30 years in jail: Krishna Maharaj still resides in a Florida jail

30 years in jail: Krishna Maharaj still resides in a Florida jail

There was a time when Krishna Maharaj led a rarefied existence. 

The South London businessman mingled with the rich and famous, gave generously to charity and owned a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a string of racehorses. 

Yet today, at the age of 78 and in poor health, he languishes after 30 years in a Florida jail, convicted of shooting dead two Chinese-Jamaicans in 1986, a father and son called Derrick and Duane Moo Young.

Maharaj’s life sentence is widely acknowledged to be one of the most grotesque miscarriages in the US. His only ‘crime’ was to be owed money by the Moo Youngs following a property deal.

His case has been championed by British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith of the organisation Reprieve who, after an investigation spanning more than two decades has finally established the truth: that the two dead men were murdered not by Maharaj, but on the orders of the late Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar.

Last week in a decisive breakthrough, an American court ruled there should be a new hearing in the case. Here Stafford Smith recalls his journey into the horrifying world of real-life Miami Vice in the hunt for justice.

The apartment was modest, the plumbing primitive. In the bathroom, the rickety ‘shower’ had lost its showerhead. There was nothing unusual, no sense of danger, no sign of the vast wealth or the criminal masterminds that had brought me there.

Yet this was Medellin, capital of the infamous Colombian cocaine trade and a city once described as the most dangerous on earth.

And the man sitting with me was Jorge ‘Choncho’ Maya, wanted in America on charges of laundering billions of dollars of drug moneys.

Clive Stanford Smith has established that the two dead men were murdered not by Maharaj, but on the orders of the late Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar (pictured)

Clive Stanford Smith has established that the two dead men were murdered not by Maharaj, but on the orders of the late Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar (pictured)

It was hard to reconcile his timid and deferential demeanour with his reputation as the fearsome enforcer of a murderous gang that once supplied 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine.

Now, Choncho was about to tell me a story that might clear the name of Kris Maharaj, the South London businessman facing a slow death behind the bars of a Florida penitentiary. Despite a solid alibi, Maharaj, once one of Britain’s richest men, had been convicted of shooting dead Derrick and Duane Moo Young in Room 1215 of the giant Dupont Plaza hotel in Miami on October 16, 1986.

The road to Colombia had been a long one. I was first asked to help on the Maharaj case 24 years ago as part of my work defending prisoners on death row in American prisons. Maharaj was dragged into the investigation because he had been invited to a meeting the same day in the same hotel room. His fingerprints were there.

The police said his motive was $400,000 that the Moo Youngs owed him from a business deal (although he had just sued them to get the money back).

But the criminal underworld had long known something else about the Miami killings, something crucial: that the murders had in fact been ordered by the notorious drugs lord Pablo Escobar. The Moo Youngs owed him money, too.

The case has been championed by British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, of the organisation Reprieve, who has been investigating for more than two decades

The case has been championed by British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, of the organisation Reprieve, who has been investigating for more than two decades

I had driven across several southern states on a tour of bleak prisons to ask for the help of imprisoned narco-gangsters.

I had stayed in some roach-infested motels, and dined at some fairly poisonous fast food restaurants. Federal prisons look rather like motel chains these days, though even less welcoming.

Once inside, my pitch was simple. I represented a British businessman, Kris Maharaj, who had been in prison for 30 years after being convicted of the murders. Could they help free an innocent man?

Remarkably, several agreed to tell me what they knew. I spoke with a former head of the Cali cartel, with men high up in the Medellin cartel, with men who had once been cocaine billionaires who now languished in penitentiaries.

My message resonated with them: I believe there is a lot of good in everyone, even if they are said to be cocaine barons with blood on their hands. They confirmed what I already suspected – that the case was inextricably linked with the narcotics trade, and I would find the truth in Colombia…

Medellin was capital of the infamous Colombian cocaine trade and a city once described as the most dangerous on earth

Medellin was capital of the infamous Colombian cocaine trade and a city once described as the most dangerous on earth

I had been briefed about Choncho by a man called Henry Cuervo, a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Years before, Cuervo had put together an indictment, or charge, against Choncho, who he described as Pablo Escobar’s enforcer in Miami in the mid-1980s. In their heyday, the drug cartels had owned Miami – the guns, the smart hotels and even the local police.

