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Honeymooners' paradise lost in one brief, random instant

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TRAGIC: They are the picture of young love — and their smiling sun-kissed features hold no shadow of the terror and tragedy that would befall them on their honeymoon in Mauritius. Photo: PA

TRAGIC: They are the picture of young love — and their smiling sun-kissed features hold no shadow of the terror and tragedy that would befall them on their honeymoon in Mauritius. Photo: PA

TRAGIC: They are the picture of young love — and their smiling sun-kissed features hold no shadow of the terror and tragedy that would befall them on their honeymoon in Mauritius. Photo: PA

THE brochure couldn't have said it better: stretching languorously along the silky sandy beach of the north coast of Mauritius, Legends promised Zen relaxation, harmony and well-being in the Feng Shui-designed hotel.

These were some of the attractions that brought the former Michaela Harte, 27, and her new husband, John McAreavey, 30, to choose the hotel for the second leg of their honeymoon tour, after a stop-off in Dubai. Last week the holiday fantasy collided with the sordid reality of life on Mauritius when Michaela was murdered by thieves she had disturbed in her bedroom.

Her death revealed both the ugly underbelly of this paradise island and the protective love of the community she sprang from.

They were a poster couple of the GAA -- she a former beauty queen and daughter of a legendary football coach, Mickey Harte, and he a talented Gaelic footballer who played for Down. They were dispatched to their honeymoon paradise island by friends and family after their wedding on December 30, seen off at Dublin airport by Michaela's proud father.

They booked into the Legends Hotel on Saturday, January 8, and didn't plan on leaving until today, January 16. They stayed in a large room with an ocean view, not quite the honeymoon suite but luxurious all the same. They passed their days in that idyllic setting like any other couple in a romantic hotel, strolling, sunbathing and dining under the stars.

On their third day at the hotel, they had lunch at the pool-side restaurant; Michaela had a stock of low-calorie biscuits, which she used to nibble with her afternoon tea, according to local newspaper reports. But she didn't have any with her and she returned to her hotel room to get some.

Some local media reports cited witnesses who saw her exchange a kiss with her new husband before she left on her inconsequential errand that should have taken minutes, but which had an inconceivable outcome. Had she left just a few minutes later, she would be alive.

For the account of what followed, police are relying on the confession of a 29-year- old cleaner who was allegedly moved to commit murder by a purse full of cash and a few jewels.

Abinash Treebhoowoon, the attendant allocated to clean room 1025, had noticed the purse casually lying on the table on Sunday. With the help of the floor supervisor, Sandip Moneea, 41, he planned to steal it. The floor supervisor allegedly produced an electronic key card to give them access to the room. And on Monday, at 3.42pm, they used it to get inside. They were in the room for two minutes when, at 3.44pm, Michaela walked inside to her death.

She screamed. Her attackers allegedly grabbed her from behind. One silenced her with a hand across her mouth and neck, the other grabbed her ankles to immobilise her. But Michaela struggled; from the skin found beneath her nails, she clawed at her attacker but in vain. Her killer's grip tightened and she was strangled. They took her body to the bathroom, laid it in the tub and turned on the tap. She was abandoned face up, in the running water, apparently an attempt to make her death look like suicide.

The two men emerged from the room straight into the path of another cleaner, Raj Theekoy, 33. He was in the corridor outside when he heard Michaela's scream and wondered what was going on. He saw the cleaning trolley outside the room indicating that room attendants were at work, but the door was shut, which is against hotel protocol. When he asked what was wrong, they told him to say nothing. But he noticed that one of the men was sweating heavily and seemed agitated.

Ten minutes later John McAreavey began to wonder where his wife had got to. He returned to the bedroom, but the door was locked and he didn't have his key card. He asked hotel staff for another key. He discovered Michaela in the bathroom, lying face up in the bath. Her face was bruised. Blood spattered the floor. A post-mortem later found that she died of asphyxiation.

He was distraught when he called reception. He lifted her body out of the bath and on to the floor as he waited for help. The general manager, Brice Lunot, tried to resuscitate her, later describing the fraught scene to reporters: "I remember her eyes were closed and her body was very white. John was in the room. He was quite shocked. He kept calling for an ambulance. He was saying, 'Where is the ambulance? Where is the ambulance?'" said Mr Lunot.

The hotel doctor declared Michaela dead, plunging her family into what Mickey Harte called "the worst nightmare that anyone can imagine".

It certainly could not have been worse for John McAreavey, bereft, in shock and utterly alone, thousands of miles from family and friends.

Soon police were all over the hotel. The romantic bedroom had turned into a crime scene, with all its brutal pragmatism. Forensics teams moved in and John was moved out. The room was cordoned off, with everything left as it was, including Michaela's body on the cold bathroom floor.

