Mystery of room 1025 remains unsolved as bereft families prepare for long journey home
BACKGROUND:The defence team had two months to pile up layers of doubt about the charges against the two defendants and, in the end, they did enough to convince the jury, writes RUADHAN MAC CORMAIC
“NOW I will tell you what happened,” read the first line of the confession Avinash Treebhoowoon said he never gave. That was 18 months ago. It would take the most closely scrutinised trial in the history of independent Mauritius – a tortuously long process that ran for eight weeks, heard from 41 witnesses and produced several thousand pages of transcripts – to try to make good on that early promise.
At issue was what happened in room 1025 at Legends Hotel in a 30-minute period on the afternoon of January 10th last year.
That morning, two days into their honeymoon on the island, John and Michaela McAreavey had breakfast together before he went for a golf lesson and she spent some time sunbathing by the pool.
They met up again for lunch and, after the meal Michaela ordered a cup of tea. She liked biscuits with her tea, so she went back to the room to fetch a KitKat from the fridge.
After about 20 minutes, when Michaela hadn’t returned, John went looking for her. A bellboy helped him into their room and there he found his wife lying motionless in the bath. She had been strangled.
THE PROSECUTION argued that Michaela McAreavey was murdered by the two defendants in the trial, Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea, after she returned to the room and caught them stealing. A pillar of its case was the confession given to police by Treebhoowoon (32), a former room attendant, in the days after the killing.
In the statement, which he later retracted, Treebhoowoon said that while cleaning room 1025 he spotted a black wallet on the dressing table with some notes sticking out of it. He decided to steal a few and suggested to Moneea, his supervisor, that they could split the money.
As soon as he picked up the wallet, according to the statement, he heard the sound of a keycard in the door. “The door opened and I saw a woman. It was the first time I saw her. She was white, had brown hair, [she was] slim . . . and she had a pale blue bikini.
“As soon as she entered, she saw the wallet in my hand . . . She shouted and told me, ‘what are you doing, why are you searching?’ She seemed angry. I got scared. At that time, Sandip was still in the bathroom.”
Treebhoowoon tried to walk past Michaela, but she stopped him. With his right hand, he pushed her and she fell on her back.
“She was screaming and I said to Sandip, ‘let’s stop her from screaming’.” With Michaela on the ground, he grabbed her feet and held them with his arms, said the statement. “Sandip came next to her and sat, and with one hand – left or right, I cannot remember – pressed on her neck to stop her screaming. With the other hand he pressed on her shoulders.” He continued pressing for “a minute or so”.
“While he was pressing, she was struggling and he continued to press until she lost consciousness. She was breathing but she couldn’t speak.”
Treebhoowoon and Moneea then picked her up, according to the statement, and placed her in the bathtub to wash away any forensic traces. They left room 1025 and walked off in different directions.
“When we threw the woman on the floor, Sandip said, ‘we have to kill her because she will report us and she will recognise us’,” Treebhoowoon’s statement read.
CLAIMS OF POLICE BRUTALITY
THE CIRCUMSTANCES in which the confession was drafted became one of the major points of dispute. Treebhoowoon later alleged that officers from the Major Crime Investigation Team (MCIT), the unit that led the McAreavey inquiry, sat him and his lawyer down, threatened both of them, dictated a confession and made him sign.
For the prosecution, the confession was vital. Chief prosecuting barrister Mehdi Manrakhan was adamant it contained details the police could not have known at the time. For example, evidence from the postmortem report relating to the victim’s injuries tallied with the version of events in Treebhoowoon’s statement.
The postmortem report, dated February 9th, 2011, came well after the confession, which was recorded on January 13th. Further details were also consistent with undisputed evidence from at least three other witnesses.
How much store the jury set by the retracted confession depended, in part, on how much weight it gave Treebhoowoon’s allegations of brutality.
Over four days on the stand in late June, the younger of the two defendants alleged that before he signed the confession, officers beat him, plunged his head into a bucket of water and tortured him so severely that he vomited blood.
They threatened to send his wife to Ireland to live with John McAreavey, who “will need a woman to live with”, and said they could do this because “the government is in our hands and nobody can touch us”.
The police denied Treebhoowoon’s claims – Insp Luciano Gerard, the lead detective on the case, described them as “ridiculous” – and Manrakhan insisted to the jury that the story was “concocted and rehearsed”. He said Treebhoowoon’s appearance on the stand was the first time in 18 months he had given details of the alleged beatings and torture.
The only reasonable inference that could be drawn was that the defendant was “never really serious about his allegations and there was in fact never any complaint to make”, Makrankhan argued.
The claims of police brutality were a major part of the case of Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, Treebhoowoon’s barrister. The lawyer reminded the jury that Treebhoowoon complained of police beatings as early as his first appearance at the local district court.
He probed for inconsistencies in officers’ evidence. He scoured diary book entries from the MCIT for contradictions. The issue came to a head in the fifth week, when Teeluckdharry submitted his list of witnesses. It included the president of the Mauritian Human Rights Council and a former attorney general, both of whom he hoped would give evidence about previous cases of brutality by the MCIT.
