British Ex-Millionaire Fights for Freedom
When security guard Jorge Aparicio arrived at the DuPont Plaza in downtown Miami for his 7:00 a.m. shift Thursday October 16, 1986, Biscayne Boulevard was still cloaked in darkness.
Aside from the sleepy-eyed staff trickling into work, the hotel was quiet — almost peaceful. Nothing stirred on the 12th floor. Midway along the narrow hallway, some 100 feet east of the elevator, a maid looked in on Room 1215 and noted it was completely still. The curtains were pulled shut, the furniture polished. The twin beds at the top of the two-story suite's wooden staircase were just as they had been the evening before — bedspreads pulled taut, pillows fluffed, sheets neatly smoothed. Clean towels hung in the bathroom. Soap, still in its paper wrapper, sat beside the sink. The penthouse suite was clean, orderly, and empty.
As the hours ticked by, no one — not the 30 hotel workers on the floor below, nor the housekeeper assigned to the penthouse level, nor the hotel security guards — spotted anyone enter or exit the room. Nor do they recall overhearing anything out of the ordinary.
Shortly after noon, a scarlet-color mark on the pale carpet outside the door caught the eye of a passing maid.
It looked like blood.
Alarmed, she notified security.
"I knocked and [asked] if there is anything wrong," Aparicio later told police. A male voice, he contends, responded. "No, there is no problem," the man assured him through the closed door. "Everything is fine."
Ten minutes later the curious guard returned and rapped again. This time his quizzical tapping was met with an eerie silence. He cracked the door and ventured inside.
The room was in a shambles. Streaks of blood crossed the tile floor. Bullets, their casings strewn randomly around the suite, had torn holes in the furnishings.
On the floor a few feet away, Aparicio saw the first body. Fifty-three-year-old Jamaican Derrick Moo Young lay on his back, feet facing the door. He had been shot six times.
Upstairs the guard found Moo Young's 23-year-old son, Duane, slumped at the foot of a bed. He had been killed by a single bullet fired into his skull at close range, execution style.
Krishna Maharaj awoke October 16, 1986, and donned a white guayabera and dark pants. Shortly after 7:45 a.m., he climbed behind the wheel of his wife's blue Chevrolet Caprice and headed away from the couple's home in western Broward County, toward Miami.
The burly 47-year-old had gone from meager beginnings in Trinidad, struggling to be heard in a family of 13, to driving a truck to make ends meet, to becoming an importer in the United Kingdom. In England the jovial Londoner's name was as synonymous with high society as it was with a back-breaking work ethic and humility. His trade in bananas and West Indian produce had made him a millionaire.
When he and his wife Marita moved to the United States in the mid-Eighties to escape the British weather, Maharaj decided to try his hand at a new career: publishing. In 1985 he partnered with Derek Jhagroo, a Plantation doctor, to launch a small weekly, the Caribbean Times. They set about drumming up business in South Florida's tight-knit Caribbean community.
According to Maharaj, he was on one such errand that October morning in 1986, heading to the DuPont Plaza Hotel to meet a Bahamian businessman to discuss distributing the paper overseas. Maharaj would later come to believe the meeting was a trap — one he unwittingly walked into.
The 8:30 meeting, he says, was arranged by Neville Butler, a writer from a rival publication he'd hired as a freelancer a few weeks prior. By the time Maharaj parked in front of the hotel, Butler was there to greet him, and the two men headed up to Room 1215 to wait. Maharaj says he lounged around, sipped a soda, and watched a little television. When nobody had arrived by 10:20, the busy publisher left. At noon he had an appointment with a real estate agent in Margate to look over a strip mall he was interested in purchasing.
It was just after 11:00 when he pulled into the parking lot of his printing press in Fort Lauderdale and bumped into his friend, Caribbean Times staff writer Tino Geddes. The reporter was en route to a nearby café, and Maharaj decided to join him for a beer. Maharaj picked up the check and then split. "He paid, yeah," Geddes later testified, chuckling. "Kris always paid the check whenever we went out."
