Maharaj went from the high life to a life sentence — 20 years so far for a crime he may not have committed
By Joanne Green
Published: September 27, 2007
Krishna "Kris" Maharaj awoke on 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 associated with both high society — he even made a splash among the horsy set as owner of the winning horse at Ascot in 1974, the British equivalent of the Kentucky Derby — and with a stubborn 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-1980s to escape the British weather, Maharaj decided to try his hand at a new career: publishing. In 1985, he partnered with Dereck Jhagroo, a Plantation doctor, to launch a small weekly, the Caribbean Times. They set about drumming up business among 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 in downtown Miami to meet Bahamian businessman Eddie Dames to discuss distributing his paper overseas. Maharaj would later come to believe the meeting was a trap — one that would lead to charges against him for the murder of two men and a date with a lethal injection.
The 8:30 a.m. meeting, Maharaj says, was arranged by Neville Butler, a freelance writer he'd hired from a rival publication a few weeks prior. By the time he'd parked in front of the hotel, Butler was there to greet him, and the two men headed up to room 1215, but Dames wasn't there. Maharaj says he lounged around waiting, sipping a soda, watching a little TV. When nobody had arrived by 10:20, the busy publisher left.
It was just after 11 a.m. by the time 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 split. "He paid, yeah," Geddes later testified, chuckling. "Kris always paid the check whenever we went out."
Maharaj then met with his accountant, George Bell, and a real-estate agent, inviting the two of them to lunch about 1 p.m. According to the manager at Tark's seafood restaurant in Hollywood, Maharaj enjoyed some oysters, washed them down with a beer, and paid the bill. He headed back to Margate with his two associates, parting ways with them at 3:30 p.m.
Shortly after nightfall, a City of Miami homicide detective received a call from Butler, who claimed to have seen two people shot dead in a hotel room that afternoon. The killer, he claimed, was Maharaj, and he could be found at a Denny's near Miami International Airport.
Dressed in plain clothes and accompanied by another officer, Lt. John Burhmaster sped off to the diner, at Le Jeune 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 recalls. Maharaj obliged.
Maharaj was charged with the deaths of Derrick Moo Young, 53, and his 23-year-old son, Duane. The two Jamaican men were found shot to death in room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza, Dames' room, after a housekeeper spotted a red stain seeping under the hotel room's door. It was blood.
A year later, in Maharaj's October 1987 trial, it took the jury less than three hours to convict him. He was sentenced to death. When the verdict was read, Maharaj collapsed and his wife sat sobbing quietly in the first row.
"My husband is a good man," she exclaimed 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, housed now in a six-by-nine-foot cell at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, his large fortune long since swallowed up by legal fees, denies any involvement in the Moo Young murders.
Over the past two decades, his lawyers, Miami-based Ben Kuehne and U.K.-based Clive Stafford Smith — who are working his case pro bono — have gathered a wealth of evidence that raises doubts about his guilt. Still, few details of the trial — one that not only imploded in a welter of corruption and betrayal but also saw the original trial judges indicted on bribery and extortion charges related to previous cases — have surfaced in American media.
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 his subsequent appeals have been denied; all 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?' " scoffs Ron Petrillo, the lead investigator hired by Maharaj's original defense attorney.
How did a mild-mannered British businessman with no criminal record or known propensity for violence come to murder two men in a Miami hotel room?
The prosecution offered both a motive and two witnesses whose damning testimony was crucial in putting Maharaj behind bars. The meat of the prosecution's case was largely based on the testimony of the only witness, Butler.
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 Maharaj in Broward County, but the two families had suffered a falling-out over a contentious real estate deal. Just a few months before the murders, Maharaj had filed a civil suit against Derrick Moo Young alleging that 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 said, he 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 that he was ordered to tie up the son but that he broke free and ran upstairs. Maharaj chased him down, Butler professed, and executed the young man he had known since he was a boy, a young man who referred to Maharaj as "Uncle."
Butler then alleges Maharaj marched him — at gunpoint — to his car in front of the hotel, where the duo remained for the next three hours, watching for police to arrive.
Butler's story was supported by the dozen sets of Maharaj's fingerprints found throughout the room, which Maharaj had never denied visiting. The projectiles and casings found at the scene were from a 9mm Smith & Wesson, like one owned by Maharaj (and about 270,000 other people, his attorney pointed out).