The prosecution objected and, in the absence of the jury, there were tense exchanges between the two sides. After four days’ deliberation, Judge Prithviraj Fecknah upheld the prosecution’s objections and the witnesses were not called.
THE POSTMORTEM showed that Mrs McAreavey died of asphyxia due to compression of the neck. She was strangled during a violent struggle that lasted about two minutes, said the chief police medical officer, and her injuries were compatible with pressure applied by the grip of a hand and the use of a forearm.
A number of swabs were sent to Cellmark Forensic Services in Oxfordshire, England, a laboratory specialising in “touch DNA”. The defence was encouraged by the test results, which showed no DNA traces from the two accused men were found on Michaela McAreavey’s body or in the room. But the prosecution reminded jurors of expert forensic opinion stating that DNA could have washed off the victim’s body when it was placed in a bath partly filled with water.
OF MORE value to the prosecution was its “star witness”, Raj Theekoy, a hotel cleaner who was working in the deluxe block with the defendants on the day of the killing. In the witness box, Theekoy said he heard a woman screaming in pain three times from inside room 1025 and, a short time later, saw Treebhoowoon and Moneea walk away from the same room looking “very anxious”. When he asked the two men later that day what had happened, Theekoy told the court, Moneea threatened to “drag [him] into this” if he opened his mouth.
If they were to persuade the jury to acquit their clients, it was imperative for the defence teams to discredit Theekoy. They pointed out CCTV images showed Theekoy in the canteen with Treebhoowoon after allegedly seeing him leave the murder scene – a meeting he did not mention in his statement.
Theekoy was originally charged with conspiracy to murder and held by police for 77 days, before having the charges dropped and being granted immunity to testify against his colleagues. The defence was insistent: had he not taken up the immunity offer to ensure his own freedom?
On this, the prosecution fought back. It was understandable, given the 18-month remove, that some inconsistencies would emerge in a witness’s evidence, said Manrakhan. The bottom line, in his view, was that Theekoy had no reason to lie. He had never had any trouble with either of the accused men. And there was nothing strange about the immunity offer, not least given that it was granted two months after Theekoy gave his statement implicating his two colleagues.
BY LAW, the jury could not use Treebhoowoon’s confession against Moneea. That meant the case against the latter was based on circumstantial evidence. In addition to Theekoy’s testimony, there was the account of a room service attendant, Ravindradeo Seetohul, who said he saw Moneea at 2.25pm – 20 minutes before the time at which the prosecution said the killing took place – walking in the direction of room 1025, which Treebhoowoon was cleaning.
Moneea’s lawyer, Rama Valayden, set out to show that it was a “physical impossibility” that his client killed Michaela McAreavey. He leaned on the evidence of Govinden Saminaden, another cleaner working under Moneea’s supervision in the deluxe block, who said Moneea was with him at about the time of the killing (the prosecution accused Saminaden of lying to save his colleague).
Valayden also pointed to phone records that showed Moneea made a four-minute phone call to his sister at 2.45pm that day.
But whereas Moneea told the court this was a mundane call to inquire about his sister’s family, Manrakhan argued that Moneea was still inside room 1025 when he called his sister – the person to whom he was closest – to ask her for advice after committing the murder.
THE POLICE INQUIRY
THE FINAL – perhaps the dominant – thread running through the defence case was an attempt to discredit the police investigation. To this end, everyone from high-ranking detectives to junior technicians was subjected to long, drawn-out cross-examination.
It yielded some results: police conceded that some officers who entered the crime scene did not wear anti-contamination shoes, and that a wallet found in the room was not checked for fingerprints.
Under questioning from Valayden, Insp Gerard admitted police did not take statements from a number of hotel guests who were staying in the same block as the McAreaveys, including a German couple who said they had information to pass on. Hotel CCTV footage was not used to establish where certain suspects had been on the day of the killing.
The defence had two months to pile up these layers of doubt, and in the end, did enough to convince the jury.
After 18 months in jail, Treebhoowoon and Moneea are free to resume their lives.
After eight punishing weeks on the island, members of the McAreavey and Harte families will board a plane home to Ireland with a feeling of desolation.
The travelling media will pack up and pull out of Port Louis. The old courts building will soon return to normal.
And the mystery of room 1025 remains unsolved.
A 'wonderful person' husband describes wife who 'completed my whole life'
John and Michaela McAreavey were just two weeks married when she was killed in a hotel in Mauritius in January last year.
The 27-year-old teacher, the only daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte and his wife, Marian, was a one-time Rose of Tralee contestant with a love of the Irish language and a public profile thanks to her constant presence at her father’s side at big county games. “She was a wonderful, wonderful person,” John told the trial. “A real special human. She completed my whole life.”
The couple met through a mutual friend in 2005, when they were both studying in Belfast. They became inseparable – in the five years before they got married, they spent just three days apart, John recalled. They got engaged in 2008 and bought a house but, being devout Catholics, decided not to live together until they were married.
“She was a charming, charming individual – full of life, full of happiness,” John said. “I do not have the words to fully explain how much she meant to me and how much she still means to me and her family.”
The wedding took place on December 30th, 2010 – the day before Michaela turned 27 – in St Malachy’s Church in Ballymacilroy, Co Tyrone. Two weeks later, her funeral was held in the same church.