Thursday 19 April 2018

Five years after her murder, Michaela McAreavey's family may never get justice

Honeymooner Michaela McAreavey was found dead in her Mauritius hotel suite by her husband five years ago today. After a botched trial in 2012, two accused hotel workers walked free. Now hopes of her killers ever being brought to justice are rapidly fading. Graham Clifford and Cormac McQuinn report

John and Michaela McAreavey
John and Michaela McAreavey
John and Michaela McAreavey.
Harte to Harte: Michaela and her brother Matthew celebrate with their Tyrone manager dad Mickey after the All-Ireland triumph of 2003.
Room 1025, now re named 1026 at the Lux Hotel, formerly Legends Hotel in Mauritius. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Avinash Treebhoowoon escorted by officers of the SSU Mauritius.
John McAreavey carries the coffin of his wife Michaela, from her family home in Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, Monday, Jan 17, 2011.
John McAreavey and Tara Brennan
Judge Prithviraj Fekna
Imran Hosany, editor of the Sunday Times newspaper in Mauritius ...NFF

Graham Clifford and Cormac McQuinn

This weekend, in a quiet country graveyard, a family will gather to remember a daughter and sister - a husband his wife of just 12 days.

She would have turned 32 last week. By now, she might well have become a mother. Such a bright future inexplicably extinguished five years ago tomorrow on an island far from her home.

As news filtered through in the late morning of January 10, 2011, that something had happened to their Michaela, the Harte family struggled to make sense of what they were being told down the telephone line, which was that John McAreavey, their son-in-law, had found her dead in a bath in the couple's bedroom in the lavish Legends Hotel on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. And that she, their only daughter, their precious rose, had been strangled.

Surely this wasn't possible, just a bad dream. How, who, when, why? Five years on and those questions still remain. The desire for justice endures but is overshadowed by the overwhelming sense of loss. It's a pain that never goes away.

On the fifth anniversary of her murder, police in Mauritius are no closer to finding Michaela's murderer.

When asked by Review about the current status of the investigation this week, Inspector Shiva Coothen of the Police Service of Mauritius could only say "the case is still being investigated and you will be informed of any further development in due course".

Another police source said "the file has been passed to the Director of Public Prosecution and we have no further involvement".

Locally, few in Mauritius expect to see a conviction in the most high-profile murder case the island has ever had.

"The case is no longer reported in the newspapers or on broadcast media," said one source on the island. "It was an embarrassment for the country and we don't believe it will ever be solved."

Following a general election in Mauritius in December 2014, the former Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam was arrested and charged with money laundering and "conspiracy to do a wrongful act".

"The country's police investigators have been focusing almost exclusively on the case of the former prime minister for the last year or more. All other cases, including that of Michaela's murder, have been placed to one side," a source on the island claimed.

The extent of the police failures in the investigation into the brutal murder were laid bare during an eight-week trial in the summer of 2012.

Hotel workers Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea, the prosecution claimed, murdered the honeymooner when she walked in on them stealing cash from her purse in room. Both men vehemently denied the charge.

The Mauritian police came in for a barrage of criticism during the trial. It emerged that when they arrived at the Legends Hotel on the afternoon of January 10, they failed to seal off the resort or to interview guests staying near the McAreaveys' suite.

During the trial, an inspector was asked if he had inquired about any guests who may have checked out of the hotel on the night of the murder or the following day.

He replied: "Legends is a five-star hotel, my lord, clearly there are people leaving and coming every day. I did not think to consider to inquire of everyone."

Back home, the young teacher's friends and family, who waited on every news report from Port Louis, could barely believe what was unfolding.

The court heard the crime scene was compromised and interfered with by police officers who didn't seem aware their actions could damage the investigation.

It emerged that a police cameraman took black-and-white photographs of the crime scene instead of colour, and while fingerprints were taken, the court heard that police found no matches for some of the prints they found.

Even the most basic of crime recording was bungled. The purse that the accused men were allegedly stealing from wasn't fingerprinted or sent for DNA testing.

"We couldn't believe what we heard during the trial. Sure, the investigation was a farce," a friend of the Harte family told Review this week. "The defence team showed very little respect for John and the family. And the evidence was compromised. It was like watching a nightmare unfolding. As if John and Michaela's family hadn't suffered enough."

The court heard that no DNA from either Mr Treebhoowoon or Mr Moneea was found on samples from the crime scene sent to British forensic expert Susan Woodroffe.

