Melbourne family’s grief laid bare in French court

WITHOUT A TRACE – ‘It was nine days of weeping, of unbelievable torture’


THERE are many thoughts that torture the family of murdered young Australian woman Jeanette O’Keefe. One of the worst, her sister Denise told a French court on Thursday, was how she would have suffered while being strangled to death.
“Her worst fear, always, as a child and teenager, was that she couldn’t breathe,” Denise said. “She wouldn’t wear necklaces until she was much older. How did it feel [to be killed like that]?”
Denise, 42, and her sister Christine, 31, stood in the Versailles courtroom holding each other up, with one speaking for the other each time one broke down — which was often.
They were telling a judge, two magistrates and six jurors what the effect had been on the O’Keefe family of the death of Jeanette on New Year’s Eve 11 years ago. She failed to board a flight she had booked to New York, and her body was later found bashed, strangled and dumped in a sleeping bag in a car park in a dingy Paris suburb.
Earlier in the trial, a juror had asked a forensic witness if it had been a quick death. No, was the reply; she was beaten many times around the head, probably with an iron pipe. It appeared that she regained consciousness and was then strangled; and then strangled again.
Adriano Araujo da Silva, 37, a Brazilian-born Guyanese who emigrated to France, is charged with Jeanette’s murder and has pleaded not guilty. He was arrested in 2008 when DNA evidence allegedly linked him to the crime. He confessed three times to police and judges before retracting his confession.
By January 2, 2001, the family knew Jeanette, a computer programmer who had been on a European holiday, was missing. Before her body was found, “it was nine days of weeping, of unbelievable torture”, Denise said.
On the other hand, no body led them to hope against hope, said Christine. “Until this happened we had some belief that maybe, maybe it wasn’t her . . . you hold on to every little bit of possibility.”
Even now, she said, family members still have dreams of Jeanette still alive, and feel new grief every time they return to the world of daylight. “Nothing compares to that feeling of having to wake up to the reality of it,” she said.
Their mother had feared she had cancer but refused to go to the doctor until the remains of her daughter, 28, could be brought home to Melbourne for a funeral. Because of the police investigation, this took months.
“And by the time she went to the doctor, the cancer had spread, so her risk of not surviving was very high,” said Denise, weeping. “So then we thought that we would lose our sister and our mother in the same year.”
The sisters’ parents, Kevin and Susan O’Keefe, felt too ill to make the trip to France.
Araujo da Silva watched impassively as the sisters struggled to tell their story.
A psychologist, Sylvia Lefort, told the court that she had found Araujo da Silva derogatory towards women, whom he viewed as objects, as well as lacking in self-control, compassion and guilt. But she said he was not a psychopath. She also reported that there was a disconnection between reality and his perception of reality, and that he changed his versions of stories to make them correspond to how he imagined himself. But he was not delusional, she said.
The judge-and-jury panel of nine was expected to retire to consider its verdict overnight. Five votes are required for a conviction, and if the verdict is guilty the panel will also decide upon a sentence. Araujo da Silva has said he would appeal a guilty verdict.
For the O’Keefe sisters, even a guilty verdict will not put the matter to rest. Jeanette’s movements in her last hours are still a mystery. Only her killer knows the full story.
At the end of her speech, Denise told the court that what the family most wanted was the truth. She shot a look at the accused and told him, with barely controlled fury, “Just the truth!”

First published in The Age.