Maharaj and his accountant, George Bell, met with the real estate agent. Afterward, around 1:00, he invited the two men to lunch. According to the manager at Tark's seafood restaurant in Dania Beach, Maharaj enjoyed some oysters, washed them down with a beer, and paid the bill. He headed back to Margate with his two associates. The trio didn't part ways, documents show, until 3:30.
Shortly after nightfall, a City of Miami homicide detective received a call from Neville Butler, who claimed to have seen two people shot dead in a hotel room that afternoon. The killer, he claimed, was Krishna Maharaj, and he could be found at a Denny's near Miami International Airport.
Dressed in plainclothes and accompanied by another officer, Lt. John Burhmaster sped off to the diner, at LeJeune Road and NW 25th Street. Burhmaster slid in beside the unsuspecting Maharaj and stared him down. "I told him who I was, put my gun in his side, and told him to get up from the table and act like a gentleman," Burhmaster tells New Times. Maharaj obliged.
A mere dozen years before, in June 1974, the winning horse at Ascot — the British equivalent of the Kentucky Derby — belonged to a 35-year-old self-made millionaire from Trinidad. Maharaj had become the second-biggest racehorse owner in Britain. His thoroughbred, King Levanstell, had even beaten the queen's entry at Ascot.
Maharaj's high life was the product of years of dedication to the business he had started soon after arriving in London in 1960. What began with a $3000 bank loan to export beef to Nigeria turned into supplying shipping lines with food and then importing produce. Maharaj earned enough cash to complement his stable of 100-plus horses with a fleet of 24 Rolls Royces.
But even as the money poured in, the man with the lilting island accent shunned the idea of a home in Knightsbridge or Notting Hill — swanky London neighborhoods he could well afford — for a property adjacent to his company warehouses in the working-class district of Peckham, in the capital's south end. Maharaj also took on the financial burden of assisting many of his 10 siblings, even paying for one brother's law school tuition. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj went on to become attorney general of Trinidad and Tobago.
Enjoying the good times alongside Krishna Maharaj was a young bank worker, Marita, who had become his wife five months after they met at a party in London. The years rolled on; Maharaj expanded his real estate holdings, and in the mid-Eighties the couple came to soak up the Florida sun for a few months each year. They bought a large house on SW 193rd Lane, in a neighborhood in western Broward county. The first issue of the Caribbean Times was published July 4, 1986.
Three months later, Maharaj was charged with murdering Derrick and Duane Moo Young. In his October 1987 trial, it took the jury less than three hours to convict Maharaj. He was sentenced to death.
When the verdict was read, Maharaj collapsed. Marita sat weeping quietly in the first row. "My husband is a good man!" she exclaims during a recent telephone interview from her home in South Florida, where she has lived for more than two decades. "He did not do this. This has been a huge, a terrible mistake."
Maharaj, whose fortune has been long-since swallowed up by legal fees, denies any involvement in the Moo Young murders. He occupies an airless six-by-nine-foot cell in Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, which he calls home for 23 hours a day. Over the past two decades, his lawyers, Miami-based Ben Kuehne and UK-based Clive Stafford Smith — who are working the case pro bono — have gathered a wealth of evidence that raises doubts about Maharaj's guilt. Nonetheless few details of the bizarre trial — one that not only imploded in an orgy of corruption and betrayal, but also saw the original judge indicted on bribery and extortion charges related to previous cases — have surfaced in the American media.
Not even the British government knew about the case until the Londoner was already on death row.
Maharaj's death sentence was vacated in 1997 by Judge Jerald Bagley, citing a judge's request for the prosecution to prepare the death sentence order before the jury had even found Maharaj guilty. All of his subsequent appeals have been denied; his legal avenues are now exhausted. This past month, in a last-ditch attempt to prove his innocence, his lawyers filed for clemency. Maharaj is pleading with Gov. Charlie Crist to look at the facts and set him free.
"If the governor were to take his least knowledgeable attorney and say, 'Read it all,' even a law clerk would say, 'How did this man get convicted?'" says Ron Petrillo, the lead investigator hired by Maharaj's original defense attorney. In his first interview with American media, Petrillo, a former police officer, tells New Times: "I have no doubt in my mind that Kris Maharaj is anything but an innocent man who was falsely accused and falsely prosecuted. And if it can happen to him, it can happen to me. It can happen to you."