Now, the unassuming Choncho, who seemed to doff an imaginary hat to everyone around him, was confirming he had indeed worked for Escobar, recalling that in the summer of 1986, the drugs lord had sent one of his most trusted assassins, a man nicknamed Cuchilla, or The Blade, to Florida on a special mission. ‘Cuchilla had a group of assassins who would come to Miami for six months at a time, travelling illegally through the Bahamas on private planes,’ he explained. The Colombian drugs cartels were infamous for ruthlessly disposing of anyone who got in their way.

I asked him what he knew. ‘One thing I can say with 100 per cent certainty is that your man Maharaj had nothing to do with their murder,’ he said. ‘The Moo Youngs owed Pablo Escobar money. Pablo Escobar was mad at them.’

Choncho had good reason to know. His own brother Luis had been involved with paying Cuchilla for the assassinations – four separate payments of $200,000, $150,000, $300,000 and $300,000. That’s just shy of a million dollars.

He was, he said, willing to provide a signed statement and testify in court – though he could not travel to the USA. After all, Henry Cuervo had an indictment waiting for him in Miami which accused him of laundering $2.5 billion for Escobar. 

Next, I went to see Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother, now in his sixties. We met in the dishevelled space in front of a house guarded by a 15ft padlocked gate. We sat on plastic chairs, under a white umbrella. 

Thanks to a parcel bomb, he was short of sight – he seemed almost blind – and hard of hearing. He was wearing a Polo shirt and a US Polo Association cap.

Mr Stafford Smith and Maharaj's wife, Marita Maharaj, pose for a picture in Miami, Florida back in December 2012

Mr Stafford Smith and Maharaj’s wife, Marita Maharaj, pose for a picture in Miami, Florida back in December 2012

There’s no doubt Roberto, once accountant to a large percentage of the world’s narcotics money, knew many secrets. Certainly he knew Cuchilla, offering to introduce me to the assassin’s close friend Valentin and another of Escobar’s hired killers, nicknamed Popeye.

Popeye, too, would know all about the Moo Young case.

Surely, if we could get him on the record, that would be enough for a new trial for Kris?

Mail on Sunday’s battle for justice 

Popeye – Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez – was a man who claimed to come from the extreme end of Escobar’s violent operation. In 1991, he turned himself in to the authorities in Colombia and confessed to a staggering 3,500 murders, including the country’s attorney general and 70 policemen in Medellin in one year, 1990, alone.

It also turned out that in prison he had reconnected with his Christian faith so for us, too, there was hope.

I used an intermediary to ask Popeye what he knew which, when it came to Kris Maharaj was nothing.

But, crucially, he did know about the Moo Youngs, whose unusual name he had remembered. ‘I knew about the murders in Miami at the time they happened,’ Popeye said.

‘Escobar complained directly to me that the Moo Youngs had stolen his money and had to die. Escobar told me the money was entrusted to them to be taken to Switzerland. They were using a bank in Panama that the Moo Youngs said they or their contacts controlled.

‘One of the people who committed the murders was Guillermo Zuluaga, who went by the name Cuchilla. I know this because he admitted to me in person he had done it.’

Cuchilla himself was long gone and in no position to verify the story. His Colombian rivals fed him into a wood chipper.

Back in Miami, I had another breakthrough. There, I met up with David Adams, a US-based British journalist who knew of a man called Baruch Vega, a Colombian former fashion photographer with a sideline as an undercover operative for the CIA, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

I had heard Baruch’s nickname ‘Dr B’ before. He was hated by Popeye. When I phoned Baruch at his Los Angeles home, he immediately volunteered that the Moo Young murders were committed by Cuchilla. He had no idea that Kris Maharaj had been convicted and added: ‘We need to talk in person.’

