Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Michaela McAreavey: Questions and heartbreak still remain for family five years after brutal murder

Honeymooner Michaela McAreavey was found dead in her Mauritius hotel suite by her husband five years ago tomorrow. 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

Published 09/01/2016

John McAreavey Michaela McAreavey on their wedding day
John McAreavey Michaela McAreavey on their wedding day
John McAreavey
Avinash Treebhoowoon
Sandip Moneea

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 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 her 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.

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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 said 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.

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".

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.

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 remain: who killed their girl and will the murderer ever pay the price for ending her young life?

Timeline of death that shocked nation

December 30, 2010: Michaela Harte marries John McAreavey in St Malachy’s church in Ballymacilroy, Co Tyrone. Some 300 friends and family enjoy the reception in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan. After midnight on New Year’s Eve, the bride celebrates her 27th birthday.

January 1, 2011: The newlyweds fly to Dubai for the first leg of their honeymoon. After a week, they fly to Mauritius.

January 10: At around 3pm, Michaela’s body is found in the bath of her hotel suite by her husband with the water still running. She had went to the room to get Kit Kats after lunch. Cause of death is strangulation.

January 10: Police arrive but fail to lock down the entire complex and fail to interview a number of guests staying close to the room. Photos of the scene are taken only in black and white, and scene is allegedly trampled over by guests and staff, with police allegedly failing to wear anti-contamination suits.

January 11: Three male Mauritian employees of the Legends Hotel are arrested in connection with the murder. Avinash Treebhoowoon, Sandip Moneea and Raj Theekoy appear in court.

January 17: Thousands of mourners, including President Mary McAleese, 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.

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

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

July 15: A Mauritian newspaper publishes photographs of the 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, is arrested and charged in relation to the images. He is later released on bail.

September 12, 2014: Reports emerge from Mauritius stating  there has been a major breakthrough, with DNA taken from Michaela’s clothes allegedly matching that of the suspected killers. It was also said that DNA evidence pointed at a new trial.

October: It emerges John is to marry again. He and Tara Brennan, an accountant from Kildare, are photographed at the premiere 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 give John their blessing.

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

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