Adds Petrillo: "We treat animals in Florida better than we have Kris Maharaj."
How did a mild-mannered British businessman with no criminal record come to murder two men in a Miami hotel room?
The prosecution offered both a motive and two witnesses whose damning testimonies were crucial in putting Maharaj behind bars.
The meat of the prosecution's case was largely based on the testimony of the only eyewitness, Bahamian writer Neville Butler, who called the police.
Maharaj had known Derrick Moo Young for more than 20 years, and the two had become business partners in 1984. Indeed the Moo Youngs lived next door to the Maharajes in Broward County, but the two families had suffered a very public falling-out over a contentious real estate deal. Just a few months before the murders, Maharaj had filed a civil suit against Moo Young, alleging the Jamaican owed him more than $240,000.
According to Butler, Maharaj wanted to settle the dispute face-to-face. At Maharaj's request, Butler agreed to lure the elder Moo Young to Room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza, where Maharaj planned to reclaim his money.
Butler contends that when the Jamaican showed up — unexpectedly with his son — Maharaj jumped from behind the bathroom door with a gun. An argument ensued, and Maharaj shot Derrick Moo Young repeatedly. Butler claims he was ordered to tie up the son, who broke free and ran upstairs. Maharaj chased him down, Butler professes, and executed the young man he had known since he was a boy — a young man who had referred to Maharaj as "Uncle."
Butler alleges Maharaj then marched him, at gunpoint, to his car parked in front of the hotel, where the duo remained for the next three hours, watching for the police to arrive.
Butler's story was corroborated by the dozen sets of Maharaj's fingerprints found throughout the room, which Maharaj has never denied visiting. The projectiles and casings found at the scene were from a 9mm Smith & Wesson Model 39 gun, the same make and model Maharaj owned, one of 270,000 the company had produced to date.
However damaging, Butler's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies. The native Bahamian changed a number of elements of his story. First Butler said he was the one who reserved the room; then it was Maharaj. He admitted lying to police about when Maharaj allegedly appeared; first Butler claimed Maharaj showed up at the room unannounced after the Moo Youngs; then he said he leaped out from behind a door inside the suite after they had arrived. Butler also failed part of his polygraph — unlike Maharaj, who passed every question.
Lt. John Burhmaster says he "can't remember" why Butler was never given a paraffin test to corroborate his assertion that he did not fire a gun that morning, nor does Burhmaster recall why he neglected to examine or test Butler's clothing, even after the alleged eyewitness admitted he changed his blood-soaked attire before giving a statement. In fact Burhmaster failed to test any clothing or conduct any paraffin tests. "Maharaj had taken a shower," the lieutenant offers by way of explanation. Nor does Burhmaster, who today heads the Miami Police Department's homicide division, think it strange a murderer would kill two people, spare the only eyewitness, and then hold him at gunpoint for hours, yards away from the murder scene, before inexplicably allowing him to walk away.
The state's other main witness was Jamaican journalist Tino Geddes, who now lives in Kingston, where he freelances for the Sun-Sentinel, among other publications. Geddes had originally provided an alibi for Maharaj. The day after the murders, he told the Miami Herald: "I am certain that this man who I was sitting having a meal with [Maharaj, at Denny's] didn't shoot anybody shortly before that. From his demeanor, no human could sit there with his editor, his wife, and one of his main columnists and could put on an act like that."
But shortly before the trial, Geddes changed his story and testified Maharaj had been scheming to murder the Moo Youngs.
"At times, in better times, Kris was fun to be with, but there was a dark side and he had a temper," Geddes says in a thick Jamaican accent during a recent telephone interview with New Times. "The day he was arrested, he said, 'If anyone asks, you were with me.' At the time, I thought I was helping him; it was the sort of thing to do."
Geddes claims he was responsible for placing Maharaj in Fort Lauderdale at the time of the murders. "I convinced a businessman in Fort Lauderdale that events that actually happened on Wednesday were on the Thursday. It gave Kris an alibi."
When he realized the severity of the crimes with which his boss was charged, Geddes called his initial statement a complete lie. "Krishna Maharaj had solicited my assistance to murder certain people, including the Moo Youngs, at the very same hotel not two weeks before, but the Moo Youngs never turned up," Geddes told New Times. "On the second occasion he used Butler.... The rest is history.