I felt this might finally crack the case – and in such a way that no sane court could possibly refuse Kris justice.

Krishna Maharaj sits in Circuit Court during a legal hearing in Miami, Florida, November 10, 2014

Krishna Maharaj sits in Circuit Court during a legal hearing in Miami, Florida, November 10, 2014

We met at Baruch’s apartment in a gated community. Baruch was an elaborately genteel gentleman in his late 60s now living in somewhat reduced circumstances. His own story was remarkable.

He had a PhD in civil engineering, had worked for the CIA in Chile where he had helped overthrow the Allende regime in 1973, and later became a successful fashion photographer who sold his agency for £2 million.

In 1978, he moved to Miami, where his family connections to Escobar insiders saw him invited into the homes of powerful Colombian drug lords. So began his main work as an informant: reporting what he learned and later convincing traffickers to hand themselves in. He explained how he sought to persuade a range of targets that the US government was on their heels; that it was safer to negotiate and that, for a steep price, he could bribe judges or prosecutors to get a sweetheart deal.

All the time he was being run by DEA Group 43, who viewed this as the easiest and most effective way to catch criminals – the criminals would pay for the privilege of turning themselves in.

The Moo Youngs owed Escobar money

The Moo Youngs owed Escobar money

Coming from a large family in Colombia gave him some very direct connections to the players in the Moo Young murders.

Baruch said there was no question the Moo Youngs had stolen money and ‘merchandise’ from Escobar and that their killing was a drugs assassination. He then brought up Cuchilla, whom he described as an Escobar hit man – someone he had actually met.

Baruch was certain he had informed his handlers about this at the time – which means, disturbingly, that the US authorities knew that the Moo Youngs were killed by the Medellin cartel long before Kris Maharaj was sent to trial.

In fact, according to Baruch, this would be clear in the official documents from the time, if only we could get access to them.

This was very exciting – if we found documentary proof that the government knew the cartel did the Moo Young murders, going all the way back to the time of Kris’ trial 30 years ago, it ought to be game over. State agents would have known Escobar ordered the murders – yet the information had never been disclosed.

A week-long hearing was scheduled before Judge William Thomas, an Afro-American former public defender, in November 2014. I was hopeful. After much legal wrangling, we presented our six key witnesses – some, including Choncho and Popeye, were ‘beamed in’ from Colombia because they could not return to the United States.

We also produced Dr B, ‘John Brown’ a witness who came forward on the strict proviso his name did not appear in the public record, and Henry Cuervo, the retired DEA agent, who savaged the original investigation and told the court that Popeye had admitted to him directly that Escobar arranged the hit on the Moo Youngs.

The hearing went well – so well that as I left the courtroom that Friday, I felt confident. When we convened again on January 9, 2015, for the judgment, Judge Thomas was all smiles, which further boosted my feeling of wellbeing.

An aerial view over the Barrios Pobre of Medellin, where Pablo Escobar had many supporters

An aerial view over the Barrios Pobre of Medellin, where Pablo Escobar had many supporters

He read his ruling out. It began promisingly and then started to go downhill fast as, one-by-one, he disparaged the witnesses. Finally, the bombshell dropped. ‘Krishna Maharaj’s motion is denied.’

To his great credit, Kris refused to be disheartened. Now 78 and in poor health, he retains commendable optimism that justice will finally be done. We appealed against Judge Thomas’s ruling and last week, in a breakthrough legal finding, appeal judges at the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta, Georgia, agreed there was compelling new evidence. They sent the case back to a federal court in Miami for a full hearing.

This came without any help from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is meant to enforce the promise in Kris’s British passport to ‘afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary’. He has failed to do so.

We will be filing a writ of habeas corpus – a demand that Kris be freed – within the next two weeks and expect a hearing in the summer. It is a journey that has taken me half way across the world on too many occasions.

But now I am confident we will win and that one final journey will bring Kris Maharaj back to Britain, where he belongs.