When Chief Inspector Ranjeet Jokhoo arrived a short time later, he described how he saw John McAreavey distraught outside the hotel bedroom. He could not go inside either -- forensic investigators were still at work -- but from the doorway he could see Michaela's body on the bathroom floor, in her swimsuit and shorts.

"He was in tears. He was in a bad state, a very bad state," Chief Inspector Jokhoo told the Sunday Independent. "We saw that he was very upset, crying all the time."

A spokesman for the hotel, Julian Hagger, told how the staff tried to help him, tending to the practical arrangements and mundane tasks that he could not even contemplate in his bereft state. Staff took him to a gift shop and helped him to select a change of clothes and toiletries because his hotel room and all his things were out of bounds. A secluded room in another part of the hotel was prepared for him, with whatever he might need.

John remained in "absolute and utter shock", according to Mr Hagger. To compound his grief, he was also a key witness in what was an evolving murder investigation, and police needed to talk to him. He was brought to the police station that evening where he was asked to give a formal statement about finding his wife's body. When he returned several hours later that night, staff stayed with him constantly, as they had done from the moment the tragedy unfolded, according to Mr Hagger.

Within an hour of Michaela's body being found in Mauritius, news of her death reverberated across sporting and political circles in Ireland, making the news by midday. It wasn't just the shattered promise and optimism of a couple of newly-weds on honeymoon that resonated, or the fact that she was the daughter of the legendary Tyrone football manager, Mickey Harte. She was also a beautiful, fashion-mad young woman, who was also a devout Catholic and a fluent Irish speaker, a pioneer and a huge GAA fan: for many people, she represented a side of Ireland that isn't often so evident these days.

She was Mickey and Marian Harte's only daughter, sandwiched between three brothers, Mark, Michael and Matthew. She was raised in the village of Ballygawley, a close-knit community with an active parish, and educated by the Loreto nuns in Omagh and later completed her teacher training with the order. She taught Irish at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon at the time of her death.

As an only daughter, much was made of her close relationship with her father. The many tributes from the sporting world noted that she never missed a match, and was always at her father's side. Adrian Logan, a former sports presenter in Northern Ireland, recalled last week how Michaela was at her father's side on the three occasions he led Tyrone to victory in the All-Ireland: "He refused to do any post-match interviews after those games until she stood beside him. That's how much she meant to him. She was his number one fan," he said.

Michaela had found a measure of fame in her own right: she was a constant presence beside her father throughout all of Tyrone's victories. He called her his "gem". She also had a dark-haired, fresh-faced beauty that got her to the finals of the Rose of Tralee in 2004, representing Ulster. When the father and daughter appeared on the Late Late Show together that year, she referred to herself as a daddy's girl. Unusually for her generation, she was deeply religious and didn't drink, following in the example of her father, Mickey, a life-long member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.

Francis Downey, a childhood friend of John's, summed her up last week: "She should be remembered as the nicest person you could ever meet. She was a loving woman, she loved her family, she loved football, she loved religion. She would have done anything to help anyone."

He said that John was a "lad's lad" until he clapped eyes on Michaela when they were both students at Queen's University Belfast in 2005. She was studying to be a teacher; he was reading business.

She was a devout Catholic: he was nicknamed the Bishop, after his uncle, Bishop John McAreavey. They went out together for three years before they got engaged. He brought her to Paris and proposed. They married two years later, on December 30, in Michaela's local parish, at St Malachy's Church in Ballymacilroy, Co Tyrone.

They were to move into their new house in Banbridge, Co Down. Their friend, Eamonn, told how he had already helped them to move in some of their things before the wedding, and how John was "happy as Larry", fussing about the heating and making sure everything was just so.

The Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, who married the couple, said that she was the love of his life, "absolutely and truly".

"He adored her and talked about her with such warmth. He loved everything about her: her faith, her personality, her love for things Gaelic and Irish, her sparkle. I have a sense that a light has gone out with the death of Michaela," he said.

Mickey Harte seemed proof of that when emerged from his home in Ballygawley, flanked by his two sons, to read a statement to the media on Tuesday. He appeared shrunken and pale, his face contorted into bewildered grief, as he spoke of his loss.

"Michaela was a lovely girl, a wonderful daughter, a brilliant sister for these boys and we will always treasure her. She was a beautiful girl. She couldn't be better, couldn't be nicer. God love her, we are so, so sorry.

"We are equally sorry for poor John, her husband, whom she adored. He adored her. They did not get so long to share their lives with each other. It is such a shame. Our hearts are broken."

He pleaded with the media to "lay off" John. "John is out in Mauritius. He is isolated out there. It has been an awful time. Our hearts go out to him and I would ask everyone to please respect his privacy. . . Please lay off. We are speaking on his behalf. We are devastated. Through us, he wants to say to leave him alone. He is in such a lonely place and even his own family members are not out there yet."