"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is guilty."
Defense investigator Ron Petrillo, who got to know Geddes in the runup to the trial, offers a very different take. "A few weeks before the trial, [Tino] disappeared," recalls Petrillo. "My first reaction was that something had happened to him. Then he called me late one night at my office, and I could tell by the crackling on the line that he was overseas.
"He said, 'I'm afraid,' and I told him I could arrange protection for him. The next time I saw him was as a witness for the prosecution."
Geddes laughs at the notion he was threatened. "That's a lot of rubbish," he says with a stupefied chuckle.
Further straining his credibility, Geddes admits to New Times that at the time of Maharaj's trial, he was facing criminal charges for illegally bringing ammunition into Jamaica from the United States. The two Florida attorneys who led the prosecution against Maharaj flew to Jamaica and testified on Geddes's behalf to help him escape a jail sentence that might have resulted in his being incarcerated during Maharaj's trial.
"I imagine they felt obliged; they realized with my evidence they had their man," he postulates. Geddes also claims the pair helped him overcome a DUI charge, and that while the attorneys were in Jamaica, they accompanied their star witness to a lap-dancing bar.
Despite Geddes's damning U-turn, alibi witnesses swore Maharaj was in Fort Lauderdale when the Moo Youngs were shot. How did the prosecution convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt these witnesses were all lying? They didn't need to.
Maharaj's original defense lawyer, Eric Hendon — now a Miami-Dade County Court judge — never called them to testify. (In the 20 years since the murders, these witnesses have either died or moved away, or could not be located.)
"When Eric stood up to begin the defense portion of the trial," says Petrillo, who was seated next to Maharaj at the time, "he simply said, 'The defense rests.' The prosecutors' jaws dropped, their mouths fell open, and their eyes got as big as saucers. I thought they were going to fall off their chairs.
"Kris was holding my arm so tight I thought he was going to draw blood."
What would make an alleged accomplished attorney fail to call alibi witnesses to testify in a capital murder case?
Hendon declined an interview with New Times, but he told an appeals court the witnesses had retracted their statements.
The assertion makes Petrillo laugh. "They didn't retract their statements, no way." Swiping his spectacles down his nose, he rubs his eyes. "I talked to those people. There is no way Kris was in Miami when the Moo Youngs were shot. No way.
"I felt so ashamed that day," he says.
During Maharaj's trial, the prosecution presented Derrick and Duane Moo Young as an honest, hardworking father and son. Their tax returns showed an annual income of $20,000. But documents found in their briefcase the day they were shot dead — which Petrillo claims Miami Police Lieutenant Burhmaster withheld and, therefore, were not presented during the trial — suggest the Jamaicans were not what they appeared.
"I went to the evidence room and I told Burhmaster I wanted to see the briefcase," says Petrillo, who claims he was given the briefcase — empty. "Burhmaster told me there was no evidentiary value to the contents and he had returned them to the family."
The contents of the briefcase were miraculously recovered years later. What Burhmaster referred to as "just a bunch of papers," actually included one-million-dollar life insurance policies underwritten just three weeks before the murders, and $1.5 billion in loans. A senior manager from Ernst & Young later studied the documents and concluded it "was difficult to rationalize how the Moo Youngs could have become involved in legitimate business dealings of this magnitude." They were, she deduced, either selling drugs or laundering money.
According to the defense, the briefcase contained evidence that the Moo Youngs were heavily involved with drug traffickers from Colombia's Medellín cartel. "It is a shame to have to speak ill of the dead, but unfortunately there were a large number of people who had a motive to kill them," Maharaj's defense team told an appeals court two years ago. They then drew particular attention to another Trinidadian native living in South Florida at the time of the killings, Adam Hosein.
Hosein — who is believed to be residing in his homeland but could not be located for an interview — owned a garage in Broward County. He also knew Maharaj from England and bore such a striking resemblance to the Londoner that he reportedly assumed his identity to get into horse races. Hosein was also a business associate of the Moo Youngs, and allegedly owed them a substantial amount of money.
