of Robyn Gardner. A judge ordered his release after ruling that prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to justify holding him longer.

Prosecutors say they are still trying to build a case against him. They say they will seek his extradition if Giordano returns to the U.S. and a three-judge appeals panel overturns the lower court ruling and orders the 50-year-old American back to jail.

"The case does not end here. Mr. Giordano will remain our prime suspect," Solicitor General Taco Stein said.

Aruban law allows for pretrial detention while authorities investigate a crime, but it is subject to a judge's review and the threshold of evidence necessary to hold someone increases as times goes on. A judge ruled last week that prosecutors had not met the requirement and ordered the release of Giordano, who is from Gaithersburg, Maryland.

The appeals court agreed to hear prosecutors' challenge to the order at a closed hearing Wednesday, and authorities expect a decision later in the day.

Giordano has been a suspect since Aug. 5, three days after reporting to police that Gardner was apparently pulled out to sea while they were snorkeling off the southern tip of Aruba. Her body has never been found despite extensive searches, leaving investigators with only a circumstantial case that a crime was even committed.

Lejuez said his client has been consistent in his account of what happened.

"The prosecution conducted extensive investigations that either confirmed his story or brought up nothing relevant to the case," Lejuez told the AP. "Up to this moment there is no proof whatsoever that a crime has been committed or that Giordano may have committed a crime."

"The investigation must have yielded enough evidence to draft a charge," Stein said. "And we are not in that position yet."

The case has been compared to that of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on Aruba in May 2005 on the last night of her high school graduation trip to the island. Her body was also never found and the prime suspect was detained for months before he was eventually released for lack of evidence.

Kelly Reed, a cousin of Gardner's, said the family hopes attention to the case will generate a lead that will help investigators resolve the case.

"Needless to say, our family is very disappointed that even after all this time, we are no closer to finding out what happened to our Robyn," Reed said in a statement. "We trust that the FBI and the Aruban authorities will continue their fervent efforts to investigate her disappearance."

Giordano, the divorced owner of an employment services company, first drew suspicion with what investigators felt were inconsistencies in his account of Gardner's disappearance. Later, they learned he had taken out a $1.5 million accidental death policy on her, which Stein said was viewed as a possible motive.

Gardner's friends and family also had serious doubts about her disappearance, saying it was unlikely the 35-year-old woman from Frederick, Maryland, would have gone snorkeling in the first place.

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Associated Press writer Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.