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Murdered woman 'had been worried about her safety'

The Dubai businesswoman killed in a New York hotel had lodged complaints about personal items being stolen from her apartment.

The Dubai businesswoman killed in a New York hotel had lodged complaints about personal items being stolen from her apartment and seemed worried about her safety in the weeks before she died, according to her friends. Andree Bejjani, 44, known to her friends as Sara, was found dead in a private flat at Jumeirah Essex House, a luxury Manhattan hotel overlooking Central Park on Saturday afternoon. A maid discovered her body face down in a pool of blood with a skipping rope around her neck and bread knife protruding from her throat.

Ms Bejjani had made several complaints to the hotel and to Derrick Praileau, the head of housekeeping, after jewellery had gone missing from her apartment, according to Carlos Alvarez, who had known her for several years. Mr Praileau, 29, a long-standing employee of the hotel, was arrested on Sunday and charged with the murder. Police believe he used his own key cards to gain access to the apartment.

"It all makes sense now," said Mr Alvarez. "She thought it was the maid that was taking her jewellery, but he seems to have just been able to let himself in and out." The hotel, operated by the Dubai-based Jumeirah Group, is frequented by stars such as Angelina Jolie and Samuel L Jackson. Michael Feldman, who also works in property, said Ms Bejjani had mentioned that "personal items" had disappeared several times, and acted strangely the last time he saw her socially a few weeks ago.

"She asked for another one of my business cards so she could give it to the front desk and they could contact me if anything happened to her," he said. "I just thought it was really odd. She said she was also going to give me her sister's contact details but she never got around to it." He said he didn't press her on what was wrong. "She was a private person, she would have told me if she wanted to," he said. "She didn't divulge a lot of information about herself."

Her friends said she had never mentioned Mr Praileau, who pleaded not guilty to a charge of second degree murder at his arraignment on Monday. He is due to appear again tomorrow, according to a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office. Police said they did not believe the two had any previous relationship. Ms Bejjani, who lived in Dubai for 20 years, had split her time between New York and the UAE for the past two years, according to Mr Alvarez, and kept an apartment here until earlier in the summer.

Press reports have speculated that the killing was sexually motivated. The New York Post suggested Mr Praileau was under the influence of alcohol when he allegedly gained access to Ms Bejjani's apartment in the early hours of Saturday morning and left evidence tying him to the scene including his work schedule. Originally from Lebanon, Ms Bejjani was unmarried, and according to Mr Alvarez had always attracted a lot of attention from men, but "gracefully dismissed" unwanted advances.

"She was absolutely very attractive and that made her a target for men," he said, describing her as "a diamond in an emerald city". Her friends and colleagues said they were shocked by the brutal nature of her death. Michael Campbell, a partner at Carlton Advisory Services, a property investment company in New York, where Ms Bejjani worked for almost a year before leaving earlier this summer, said the attack "doesn't make sense".

"I don't know why anyone would want to do this to her and I know she wouldn't have done anything to provoke anyone," he said. "Our business is rough and tough but she was always, always very cordial. She was good at defusing situations and never yelled or raised her voice. It doesn't make sense." Carlton Advisory Services hired Ms Bejjani a year ago as vice president, charged with finding Gulf investors.

Mr Alvarez said he had been "horrified" when he heard that Ms Bejjani had died, especially when details of the brutal nature of her death were disclosed. "I keep on thinking about how scared she must have been," he said. "But she would have put up a fight, she was a tall woman and relatively strong, so I'm sure she didn't give in easily and that's why she ended up with a knife in her neck." He added that although Ms Bejjani did not have a "tremendous number of friends" she was nevertheless a "true friend".

"You could always trust her, and she'd never say anything she didn't mean. That's rare," he said. Ms Bejjani was also a passionate supporter of Barack Obama, according to Steve Behar, who met her at a function during his campaign. "She was very interested in US politics and also Middle East politics," he said. "I met her briefly at a function and we became friends, we weren't close but we communicated back and forth about politics."

After Mr Behar failed to win a seat in the New York City Council elections last week Ms Bejjani had sent him a message consoling him. "Please don't be sad. I don't know what else to say. But please don't be sad," it read. "It's ironic because I was thinking that now that I'm not campaigning and have more of a social life, I'd like to get to know her better," he said. "I was going to send her a message and see if she'd like to get together in Manhattan, but then I found out what had happened. It was awful."

lmorris@thenational.ae

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