John was handcuffed and arrested on the day Michaela was murdered before being ruled out as a suspect. Held for five hours, the former Down inter-county footballer told how one police officer asked him: "What are you crying for? You're young, you'll get another wife."

Later that night, a dazed, shocked and heartbroken John was released. The police had been given a copy of the key-card readings from room 1025 and records showed a staff card was used on the door two minutes before Michaela entered at around 2.44pm to get some Kit Kats for her and John to share over tea.

Mr Treebhoowoon - who cleaned the McAreaveys' room - and his supervisor Mr Moneea were arrested the day after the murder. Another arrested hotel worker, Raj Theekoy, agreed to testify against them in return for immunity from prosecution.

The so-called "star witness", Mr Theekoy's testimony was later ripped apart by defence lawyers who claimed it contained dozens of contradictions.

Former hotel security guard Dassen Narayanen was also arrested. He was initially charged with conspiracy to murder but this was downgraded to conspiracy to commit larceny after he confessed to giving Mr Moneea a key card to access the McAreaveys' room. Narayanen later retracted the confession, saying it had been extracted at gunpoint by police - a claim the authorities denied.

As the case developed it became impossible to know what and who to believe.

Forensic expert Ms Woodroffe told the court a possible DNA match for Mr Narayanen was found on a cupboard in room 1025 but the security guard said his DNA was only there because he responded to John's cries for help.

Mr Narayanen, who was not called as a witness in the trial, denies any involvement in the murder and the provisional larceny charge was dropped in March 2013.

In the days following his arrest, Mr Treebhoowoon signed a confession stating he and Mr Moneea had been interrupted by Michaela while they were stealing cash from her purse and that Mr Moneea had strangled her. However, he soon retracted the confession, claiming that he had only signed it after suffering police brutality.

On the afternoon of July 12, 2012, both Mr Treebhoowoon and Mr Moneea were acquitted of murder. Minutes after the verdict was delivered, John McAreavey rushed down the stairs and past waiting journalists and photographers before exiting through a side door. Back home, the verdict sent shockwaves through the nation. The cleared men's families embraced, there were smiles and shouts of joy. They spoke of "justice" being served.

Defence lawyer Rama Valayden, a former attorney general in Mauritius, told the court he was "embarrassed" by the police investigation. He said officers could have learned from TV detective Columbo and blamed them for the fact that Michaela's "true murderer" is still free.

"At that stage, I think everyone was just eager to get John and other members of the family home and out of there," a family friend said this week.

A fresh investigation was launched in the months that followed and DNA samples from 300 Legends Hotel staff members were collected and sent to a laboratory in France - additionally, 60 new statements were taken. But in the summer of 2014, Michaela's family expressed their frustration at the slow progress in the probe.

"It was promised by the Mauritian Prime Minister that justice would be done," said a statement. "However, as time marches on and the criminal proceedings seem to have ground to a halt, this promise is ringing hollow."

There was a flurry of activity in September 2014 in the run up to the general election, amid reports that police had identified as many as four suspects, all allegedly former hotel employees.

The Mauritian Director of Public Prosecutions was quoted as saying that police were working to bring "fresh and compelling evidence" for a new trial. This was reported to include DNA evidence found on a hotel key card and arrests were predicted, before the activity fizzled-out again.

"We are still waiting on the Mauritian authorities to deliver on their promise of justice," said the McAreavey and Harte families in a statement last year. "Nevertheless, the passing of time has not diminished or dimmed our desire to pursue justice for Michaela."

Nor, too, can time diminish the pain of life without Michaela for John, her parents Mickey and Marian, and brothers Mark, Michael and Matthew. Four months after Michaela's death, in 2011, a foundation inspired by her life was set up to "promote values that encourage young people to succeed in life fulfilment and happiness with faith, confidence and fun as their foundation".

John is the chief executive of the Michaela Foundation while trustees include Mickey and Matthew Harte.

Last autumn, it emerged that John had found love again and had become engaged to accountant Tara Brennan. The Harte family are said to have given him their full blessing.

"John told Michaela's family about Tara from the beginning since they're so close but they always wanted him to meet someone else eventually so they were delighted for him," a family friend said. A second chance of happiness after enduring a barely comprehendible nightmare.

This weekend, those whose lives were touched by Michaela will remember the kind, caring and compassionate girl who achieved so much over 27 years. But, inevitably, the questions remains: who killed their girl and will the murderer ever pay the price for ending her young life?


