Before Joran van der Sloot became one of the most famous murder suspects in the world, Matthew Biebel nearly threw a punch at him during a poker game.

"You could tell he was a punk," Biebel says, recalling his encounter with Van der Sloot in Aruba on May 30, 2005 - the last day Natalee Holloway was seen alive.

Five years to the day later, a young woman named Stephany Flores Ramirez was found murdered in Van der Sloot's hotel room in Peru. The baby-faced suspect with the dyed buzz cut and dead eyes awaits trial in that case.

Biebel's 2005 confrontation with the "Dutch playboy" was captured by security cameras at the Radisson Aruba Resort, Casino & Spa. About a week after Biebel got back from vacation, three cars pulled up unannounced at his Mullica Hill home, disgorging a quartet of FBI agents who proceeded to interview him ("they were professional") for an hour.

"They wanted to know what the fight was about," Biebel says. "They thought that maybe we had had a disagreement about something other than poker.

"They wanted to know what his demeanor was like. They wanted to know if he was disheveled, and I said he looked like any other poker player - cool, calm, and collected."

A 55-year-old Inquirer driver and father of two grown sons, Biebel was in Aruba with a friend. That same weekend, Holloway, 18, was seen at a bar with Van der Sloot; she missed her return flight to the United States, and her body has not been found.

(Although questioned extensively in that case, Van der Sloot was not charged; he later retracted incriminating statements he had made on video and to a TV reporter. Peruvian police say he has confessed to killing Ramirez.)

Van der Sloot shared a poker table with Biebel and his friend May 29 and 30. Although house rules require that English be spoken during games, Van der Sloot frequently chatted with other players in a local language called Papiamento, Biebel says.

"I let it go, but finally there was a pot that was just me and him, and he did it again. I called over the guy who manages the poker room, and I told him that he was breaking the rules. He was told to stop, and he did.

"The next night, the stakes were higher, and I was in a hand with him, and he started doing it again, when he was deciding whether to call my bet. And my bet was a substantial bet.

"For all I knew, he was asking the other players what they folded. He said something smart back to me. . . . I honestly don't remember what it was, but it was not good.

"That's when it almost got physical. I stood up and basically put my finger in his face."

"If the [casino official] hadn't been at the next table, I would have hit him. Because now not only was he cheating, he was being a smart-ass.

"I told him they'd better do something about this - I wasn't going to lose this hand, and I didn't - and that's kind of where it stopped.

"You could sense he was a coddled punk, and to tell you the truth, the casino coddled him as well. I had played with him for four or five hours the night before, and he was constantly getting away with stuff."

Biebel's friend, who asks not to be identified to protect her privacy, says there was nothing remarkable about Van der Sloot.

"He was a nice-looking guy who seemed normal enough," she recalls. "He seemed to know everybody there."

While Van der Sloot "was very friendly to everybody," Biebel says, "he was definitely a punk."

He shared this impression with the FBI; he also told agents that he found it hard to believe Van der Sloot had been involved in Holloway's disappearance.

"The timeline didn't work for me," Biebel says. "How cold-blooded could somebody be to do something like that and come in and play poker that night and the next day?"

"I just didn't think that was possible. How do you kill somebody and then come in and play poker?

"He was a punk, yeah. But a killer? No."

That was 2005. Since the Peru slaying, "obviously, now I believe he killed Natalee Holloway," Biebel says.

As for what he calls his "up close" encounter with Van der Sloot, "it's scarier for me to think about it now," Biebel adds.

"Then, I didn't know what I was dealing with."

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com