Thursday 22 February 2018

Hope of finding justice fades for Michaela's family as case weakens

With the Mauritian prosecutor on the back foot, the loved ones of the murdered honeymooner face yet more traumatic news

accused Sandip Moneea, closely followed by Avinash
murder accused Sandip Moneea, closely followed by Avinash Treebhoowoon
Claire and Brendan McAreavey

Mayessen Nagapa- Chetty in Port Louis, Mauritius

It is what every police detective hopes for in a high-profile murder case, when a community is in shock, an impatient media awaits and the pressure for a breakthrough is growing from above.

A confession, particularly when coupled with firm forensic evidence and corroborating witness statements, reassures everyone that police have their man, provides succour to the victim's family and earns plaudits and promotions for the officers in charge.

So when Mauritian Legends Hotel cleaner Avinash Treebhoowoon broke down in police custody and admitted that he and supervisor Sandip Moneea had killed Irish honeymooner Michaela McAreavey when she discovered them rifling through her purse, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Mr Treebhoowoon told detectives that the woman's fury at finding them in her room had scared him and when she began screaming, he and his co-accused decided they had to shut her up. He held her down while Mr Moneea throttled her until she fell silent, he said.

"If the woman did not come we would have stole the money. We don't know her, we had no reason to kill her, because she saw us we had to," his statement, given just three days after the murder on January 10 last year, said.

The detail of his confession, and his willingness to accompany officers back to the scene where he pointed out how the murder had taken place, meant police stopped looking for other suspects and focused solely on securing his conviction, along with that of Mr Moneea.

But before it was even given, Mr Treebhoowoon was alleging police brutality, telling a magistrate before whom he appeared on January 12 on a provisional murder charge that he had been assaulted with a plastic pipe and suffocated with a towel.

Speaking to reporters who flocked to court as word went round the Indian Ocean island that suspects had been charged in 27-year-old Michaela's murder, Mr Treebhoowoon's visibly upset new wife Reshma was adamant that her husband was not involved.

"When we talked he insisted that he was innocent and that he has not committed this awful crime," she said.

This week, the second in the sensational murder trial in the capital's Supreme Court, the case against the two men unravelled further and the name of Mauritius' Major Crime Investigation Team was dragged steadily through the mud as officer after officer was accused of incompetence and dishonesty.

One officer, Constable Seevathian, was unable to say what he and his team did with Mr Treebhoowoon in a two-and-a-half hour period between his arrest at the Legends Hotel and his first statement at a local police station.

Chief Inspector Luciano Gerard, who led the murder investigation, was forced to deny repeatedly and for three hours claims of how Mr Treebhoowoon was stripped naked, beaten on the soles of his feet, half-drowned in a bucket of water, slapped and punched around the head and threatened with a revolver.

When he still failed to confess, the court was told, Mr Treebhoowoon was informed that his mother and father would be detained, and that his wife Reshma would be sent to live in Ireland with John McAreavey as a replacement for his dead wife.

"We will do this because the government is in our hands and no one can touch us," he was allegedly told.

By the third day of his incarceration, Mr Treebhoowoon made a detailed confession. Had it not been matched in detail by the lurid abuse claims that followed it, it would have proved conclusive.

Mr Treebhoowoon said in his statement that he had entered room 1025 to clean it but then spotted a purse lying on the dressing table with a wad of 100 and 200 rupee notes (€2.73 and €5.47) clearly visible.

For a domestic worker who earned just €185 to €245 a month, it would have been tempting.

"I saw Sandip standing on the steps of the bathroom. He asked me if everything was all right and I told him there is a purse, let's take a few notes and divide it. Then I closed the door," the statement read.

"As soon as I took the purse I heard knocking on the door and I understood someone was coming in.

"The door opened and I saw a woman. She was white, had brown hair, slim, tanned and she had a pale blue bikini top and bottoms the same colour.

"As soon as she entered she saw the purse in my hand."

He said the woman started shouting and when he tried to run for the door, she stopped him.