"I have a sworn statement from a George Abchal in Fort Lauderdale, who used to work at Hosein's garage," says Petrillo. "It was notarized, signed, and tape-recorded. He said Hosein kept a gun and a silencer in the drawer of the desk, and on the morning of the murders, he said, Hosein took the gun and left." The gun, Abchal claimed, was a 9mm Smith & Wesson, the same type of weapon used to kill the Moo Youngs.
Says Petrillo: "Ask yourself 'Why is it that nobody heard anything?'"
Abchal also said that days before the Moo Youngs were killed, Hosein had tried to buy six kilos of cocaine from them on credit. They kicked him out because he allegedly owed them too much money.
Court documents show Hosein also had power of attorney over one of the Moo Youngs' two Panamanian corporations. And he placed a call to Room 1215 the day of the murders.
Hosein came from a notoriously violent family. In a celebrated 1970 trial at London's Old Bailey, Hosein's brothers, Arthur and Nizam, were convicted of murdering the spouse of a top newspaper executive. They had planned to kidnap the wife of publishing tycoon Rupert Murdoch but seized the wrong woman. The duo reportedly chopped up the victim and fed her remains to pigs. The case became so infamous that the Hosein brothers were featured in the Chamber of Horrors at London's Madame Tussauds wax museum.
Police never investigated Hosein in the murders of the Moo Youngs. He wasn't even questioned.
Another potential player, Jaime Mejias, a Colombian importer/exporter from Medellín who rented Room 1214, across the hall from 1215, was linked to Hosein, documents show. "I questioned him," an indignant Lieutenant Burhmaster retorts, explaining how he chatted with Mejias from the doorway to his suite. Burhmaster says he peered inside the room, without entering, and "everything seemed fine." Mejias was ruled out as a suspect, according to Burhmaster, because he "seemed legit." The officer never verified Mejias's alibi, nor did he take his fingerprints.
After occupying an office on the sixth floor of the DuPont Plaza for more than seven years, Mejias disappeared immediately following the murders. He hasn't been seen since.
Conservative Member of Parliament Peter Bottomley gave up his seat at Princess Diana's 1997 funeral in Westminster Abbey to appear before a Florida appeals court on behalf of Krishna Maharaj.
He is one of aproximately 300 British politicians who have since signed a petition calling for a retrial of the Londoner. The list includes some high-ranking members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet.
But despite the support, in 2004 Miami Magistrate Judge William C. Turnoff rejected Maharaj's request, stating that "newly discovered evidence which goes only to guilt or innocence is insufficient to warrant relief." Under Florida law, it seems, evidence that could prove a man's innocence is not enough to warrant action.
Last year, after the Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Maharaj ran out of legal options.
Throughout the 20-year ordeal, Maharaj's Portuguese-born wife Marita has remained thousands of miles from her friends in Britain and steadfast in her devotion. For the 15 years her husband was on death row, she regularly made the 700-mile round trip to the prison in Starke, northeast of Gainesville. Today the jovial middle-age beauty resides in Tamarac. "I got married to Kris for life; I married him because I love him. And I will be here as long as he needs me ... as long as it takes to get him out of this."
Clemency is her husband's only hope. At the mere mention of the hearing, which isn't likely to be held until 2008, Marita chuckles heartily. "I've already started packing. Believe it or not, I started boxing everything up ... ready for when Kris comes home...." The rich laughter soon fades to a weary sigh. "I laugh, yes, but this is not a joke. We have been through hell.... I just want for us to go home, to London, to live out the rest of our days quietly."
Back home, some of Britain's top legal minds are rallying to help. In August former British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist: "The case concerns serious acts of double murder, and there is a real question whether they were committed by Mr. Maharaj." A second former British attorney general, Sir Nicholas Lyell, brands the case "a serious miscarriage of justice."
The odds of an unjust conviction in a capital case are greater in Florida than any other state in the Union. Since 1973, 124 death row inmates from 25 states have been exonerated and freed from prison. Almost one-fifth were convicted in Florida courts.
"I'm away from my wife and my family ... for something that I didn't do and I knew nothing about," the ailing 68-year-old muses during a 2004 BBC interview.
A lengthy pause. "This is a nightmare. It has to end."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.