Management at the hotel where Michaela McAreavey was murdered failed to co-operate properly with police and were more concerned with damage to its reputation than catching the killer, a court in Mauritius has heard.
In a scathing attack on an alleged “dirty game” played by the island’s Legends Hotel, a police chief claimed the honeymooner’s husband was initially arrested as a suspect because information that would have eliminated him from inquires was withheld from detectives.
Giving evidence at the trial of the two former Legends employees accused of the crime, Assistant Commissioner of Police Yoosoof Soopun further alleged that management provided material to “the defence” which it should have given to police.
Former Legends room attendant Avinash Treebhoowoon, 31, and floor supervisor Sandip Moneea, 42, deny murdering the daughter of Tyrone Gaelic football boss Mickey Harte inside her deluxe room last January.
The prosecution claim they attacked her when she walked in and caught them stealing. Mr Soopun, who led the murder investigation, repeatedly criticised the hotel during a day on the witness stand in the Supreme Court in Port Louis.
At one point he told judge Mr Justice Prithviraj Fecknah: “Here I want to state my lord that the hotel management, as I said from the very beginning there was much concern to protect the reputation of the hotel rather than to discover who has killed the deceased.
“This is why my lord several important things have never been disclosed to the police.”
On the 16th day of the high-profile case Mr Soopun, who is in charge of the police’s major crime investigation team (MCIT), rejected a claim by Treebhoowoon that he threatened him with a revolver and told him he would die if he did not confess.
It also emerged that another hotel employee originally arrested over the crime and then released is now suing the police and Mauritian state over his treatment.
Testifying as a prosecution witness, Mr Soopun claimed one of the first instances of the hotel’s unco-operative stance was when officers were not given records of entries to room 1025 where the newlywed was found.
Mr Soopun said if that data had been available to officers at the outset then John McAreavey would never have been detained.
The bereaved widower was handcuffed and left alone in a police station for hours in the wake of his wife’s death.
Mr Soopun said the reading from the electronic door entry system was handed over only after “persistent requests”.
“I just want to state that hotel management, particularly the chief security officer Mr (Mohammad) Imrit, has played a dirty game with the police,” he said.
“Having that information earlier to the police, there’s no doubt the poor Mr John McAreavey would not have been taken to Piton police station and treated as a suspect by Piton CID.
“It was only on our persistent requests, my lord, that we obtained the reading and came to know that a magnetic card – JMK supervisor two – has been used at 1442 hours, some two minutes before the lady, the deceased Mrs McAreavey, had accessed the room.
“Then it was clear, my lord, that Mr John McAreavey must be disregarded as a suspect.”
Mr Soopun said he was “astonished” to find Mr McAreavey handcuffed in the police station later that night.
“He was crying and completely broken,” he added.
He said he immediately gave an order for him to be released.
The officer explained that later that night a sentry was placed outside the room he had been taken to at Legends for his own safety.
Mr Soopun was then asked by state prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan to comment on a claim by Mr Imrit that police had failed to interview a German couple staying at the hotel who indicated they had something to tell officers.
“This is totally unfounded, it’s totally not true,” he said.
He added: “No Mr Imrit is lying, this shows the bad faith of Mr Imrit.”
Mr McAreavey and other family members were not present in court as the police chief levelled the claims against the hotel.
When questioned by Rama Valayden, representing Moneea, if tests were conducted to see if the room key cards found in the room where actually for 1025, Mr Soopun stated: “We didn’t have the co-operation of the hotel management, it’s unfortunate to have to tell this in court here.
“Hotel management has not co-operated with police yet they have communicated all the information to the defence.”
As it was the final question before court rose for the day, Mr Valayden insisted he would probe the officer’s claims further tomorrow.
Earlier, Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, representing Treebhoowoon, asked why police had not taken statements from a hotel doctor and nurse who had attended Mrs McAreavey.
Again Mr Soopun rounded on the hotel management.