"Then with my right hand I pushed her and she fell on her back," the statement went on. "She was screaming and I told Sandip: 'Let's stop her from screaming'.

"I grabbed her feet with my two arms and Sandip sat and with one hand pressed on her neck to stop her from screaming, and with the other hand he pressed on her shoulders.

"While he was pressing she was struggling and he continued to press until she lost consciousness. She was breathing but she couldn't talk.

"Sandip said we have to kill her because she will report us and recognise us, we work in the hotel and we had our uniform on us."

He said that the two had retreated to another room with fellow cleaner Raj Theekoy but re-emerged when they heard the hotel director shouting and heading in the direction of room 1025.

"All three of us went over together and saw the husband was screaming and was trying to wake up his wife," he allegedly told police.

As the statement was read out to an uncharacteristically hushed courtroom this week, Mr Treebhoowoon, 30, swayed slightly as he stared at the jury.

On the other side of the dock, Mr Moneea, 42, fingered the collar of his blue patterned shirt, shaking his head when his name was mentioned.

In the public gallery, his wife Reka scribbled down notes on a pad of paper.

A month after the murder, she wrote to Michaela's father, Tyrone Gaelic football boss Mickey Harte, and his family to say how sorry she was about the teacher's death but insisting her husband was innocent.

"I hope that light will be shed on the person who committed the crime and truth will prevail," she wrote.

With the reliability of Mr Treebhoowoon's confession now uncertain, police might have hoped for some forensic evidence to link their suspects to the scene.

But Susan Woodroffe, a scientist at Cellmark Forensic Services lab in England, told the court this week that she had failed to place either of the two men at the scene.

She too raised questions about the police's handling of the case, saying that she had asked for a copy of the medical report about Mrs McAreavey's death which "might have helped" her investigations, but never received it.

Nor did she received all the DNA samples from officers who had access to the crime scene, which is standard practice in such cases and particularly vital in this instance since police are known not to have worn protective suits.

She added that she had not been asked to test the surface of the bath where Mrs McAreavey was found, nor the purse which she allegedly caught the co-accused rifling through.

Also confirmed this week by Chief Inspector Gerard was that police had failed to study CCTV footage from the hotel to determine the suspects' movements. Nor had they interviewed all of the other hotel guests -- one of whom left in a taxi at 11.45pm the night of the murder.

The whereabouts of the bellboy who helped Mr McAreavey gain access to the room where he found his wife is also unknown -- he is thought to have left Mauritius and was last traced to Dubai.

This coming week, the prosecution's star witness Raj Theekoy will take to the stand to repeat his claim that he heard Mrs McAreavey's last screams before she was killed, and saw both Mr Treebhoowoon and Mr Moneea outside her room moments afterwards.

But even his evidence now appears tainted. The court heard this week that in his first statement to police, he said that he had no idea how Mrs McAreavey was killed.

Mr Theekoy was originally charged with conspiracy to murder but the case against him was dropped some time after he made his second statement placing his two co-workers in the frame.

Meanwhile, Mrs McAreavey's sister-in-law Claire McAreavey and her father Brendan have sat impassively in court, listening to hours of cross-examination which has seen just 10 of the 40 listed witnesses appear so far.

Challenged over the six hours he spent grilling a police officer, Mr Treebhoowoon's lawyer Sanjeev Teeluckdharry explained that the stakes were high.

"My client could be sent to hell for 60 years and I will need to take as long I need to take," he said.

Elsewhere on the island, John McAreavey, 27, an accountant and footballer, awaits his turn to give evidence, which may come this week if the prosecution has its way.

But by now, both he and his family will be aware of a possibility that has this week become apparent to everyone in court: that the two men in the dock could be innocent, victims of a police conspiracy to find a suspect quickly, and make a case stick.

If so, it would be a devastating setback in their hunt for justice for Michaela. But it would also raise the horrifying prospect that whoever was responsible for her murder may well have got away.

Sunday Independent

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