The sun, sand and rocking nightlife of the famed beaches of Goa hide a dark underbelly: The iconic holiday destination has claimed the lives of roughly 20 foreigners every year in the last decade or so.
The rape and murder of 28-year-old Irish woman Danielle McLaughlin in Canacona in March this year was only the latest in a long list of crimes against foreigners in the coastal state.
According to an RTI reply accessed by a local activist in support of relatives of several of the deceased, a shocking 245 foreigners have died in Goa in the last 12 years.
The state police cracked the Danielle case by swiftly arresting the accused, a tour guide she was last seen with, but her family and friends allege more than one person was involved in the crime and that she was gangraped before being killed.
The arrest of tour guide Vikas Bhagat may have given a partial closure to Danielle’s family, but several relatives of other foreigners who died under suspicious circumstances say their cases are stuck in the vortex of the Indian criminal-justice system.
The RTI reply that details the cause, time and place of death at four coastal police stations where foreigners mostly frequent, has classified a majority of these deaths as “natural”. However, the relatives have alleged foul play in most of these cases and expressed dissatisfaction with the line of investigation.
What should worry the state that receives more than 5 lakh tourists every year is that more and more foreigners are raising their voice over safety and security issues. In at least half a dozen cases where the relatives managed to get the courts to order re-investigation, the “natural” deaths turned out to be pre-meditated murders.
Take the death of 22-year-old Finnish youth Felix Dahl. The Canacona police primary investigation said he had died due to an accidental fall, but a second autopsy done by the family in Finland revealed fatal injuries to his skull from a high impact weapon causing death.
The case was put up before the Canacona magistrate who ordered an FIR to be registered, two years after his death. Till date no one has been arrested or detained and the probe is only at the stage of questioning guides and bar owners in the area.
“Felix’s body was found on gravel around 200 metres away from a restaurant where he was last spotted. All the facts put up by the police were imaginary,” says his mother Minna Pirohnen, who challenged the police account in court and sought a fresh murder probe.
The mother says she suspected murder after she found out that Felix was last spotted with a man who was a close friend of Vikas Bhagat, the accused in the Danielle rape and murder case. “I do feel the police are always trying to cover these cases out of fear that it will damage the reputation of Goa,” says Pirohnen.
In the infamous Scarlett Keeling case of 2008, the police had initially dubbed it as death due to drowning and drug overdose. The case was transferred to the CBI and rape and murder charges were added only after the issue snowballed into a global outrage.
A similar case is that of Denyse Sweeney, a charity worker who was found unconscious at a night club in Vagator and later died during treatment on April 16, 2010. The medical report stated the likely cause as drug overdose. After intense pressure from the British family, the Anjuna police re-opened the case in 2012 and transferred it to CBI for a murder probe.
Recently, a meeting was held in Cheltenham, Glouchestershire, by the relatives of Stephen Benett who died in Goa in 2006 to discuss the dangers foreigners face there. It was attended by the sister and mother of Felix Dahl. Fiona Mackeown, mother of Scarlett Keeling, Amanda Benett whose brother Stephen died in 2006 and Maureen Sweeney, sister of Denyse Sweeney, also attended this meet.
“We all share the same misery. Our kin had gone to Goa to experience the beauty of the beaches and the much talked about serenity of the place, only to never come back. By coming together we feel that we will be able to make an impact on the authorities,” says Felix’s sister Sanna Cutter who also attended this meet.
She points out that the agonizing part in all the cases is the manner in which the police handled the probe. “Almost every death that happens around the beaches is rubbed off by the police as an accidental death caused either due to drowning or some other reason. They never try and probe into the matter. In the case of my brother a similar thing happened.”
Determined to get justice, these family members have taken their cause to social media – they are networking through Facebook pages like ‘Justice for Felix Dahl’ and ‘Justice for Danielle McLaughlin’. These pages give details of each incident, progress in the case and even crowd-funding the expenses for the legal battle. Talks are also on to file a joint petition seeking transfer of these cases to CBI.
The detailed classification of the 245 deaths in the last 12 years in the four districts of Anjuna, Pernem, Mapusa and Canacona were collected by the family members through RTIs and personal efforts. The families claim that in most cases the deaths have been listed as accidental or caused due to drowning, a possibility that they doubt. They also point to 39 cases registered in several police stations where the cause of death is classified as “unknown”.
The deaths of Martin Neighbour in 2008 and James Durkin in 2015 are among the cases awaiting justice.
In the case of Martin Neighbour whose body was found in Anjuna beach area and was classified as death due to drowning, his sister Sara Neighbour pointed out that he had bruises on his body and looked beaten up. The body of Durkin was found decomposed in Canacona beach area after he went missing for 30 days. The families of both the deceased have time and again questioned the death and asked for a fresh investigation.
A close family friend of Durkin while speaking to HT said, “The police did a shoddy investigation and tried to rule out all possibilities of a murder. It hardly helps if the case is re-opened after years as all the evidences have been erased by that time.”
But as questions are raised time and again about the shoddy investigations senior police officials say they proceed only as per the law. “We cannot call every death that happens here as murder without getting a post mortem done. First, a case needs to be registered as unnatural death, only if the police feels that all the circumstantial evidences indicate a murder, like we did in the case of Danielle McLaughlin in Canacona, that an FIR is registered under section 156 (3),” says Sammy Tavares, deputy superintendent of police (Canacona).
“We always request foreigners to register with Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), which most of them never do. Also, we find most of them spending time with unauthorised guides who often have a criminal history, like Vikas Bhagat whom McLaughlin was found spending time on both of her visits to Goa. All of this does invite trouble but we still try to ensure their safety,” adds Tavares.