“When we reached the hotel the director of the hotel (Brice Lunot) never said to the police who were those persons, apart from Dr Sunassee (another doctor from outside the hotel), who had accessed into the hotel,” he said.
During cross-examination by Mr Teeluckdharry, Mr Soopun confirmed that he was aware that another hotel employee – security guard Seenarain Mungroo – was suing police.
He was arrested and provisionally charged with conspiracy to murder but later released.
Mr Soopun said he had been initially implicated by another suspect Dassen Naraynen.
The officer said Naraynen subsequently admitted to stealing the key card that was used to access room 1025 moments before the murder as part of a “widespread conspiracy to commit larceny”.
Mr Teeluckdharry asked Mr Soopun if he knew that Mr Mungroo had lodged a legal bid in the wake of his arrest. “Mr Seenarain Mungroo has sued the head of your force and the state of Mauritius for damages on 8 May 2011?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the officer.
Naraynen is currently facing a provisional larceny charge in connection with the case in separate court proceedings.
Mr Soopun said he was not involved in the murder but alleged he had plotted with Moneea to steal.
“Mr Dassen Naraynen is completely excluded as being one of the murderers but Mr Dassen Naraynen has conspired with the accused,” he said.
“Mr Dassen Naraynen has participated in widespread larceny.”
Treebhoowoon originally signed a statement of confession admitting involvement in the murder but has since insisted it was beaten out of him.
Mr Soopun was confronted with claims that he threatened Treebhoowoon with a revolver tucked into his sock.
Mr Teeluckdharry said the officer called his client a number of expletives, showed him the gun, and then said: “If you don’t speak you’ll die today.”
The officer said the allegation was a “complete lie”.
“I never use that kind of language, this would be confirmed by my men and my family,” he added.
“In regard to the revolver we never carry any revolver in MCIT except when we go out.”
Mr Soopun said when he was at the Legends Hotel the day after the murder he saw Moneea changing work sheets to suggest Treebhoowoon was not due to clean room 1025 around the time of the murder.
“He was trying to shield accused number one in relation to room 1025, this clearly shows there was a link between the two of them,” he said.
Questioned on other aspects of the case, Mr Soopun explained why a purse found in the hotel room was not tested for DNA despite claims in Treebhoowoon’s alleged confession he was rifling through a purse when Mrs McAreavey walked in.
The officer said Mr McAreavey had told police nothing was taken from the purse so it was later returned to him. It was three days after the murder when the defendant made the alleged claim, he said.
“By that time it was too late, John McAreavey was already at the airport with the coffin of his wife to leave for Ireland,” he said.
Mr Teeluckdharry then asked why a belt found in the room had not been sent to a specialist forensic scientist in England along with other items.
The officer said medical reports stated that no ligature was used in strangling the 27-year-old teacher and so it was not deemed necessary to carry out further tests on the belt.
The lawyer also pressed the police chief on his reaction to DNA tests from other items in the room and from samples taken from Mrs McAreavey that showed no link to the defendants.
Mr Soopun said the report did not change his mind.
“I was personally satisfied that the two persons, accused number one and accused number two, are directly involved in the murder of the poor deceased,” he said.
Mr Teeluckdharry accused the officer of denying him and his fellow lawyer Ravi Rutnah a private meeting with their client for six days after the murder.
Mr Soopun rejected the claim and explained that the detention centre where the barristers had requested the interview was not suitable and that he would have arranged for one to take place elsewhere if asked.
But the police chief added: “It was my duty to protect the rights of detainees but also I have to point out that I have to protect the integrity of my enquiry. In that particular case my lord the main exhibit, a magnetic card which had access to the room, had not yet been recovered and there was apprehension that other people may be involved in that case my lord.”
This answer drew an angry response from Mr Teeluckdharry.
“To protect the integrity you had to deny accused number one the right to interview,” he challenged.
“No, this is not correct,” the officer responded.
The lawyer continued: “According to you, counsel were tampering with evidence that has not been recovered?”
At this juncture, Mr Manrakhan interjected, insisting that was not what the witness had stated.