Saturday 21 April 2018

Michaela murder: Horrifying evidence, but still no answers

Michaela's distraught widower took the stand this week, but truth eludes

Mayessen Nagapa-Chetty in Port Louis

After "seven wonderful days in Dubai", John and Michaela McAreavey had flown on to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius where, at Michaela's request, they were booked into the five-star Legends Hotel in the tropical fishing village of Grand Gaube.

They could scarcely believe their luck when their already opulent room was upgraded to a deluxe one, decorated with candles, potted orchids and scattered scarlet rose petals.

Other guests who have stayed at the hotel have described it as "pretty much perfect", a place where smiling staff seek to make their visitors happy with thoughtful little gestures as they move from the pool to the lagoon to one of the three white-sand beaches that encircle the resort.

As well as exploring their surroundings and enjoying the newfound intimacy that comes with married life, the McAreaveys spent time looking back over photographs of their magical wedding surrounded by much-loved family and friends.

When they returned to Ireland, they could look forward to starting a new life in the home they had bought two years earlier -- already certain of the fact that they would be spending the rest of their days together.

If only, Mr McAreavey said this week, it had been him rather than Michaela who had gone back to their hotel room that afternoon on January 10 last year to pick up a dark-chocolate KitKat his new wife was craving following a lazy lunch by the pool.

"I told her I would run to the room, it was very close, but she said, 'No, no, it's okay,' she would go herself," he said.

Opening the door, she is believed to have surprised two hotel cleaners going through her purse. When she started screaming, police say, they pinned her to the floor and strangled her, dumping her body in the bath to wash away their fingerprints.

After two weeks of waiting for his moment in court, the now widowed John McAreavey took to the witness box this week to tell how his dream honeymoon turned into a nightmare.

He was watched from the dock of Mauritius's Supreme Court by Sandip Moneea, 31, and Avinash Treebhoowoon, 42, former cleaners at the Legends Hotel who stand accused of killing Mrs McAreavey, the daughter of Tyrone Gaelic football boss Mickey Harte.

Mr Treebhoowoon initially confessed his role in the murder to police, but later claimed his statement followed three days of torture by their officers. Both men now deny their involvement.

Asked by the prosecuting counsel, Medhi Manrakhan, if he remembered the events of January 10, Mr McAreavey replied: "Yes, I do. It was the day my wife was murdered. The day her life was ended and the day my life ended.

"Everything was finished on that day. Everything was destroyed. Our dreams were destroyed."

Fighting back tears and at times struggling to breathe, he said he had waited for Michaela to return, then went looking for her. Gaining access to their room with the help of a bellboy's key, he told the hushed courtroom how he walked in to see his wife lifeless in the bath as water poured from the tap.

"I could hear the water gushing in the bathtub and Michaela, she was just bobbing there. I thought she might have fainted," he said softly, his voice breaking with the effort. Pulling her from the bath, he said he laid her on the floor and pleaded with her to come round.

"Michaela was cold and her lips were blue. I kept on just saying 'Michaela, Michaela, wake up, come on, come on,'" he said. "Then I could see this mark on her neck. I didn't know what was going on. I was grabbing her and trying to press on her chest and trying to attempt CPR. I don't even know CPR. I was just holding her in my arms, telling her to come on, just to wake up."

Others arrived on the scene and took over his desperate attempts to resuscitate her.

"I was down on my hands and knees, I was praying, I couldn't understand what was happening, I kept going into and out of the room," he said.

He said he was tormented by the possibility that his wife had been sexually assaulted. He tried frantically to call home.

"At one stage I eventually got through to my father and I can't remember what I said, but something was wrong with Michaela and I asked him to get Michaela's father to call me and then Mickey called me and just asked 'How are you, is everything okay?'

"I was in hysterics and I couldn't utter the words, what had happened and what was going through my mind."

When he turned to see that they had stopped trying to bring her back, he said, he could "hardly breathe".

"At some stage the doctor came into the room," he said. "I was grabbing him and said put the defibrillator on her and then he said -- 'What do you want me to do? She's dead.'

"I just collapsed on the bed, I was like a very hysterical child crying grabbing everything on the bed and lying there just completely distraught and then at that stage I think someone must have brought me out of the room."

Matters got worse when police, as they inevitably do in such cases, classed him as a suspect and took him into custody.

"They could see I was in obvious pain," he told a packed courtroom. "I distinctly remember the policeman on the left of me saying: 'Did you have an argument with your wife?' I could see what he was implying. I abruptly told him: 'No, no.'"

Mr McAreavey told how one officer, typical of an ever-practical, stoical Mauritian, had sought to lighten the mood.