However damaging Butler's testimony was, it was inconsistent, and he changed a number of elements at various times. First it was Butler who reserved the room; then it was Maharaj. He admitted lying to police about when Maharaj allegedly appeared — first, Butler claimed he showed up at the room unannounced after the Moo Youngs; then he said he leaped out from behind a door inside the suite once 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 failed to examine or test Butler's clothing, though the alleged witness 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," Burhmaster, who today heads the City of Miami Police Department's homicide division, offered by way of explanation. Burhmaster said he did not think it strange that a murderer would kill two people, spare the only witness, then hold him at gunpoint for hours yards away from the murder scene before 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 witness 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, he changed his story and testified that 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 said 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 says 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, though, Geddes called his initial statement a 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 run-up to the trial, offers a different take. "A few weeks before the trial, [Geddes] disappeared," Petrillo recalls. "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 that he was threatened. "That's a lot of rubbish," he says.
But Geddes concedes that he was facing criminal charges at the time of Maharaj's trial 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 his behalf to help him escape a jail sentence that might have resulted in his being incarcerated at the time of Maharaj's trial.
"I imagine they felt obliged; they realized with my evidence, they had their man," he says. Geddes also says that the attorneys helped him overcome a DUI charge and that while the prosecuting attorneys were in Jamaica, they accompanied their star witness to a lap-dancing bar.
Despite Geddes' 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 that 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, 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 says, 'The defense rests.' The prosecutor's jaw 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."
Petrillo claims that Hendon may have been under pressure.
"A few weeks before the trial, Hendon calls me early one morning," Petrillo recalls. "He told me someone had called him at home and threatened him." Hendon offered no greater detail at the time, and though he declined an interview with New Times, he told an appeals court that the witnesses had retracted their statements.
The assertion made Petrillo laugh. "They didn't retract their statements, no way."
During Maharaj's trial, the prosecution presented the Moo Youngs as honest and hard-working. Their tax returns showed an annual income of $20,000. Yet documents found in their briefcase the day they were shot dead suggest that the Jamaicans were not what they appeared.
The contents of the Moo Youngs' briefcase — which were mysteriously not available during the trial — included $1 million in 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 that it "was difficult to rationalize how the Moo Youngs could have become involved in legitimate business dealing of this magnitude." They were, she deduced, either selling drugs or laundering money.
"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 who was 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 Maharaj's 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," Petrillo says. "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 murder, he said Hosein took the gun and left." The gun, Abchal claimed, was a Smith & Wesson, identical to the 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 kilograms of cocaine from them on credit. They declined because he allegedly owed them too much money. Court documents show that Hosein also had power of attorney over one of the Moo Youngs' two Panamanian corporations and that Hosein had placed a call to room 1215 the day of the murders. But police never investigated Hosein in connection with the Moo Youngs.
Another potential player, Jaime Mejías, a Colombian importer/exporter from Medellín who rented room 1214, across the hall from 1215, was linked to Hosein, documents show. "I questioned him," Burhmaster retorts, explaining how he chatted with Mejías from the doorway to his suite. Burhmaster says that he peered inside the room without ever entering and that "everything seemed fine." Mejías was ruled out as a suspect, according to Burhmaster, because he "seemed legit." Burhmaster never verified Mejías' alibi, nor did he take his fingerprints or ask him to explain the bloodstain on the door frame of his room.
Immediately following the murders, after occupying an office on the sixth floor of the DuPont Plaza for more than seven years, Mejías disappeared. He was never seen again.
Conservative British 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 about 300 British politicians who have since signed a petition calling for a retrial of the Londoner, a list that includes some high-ranking members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet.
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." Last year, after the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Maharaj ran out of legal options.
Marita, Maharaj's Portuguese-born wife, remains in Florida, away from European family and friends, steadfast in her devotion. For the 15 years her husband was on death row, she regularly made the 700-mile roundtrip to the prison in Starke, northeast of Gainesville. Today, she lives 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 is soon replaced by 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."
Some of Britain's top legal minds are rallying to help. In August, former British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith wrote to 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."
"I'm away from my wife and my family...," the ailing 68-year-old Maharaj mused during a BBC interview in 2004, "for something that I didn't do and I knew nothing about. This is a nightmare. It has to end."