December 30, 2010: Michaela Harte marries long-term boyfriend John McAreavey in St Malachy's church in Ballymacilroy, Co Tyrone. Some 300 friends and family members enjoy the reception in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan. And after midnight on New Year's Eve, the beautiful bride celebrates her 27th birthday.

January 1, 2011: The newly-weds fly to Dubai on the first leg of their honeymoon. Photographs that were later produced in court show the couple relaxing. After a week, they fly to Mauritius to begin the second leg.

Room 1025, now re named 1026 at the Lux Hotel, formerly Legends Hotel in Mauritius. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

January 10: At around 3pm, Michaela's body is found in the bath of her hotel suite (room 1025, above) by her husband with the water still running. She had returned to get Kit Kats from the room after the couple finished lunch. Cause of death is strangulation.

January 10: Police arrive on the scene but do not lock down the entire complex. They fail to interview a number of guests who were staying close to room 1025. All photos of the scene are taken only in black and white. It's claimed the crime scene is trampled over by guests and staff, and that police failed to wear anti-contamination suits while working.

January 11: Books of condolence are opened across Ireland as members of the public express their disbelief and sympathy for John and the Harte family.

Avinash Treebhoowoon escorted by officers of the SSU Mauritius.

January 11: Three male Mauritian employees of the Legends Hotel are arrested in connection to the murder. Avinash Treebhoowoon (pictured above), Sandip Moneea and Raj Theekoy appear in court in Mauritius.

John McAreavey carries the coffin of his wife Michaela, from her family home in Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, Monday, Jan 17, 2011.

January 17: Thousands of mourners, including President Mary McAleese, Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, attend Michaela's funeral, held in the same church where she married less than a month before. Amid tragic scenes, Michaela is buried in her wedding dress.

January 24: A minute's silence is held at the first Tyrone Gaelic football match since Michaela's death. Players wear black armbands and the crowd applauds her father.

May 2011: The Michaela Foundation launches with the aim of helping young people in Ireland to lead a "life without limits".

May 22, 2012: The trial of two hotel workers accused of murdering Michaela begins. Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea plead not guilty to murder.

June 6: John McAreavey tells the court in Port Louis he was handcuffed by police officers, held in custody for five hours and his body examined for marks shortly after Michaela's body was found. He says one officer asked him: "Why are you crying? You're still young. You can go find another wife."

June 14: The court hears grainy images of a couple apparently arguing in the hotel where Michaela was murdered on the day of her death are not of the Irish couple, as claimed by defence lawyers. A police chief tells the court they are in fact German tourist couple Harald Hoger and Sabarese Graiella.

Judge Prithviraj Fekna

July 12: Judge Prithviraj Fekna (above) tells jurors not to worry about what ramifications any verdict may have on the reputation of Mauritius. He reminded the six men and three women they were not politicians and it was not their job to protect the image of the country. Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea are declared not guilty.

Imran Hosany, editor of the Sunday Times newspaper in Mauritius ...NFF

July 15: A Mauritian newspaper called Sunday Times publishes photographs of the hotel-room crime scene, including images of Michaela's body, on its front page. The Irish Government lodges a formal complaint with the government of Mauritius. Police officers raid the offices of the newspaper and the editor, Imran Hosany (inset left), is arrested and charged in relation to the publication of the images. He is later released on bail.

September 12, 2014: Reports emerge from Mauritius stating the Central Criminal Investigation Department had made a major breakthrough in the case and that DNA taken from Michaela's clothes matched that of the suspected killers. It was also said that DNA evidence pointed at a new trial.

January 10, 2015: A police spokesperson tells the Irish Independent there "are no new developments in the case".

August: It's reported the former Legends Hotel, renamed the LUX* Grand Gaube, settled a lawsuit taken by Michaela's husband John and the Harte family. It's reported around €1.6m is paid out. The hotel had been sued for its alleged 'non-cooperation' with the police inquiry into her death.

John McAreavey and Tara Brennan

October: It emerges John is to marry again. He and Tara Brennan (above), an accountant from Kildare, are photographed at the première of a movie in Belfast with Ms Brennan wearing a diamond ring on her wedding finger. Almost five years after Michaela's death, the Harte family have given John their full blessing.

January 10, 2016: John and the Hartes will gather to remember their beloved Michaela on the fifth anniversary of her tragic passing.

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