"He asked: 'What age are you?' I told him I was 26. Then he said: 'What are you crying for, you're young, you'll get another wife,'" he told the court.

He was taken to a run-down police station where officers put him in a room and removed his shirt to examine him for signs of a struggle.

"I could see what was going through their minds," he said. "They put handcuffs on me and I was sat down on a bench."

He said one officer told him as he sat crying: "We can help you but you must tell us what happened or else you could go to jail for a very long time."

He was then left alone in the room, he added. "It was for at least five hours, I'm sure, more -- actually it was late into the night," he said.

Much was made by the defence barristers acting for the accused, of the inconsistencies in Mr McAreavey's evidence, including the fact that he had mixed up the nights he had returned to the room in search of chocolate for his wife.

He made no apology for his muddles. "I will make no excuse for not having each and every detail recorded because at that time it was not at the top of my mind," he told Mr Treebhoowoon's lawyer. "All my focus was on was getting my wife home,

getting home to my family and to Michaela's family."

Having glanced at the two defendants when he entered the witness box on Tuesday morning, Mr McAreavey remained focused thereafter on the lawyers questioning him and the judge, turning only to Mr Treebhoowoon to identify him as the cleaner who had asked if he could enter their room earlier on that fateful day.

He was watched intently by his father Brendan, brother-in-law Mark and sister Claire, who at one point asked for someone to fetch him a glass of water when he was struggling to speak. He kept his calm despite loaded questions from the defence barristers, showing only flashes of impatience or anger when his wife was referred to as "the lady" or "Mrs Harte", and when he was handed a book of police photographs which contained images of her body.

Contrary to expectations, he was never asked about a sex book found in the couple's room, nor about what they got up to in their most intimate moments. The Harte and McAreavey families had feared such an eventuality, and released a statement saying they were "very distressed and dismayed at any attempt to denigrate the memory of Michaela".

As he handed his own pictures of his wife to the jury, Mr McAreavey, 27, an accountant from Co Down, described how much she had meant to all of them.

"She was a very charming person full of fun and happiness," he explained. "She was the most beautiful person I have ever met. She completed my whole life."

The pictures showed the newlyweds cutting their cake, enjoying a meal in Dubai and larking on the beach. One showed Michaela onboard a plane with her mobile phone pressed to her ear, a broad grin across her face as she pretended to make a call.

"That's Michaela on the flight over to our honeymoon," her widower said fondly. "Looking happy as usual."

As well as Mr McAreavey, the prosecution brought its star witness on to the stand this week. Raj Theekoy was questioned at length about his testimony that he heard Michaela's dying cries as he stood outside her room, and saw the two defendants emerge from it moments later.

Mr Theekoy originally told police that he knew nothing about what happened. He later changed his evidence and placed the two men at the scene -- the defence say because he too was facing a murder charge, which was subsequently dropped; Mr Theekoy said because he had been persuaded by his conscience and his family to report what he had seen.

His evidence was, however, undermined by phone records that showed he rang his wife moments after hearing Michaela scream to check on his son's progress at school.

The jury was also told that Mr Theekoy was seen sharing a drink and joking with Mr Treebhoowoon in the hotel canteen, just an hour after he claims to have seen him emerge from the McAreaveys' room.

Further evidence was introduced to the court last week of how police bungled their case by failing to test Michaela's purse for the fingerprints of the accused. In his confession, Mr Treebhoowoon said the 27-year-old former beauty queen and teacher had caught him in her room with the purse in his hand. His fingerprints on the purse would have sealed his fate -- but it was inexplicably never tested.

The court heard too from a doctor who examined Michaela and found a scratch running down her neck. In most murder cases, the defendants' fingernails would be checked for signs of the victim's DNA, but in this case, there was no mention that it was done.

Such omissions are likely to put doubts in the jury's mind that could prove fatal to the prosecution's case. It will be unpicked further in the days ahead as more witnesses are expected to detail previous instances where the island's Major Crimes Investigation Team is alleged to have used brutality to close its cases.

Among those anticipated is Jean-Claude Bibi, one of the country's most senior barristers who is understood to have represented dozens of victims of alleged police abuses.

Also due to take the stand is Ravi Rutnah, the colourful barrister who quit the court last week following a row with a detective, but is expected back as a witness to tell how he was threatened by police and kept from supporting his client Mr Treebhoowoon -- who claims he was beaten and coerced into admitting his guilt.

This week, having completed his evidence, John McAreavey will sit in court with his family to hear the concluding weeks in the case against his wife's alleged killers.

But with mounting evidence of police failures and allegations of abuse, the end result remains far from clear.

Sunday Independent

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