But the Catholic community had already rallied its forces, something Michaela, would have no doubt appreciated. Michaela was a former Loreto girl and the order happened to have four Irish nuns stationed in a convent in Mauritius. Sister Noelle Corscadden, with the Loreto Sisters in Rathfarnham, contacted them. So too had parishioners in Ballygawley; one of the nuns, Sister Theresa Clarke, was from originally Tyrone and many local parishioners stayed in touch.

And so first thing Tuesday morning, three Irish nuns left their convent in the central plains of Mauritius and set off for the north-east coast, and Legends Hotel, to offer comfort to Michaela's heart-broken husband. They talked at length and later they brought him to Mass in a nearby parish. They returned over the following days, offering solace and prayers, as family and relatives began to arrive from Ireland. They included his brother, Michaela's brother and his father, who had been holidaying in Thailand with his mother. An Irish priest with the Holy Ghost Fathers in Mauritius stayed by John's side for three days. Even the local parish priest, Fr Jaques Harel, who celebrated a Mass in honour of Michaela at the hotel on Thursday, had trained in Ireland. Michaela was apparently the first tourist to be murdered in Mauritius in living memory. For a small African island dependent on affluent visitors to its luxury spas to shore up its emerging economy, her death was not only a human tragedy but a diplomatic incident that required fast action.

The investigation into her death was extraordinarily swift. Even more unusual was the running commentary on its progress offered by local police officers.

Within 24 hours, they had identified six people for questioning, all hotel employees, and confirmed that John McAreavey was not a suspect. On Wednesday, three hotel employees were brought to a local district court, where they were provisionally charged in connection with Michaela's death: Treebhoowoon and Moneea with murder, and Theekoy with conspiracy to murder. On Thursday, police confirmed they had secured confessions from two men and that afternoon they brought them back to the hotel to stage a reconstruction of how Michaela died while the media gathered outside.

But police explained on Thursday how CCTV footage and an electronic key card gave them an early break on the case.

The cleaner, Raj Theekoy, was caught on camera talking to Moneea and to Treebhoowoon in the corridor outside room 1025. The electronic key card -- issued by the floor supervisor -- provided investigators with another link. Theekoy confessed his encounter with Treebhoowoon and Moneea as they emerged from the room.

During a briefing the police chief, Dhun Iswur Rampersad, said: "He said he heard suspicious noises which came from room 1025. A few minutes later, he saw his two friends (Treebhoowoon and Moneea) coming out of the room and they seemed in an abnormal state. This circumstantial evidence as to what was going on in the room led us to something else."

In fact, it led police to their murder suspects, one of whom, Treebhoowoon, eventually confessed.

There seems little doubt that police have been under enormous pressure to solve the crime. But the haste of the investigation led to claims of police brutality -- disputed by the local police. The suspects were paraded into court in Port Louis before the media, in tears and looking distraught. Only one of them had a lawyer, and that was Abinash Treebhoowoon, who claimed he had been beaten in custody.

During his court appearance last week, he said: "I was smacked in the face by investigators at the Piton police station and they humiliated me further at the MCIT office at Line Barracks (police HQ). A towel was wrapped over my face and I was punched all over my body."

His barrister, Ravi Rutnah, said: "An atrocious crime has been committed and our country is now being watched by the international community. Our name has been tarnished and if the police start acting like this, what will be left of our country?" he said to the court.

At Thursday's press briefing, the police commissioner dismissed the claims as "far-fetched". "It is a strategy often used by suspects, advised by close relations or friends, with the aim of diverting the attention of investigators and undermining the enquiry," said Mr Rampersad.

The Minister for Tourism, Nandcoomar Bodha, went on Irish radio last week to defend his country as "a land of peace". The low murder rate -- two per 100,000 people -- bears that out, although petty crime is common.

Hotel guests at the Legend did not appear to be unduly frightened by Michaela's murder, given its random freakish nature. There was no exodus of guests from the hotel last week, according to Julian Haggerd, although a small number cancelled bookings to transfer to other hotels on the island. Tourism on Mauritius will survive Michaela's murder. Her family will endure a lifetime's grief.

In an emotional public statement, her husband of 12 days described her last week as his "rock" and his "angel".

"I love my wife, very, very much and my world revolved around her. I can't describe in words how lost I feel as Michaela is not just the light of my life -- she is my life."

With Michaela back in Ballygawley this weekend, their mourning can begin. Accompanied by his relatives and a friend, John escorted her home on Thursday night, he in the cabin, and she beneath in the hold. He refused to leave the island without Michaela or to allow her be brought back home without him.

The Mauritian skies were still blue, the sands were still white and the heat still balmy, but in a random instant their paradise had turned to hell on earth.

Tragedy was not supposed to be part of the package.

Sunday Independent