December 10, 2007 12:00 PM

The call caught Beth Holloway totally off guard. On the night before Thanksgiving, an FBI liaison phoned to inform her that on the strength of new evidence authorities in Aruba were rearresting the three young men—Joran van der Sloot, Deepak Kalpoe and his brother Satish—who have long been under suspicion in the disappearance of Holloway’s daughter Natalee in May 2005. For the Holloway camp, it was a jolt of near joy at an especially difficult time of year for the family. “We have a whole new ball game,” says Beth’s friend Sunny Tillman. “I think it might all add up to Beth getting the answer.” But Beth herself, mindful of the ups and downs (mostly) in the case, was more guarded. “I’m just kind of playing it by ear,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m just waiting and watching and hopeful.”

For the moment the three suspects will be subjected to further questioning, with the prosecution saying it will decide by the end of the year on whether to put them on trial. It is unclear exactly what the new evidence against them might be. According to news reports, investigators have uncovered potentially incriminating clues in a series of taped conversations among the three suspects, who were originally detained in June 2005 and subsequently released. The Holloways’ lawyer has also suggested that cops have gleaned evidence from text messages and cell phone calls involving the three on the night that Natalee, 18, went missing while partying with high school friends at a club in Aruba. While refusing to confirm or deny any of the reports, officials in Aruba have made clear that they consider this latest twist a turning point in the case. “You have to have something new and quite strong” to rearrest the three, says Dop Kruimel, an Aruban prosecutor. “You don’t just get up in the morning and say, ‘Let’s arrest them.'”

It has been known for some time that after van der Sloot, 20, Deepak, 24, and Satish Kalpoe, 21, fell under suspicion—they were seen leaving a bar with Natalee the night she disappeared—investigators had been bugging their conversations. Taking a fresh look at the tapes, investigators evidently found new information that had been overlooked. What’s more, detectives have apparently analyzed the cell call and text messages that the three suspects exchanged on the night in question—and have triangulated the coordinates where those transmissions took place. (Van der Sloot now says that he left Natalee alive on a beach, though he has changed the details of his account several times.) “There’s new information to confront them with in terms of their stories and the time lines they’ve given before,” says the Holloways’ lawyer John Q. Kelly.

The prosecutors also have a new take on what happened to Natalee. Whereas before the three were accused of murder, the new charge is voluntary manslaughter, suggesting they now believe her presumed death was an accident. In any event a lawyer for Satish Kalpoe scoffed at the latest developments. “It seems like they shook the file, threw it on the table and qualified some things as new evidence,” said attorney David Kock.

Meanwhile, Natalee’s parents are preparing once again to look for their daughter’s body—this time using a deep-diving robot to search the ocean floor. Because previous searches of the island and its shallow coastal waters turned up no trace of her, there is speculation now that her body was stuffed into a weighted crab trap and dropped into a deepwater canyon that lies three to five miles offshore. A 120-ft. oil exploration vessel—named, fittingly, Persistence—with a submersible robot, its services donated by Texas businessman Louis Schaefer Jr., is scheduled to arrive in Aruba soon and begin its survey of the canyon. Until then Beth Holloway is focusing on the arrests. “I just hope,” she says, “that this is a step toward answering our prayers.”

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