The trial of two hotel workers accused of murdering Michaela McAreavey has been rocked after a lawyer dramatically withdrew from the case and signalled his intent to appear as a witness.
Ravi Rutnah, a barrister for defendant Avinash Treebhoowoon, told the court in Mauritius he was stepping down after claiming a senior police officer had attacked his professional integrity while giving evidence.
In a final flourish before leaving the Supreme Court in Port Louis, the lawyer declared to the jury that he would be back in “Arnold Schwarzenegger style”.
The development has left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over proceedings, pending legal submissions tomorrow morning.
It came after prosecution witness Chief Inspector Luciano Gerard outlined to the court how Treebhoowoon had confessed to murdering the daughter of Tyrone gaelic football boss Mickey Harte along with co-worker Sandip Moneea in her room at the island’s luxury Legends Hotel last January.
In the statement, the accused asked for forgiveness and said they had only intended to steal from the 27-year-old teacher’s room, but killed her when she came back unexpectedly and caught them red-handed.
“If the woman did not come we would have stole the money,” he told police.
“We don’t know her, we had no reason to kill her, because she saw us we had to kill her.”
As well as reading the defendant’s admission statement – which described in graphic detail the tragic honeymooner’s last moments as she fought for her life - Mr Gerard made a series of claims about Mr Rutnah.
He said he was late arriving for a meeting with his client, after he signalled his desire to make a confession statement, and also shared food – fried rice - in a convivial atmosphere with investigating police officers.
Mr Rutnah said this amounted to an “accusatory attack” on his reputation.
“As a direct consequence of that, I have decided to withdraw representing accused number one, Avinash Treebhoowoon,” he said.
The lawyer added: “I wish to withdraw but I will be back – in Arnold Schwarzenegger style.”
In the wake of his exit, Treebhoowoon’s remaining counsel, Sanjeev Teeluckdharry told judge Mr Justice Prithviraj Fecknah that he wanted to tender a list of additional witnesses for the defence.
Mr Rutnah is now one of those proposed to take the stand.
But with witnesses in Mauritian courts usually unable to attend proceedings ahead of giving evidence – a rule that has seen Mrs McAreavey’s husband John excluded from the trial thus far – the court is presented with a problem.
Judge Fecknah adjourned the trial early to allow both defence and prosecution counsel to consider their next moves.
Treebhoowoon, a room attendant at Legends, has subsequently claimed the admission he made to police was forced out of him by violent means.
He and Moneea deny murdering the Co Tyrone woman.
Before the legal twist, Chief Insp. Gerard read Treebhoowoon’s signed confession statement to the packed courtroom.
Mr Rutnah was present when he was giving it to police on the afternoon of January 13 last year – three days after the murder.
In it Treebhoowoon said Mrs McAreavey had disturbed him and Moneea as they were burgling the room of her and her husband.
Mr Gerard read the accused’s statement to the jury.
The defendant told officers the newlywed returned to the room and shouted when she saw him with her purse. He then pushed her to the floor.
“I think at that time she must have seen Sandip,” Treebhoowoon said.
“She was screaming and I told Sandip, ’Let’s stop her from screaming’.
“At the time she was on the floor she was not injured.
“I grabbed her feet with my two arms and Sandip came next to her and sat and with one hand, left or right, I cannot remember, pressed on her neck to stop her from screaming, and with the other hand he pressed on her shoulders.
“He continued to press for a minute at the neck. While he was pressing she was struggling and he continued to press until she lost consciousness.
“She was breathing but she couldn’t talk.”
The defendant then told police his co-accused said they had to kill her, so she could not identify them.
He told officers that they then carried her into the bathroom, dumped her in the bath, turned on the water and attempted to wash fingerprints off her.
They left the room and went and hid, returning to the scene soon afterwards as other staff panicked to witness Mr McAreavey screaming and trying to “wake” his wife.
Shortly after making the statement, Treebhoowoon accompanied officers back to Legends Hotel for a reconstruction exercise, pointing out exactly where in room 1025 events had unfolded.
The officer said both Mr Rutnah and Mr Teeluckdharry were informed about this exercise and said it could proceed without them being present.
The defendant made the statement the day after he first admitted the crime to police.
He made a brief confession, implicating Moneea, when he was confronted with evidence given by fellow employee Raj Theekoy.
Mr Theekoy, who was originally a suspect in the case but has since had a conspiracy to murder charge against him dropped, will testify to the trial that he saw the two accused coming out of the room shortly after hearing a woman screaming inside.
After the defendant made his full admission, the officer revealed, he met with his father and was heard to say: “Forget about your son now. I have made a mistake.”
The chief inspector said Treebhoowoon then burst into tears.
Principal state counsel Mehdi Manrakhan pressed Mr Gerard on a complaint made by Treebhoowoon about police brutality.
The officer replied: “No my lord it is totally false and unfounded.”
He pointed out that three suspects had been arrested – Treebhoowoon, Moneea and Mr Theekoy – yet only the former made any complaint.
“There has never been any violence used toward any of the accused,” he said.
The officer added: “On the contrary we brought refreshments for the accused suspects and for ourselves.”
Mr Gerard said Treebhoowoon’s wife Reshma had visited him before he made his full confession and signed a statement indicating he was in good health.
Mr Manrakhan asked the officer to comment on claims Treebhoowoon made two months after his confession to a police complaints body when he accused him of threatening behaviour to him and Mr Rutnah.
The chief inspector again denied the claims.
“No never,” he said.
“This is not my habit”
The officer said police relations with Mr Rutnah were actually good and on the evening of the 12th, after Treebhoowoon had initially confessed and agreed to provide a full admission statement, and they ate food together in the station.
“It was a cordial, friendly atmosphere because we even shared our food with Mr Rutnah,” he said.
“I still remember there was fried rice and I’m not fond of fried rice and I gave him my portion - it was takeaway.”
This claim drew a rare smile from Mrs McAreavey’s father-in-law Brendan sitting in the public gallery with his daughter Claire.
Mr Gerard told the jury that Mr Rutnah had actually been late for that appointment at the station. He said he had been called by a police commander at 7.10pm and told that his client wanted to make a full statement.
The chief inspector said Mr Rutnah had indicated he would be there straight away but by 8.15pm, and despite a number of unanswered calls to him, he had still not arrived, prompting officers to send Treebhoowoon off to a detention centre for the night.
The lawyer did arrive at 8.33pm, allegedly claiming he had been tied up on other business.
The police vehicle bringing Treebhoowoon to the cells was ordered to return, but when he did finally consult with his lawyer the accused claimed he was too tired to make his statement that night.
Mr Gerard’s claims about Mr Rutnah triggered his dramatic exit from court and colourful pledge to return.