”We are innocent” … the friends in Sydney on Saturday.The six young Australians accused of a murder in Peru have spoken for the first time as a group to protest their innocence and put their side of the story.
In an exclusive interview in Sydney yesterday with The Sun-Herald, they spoke of how their dream South American holiday was now turning into a nightmare.
Sitting around a table in the backyard of a home in Willoughby, they expressed disbelief that they were being accused of killing a doorman by pushing him to his death from the 15th floor of their luxury Lima apartment block.
The doorman, Lino Rodriguez Vilchez, 46, died on January 19.
The incident was treated at first as a suicide but Peruvian police now allege it was homicide and are pointing the finger at the six Australians who had checked into the apartment a couple of hours earlier.
A judge is now looking into the case and there is talk of extradition.
Deeply concerned at the recent developments, Jessica Vo and the five others decided it was time to speak out. They told The Sun-Herald that some details reported about them have been simply untrue. And the group – three from NSW and three from Victoria – revealed they would send statements to the judge looking into the case.
”It now looks as though we may become victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Ms Vo, who is acting as the group’s spokeswoman. ”Following a campaign by the doorman’s brother, the case has been reopened. We are being completely wrongly accused of throwing him off our balcony. He was never in our room.”
Indeed, the six are adamant that there was no balcony on the side of the building from which the doorman fell. Nor, as previously reported, were they drunk, having arrived about 12.30 in the afternoon. Nor was there a party.
The six said they had checked into the upmarket apartment, treating themselves after an arduous few days trekking at Machu Picchu and a 21-hour bus trip. Ms Vo said yesterday their first contact with Mr Rodriguez was on arrival and he helped carry their bags to the lift. She said he did not go up to their room.
A short time later, they had gone to buy groceries and asked him for directions to the nearest corner store, returning about 20 minutes later.
”He [Mr Rodriguez] was definitely not there [on the door] when we returned,” said Hugh Hanlon, Ms Vo’s boyfriend. ”All six of us went up in the elevator, we started to unpack the groceries. From the time we walked into the apartment to the time we heard the scream was about two minutes.
”We heard a thud and it was, ‘Did everyone hear that?’ sort of thing.”
Like many others in the apartment block, they had looked out a window and seen a body below. At that stage, they did not know who it was.
Later that afternoon, the police had arrived – the first of three or four visits from uniformed and plainclothes officers, and some men in white ”lab coats.” During one visit, officers took photos of the group’s passports.
The language barrier proved a serious problem in communicating, they said. All six said they did not understand why the police had returned so many times to talk to them.
Mr Hanlon said he then contacted the Australian embassy and told them ”exactly what happened”.
A couple of hours later, the embassy had called him back and told him ”we were fine to go”.
Contrary to earlier reports that the six had ”fled” the country, Ms Vo, Mr Hanlon and the others stayed in the apartment on January 19 and 20. Sam Smith and Andrew Pilat from Sydney and Harrison Geier, originally from Wagga Wagga but now living in Sydney, then left on January 21 for Brazil.
Ms Vo said yesterday, they left ”on a flight booked two months before”.
Ms Vo, Mr Hanlon and his younger brother Tom stayed in Peru. They said they caught a bus to Mancora, where they stayed three more nights before heading to Ecuador.
”Allegations have been made that we fled the country,” she said. ”This is totally untrue.”
Ms Vo spoke yesterday about how the trip had come about.
”[Hugh] surprised me with it, it was the most amazing present,” she said. ”For me it was a new beginning because I had just battled though ovarian cancer.”
Mr Hanlon’s brother Tom, joined them after they started their travels.
Ms Vo said they then met Mr Smith, Mr Pilat and Mr Geier in South America and struck up a friendship.
Being accused of murder and the media publicity has taken its toll.
”It’s affected our lives, it’s had a big impact,” Ms Vo said. ”Not just ours but our families and our friends.
People don’t understand how hard it is, being international as well.”
Mr Geier, a journalism student at UTS, said he found out about the accusations on Facebook about two weeks ago. ”It’s not regular to have Spanish people add to your Facebook profile.”
When he hit on a link he saw articles from the Peruvian media. While they were not in English it was apparent what they were about. ”I immediately just called everyone.”
Ms Vo said the group were now preparing to send statements to the judge who had been directed to look into the matter.
”We are now being told that the judge will issue an order ‘to capture and detain’ us and that this announcement is imminent,” Ms Vo said.
”We know little of the Peruvian law and respect the due process of Peru’s legal system but the ramifications of that order on us, completely without foundation, is terribly unfair.
”What we are asking is that this judge reserve his decision until he has heard our version of events. That at least is fair. We are innocent.”
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, said he was aware of the case. ”I have asked the department to ensure full consular support is provided and to be kept informed of developments,” he said.
Ms Vo and her friends said that, apart from this incident, they had a wonderful time in South America, and that Peru had been ”exciting” and its people ”kind and helpful.”
Some in the group want to go back and want the matter resolved as soon as possible.
Ms Vo said all six had become close while travelling and that the friendship had developed further since.
”We are the six best friends that anyone could ever have,” she quipped, to laughter and gentle ribbing from the others.
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