true crime

At 23, Jessica Vo was wanted internationally for a murder she didn't commit.

Jessica Vo was 23 when she first discovered she was wanted for murder.

After leaving Peru three months earlier, she saw her photo on a foreign news segment, along with five of her friends, describing them as the faces behind the murder of 45-year-old Lino Rodriguez Vilchez.

It would be the beginning of a four year ordeal, during which the threat of being extradited, and listed as a fugitive under an Interpol red notice, was constantly looming.

It all started in November 2012, when Jessica embarked on a three month trip to the South American nations of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

“The trip was a gift from my boyfriend at the time, to celebrate overcoming ovarian cancer,” she tells Mamamia. 

Jessica, her boyfriend Hugh, and Hugh’s younger brother Tom met three other Australians — Andrew, Sam and Harrison — on the flight over, and the six became travel buddies for their South American adventure.

From left to right: Sam Smith, Andrew Pilat, Harrison Geier, Tom Hanlon, Jessica Vo and Hugh Hanlon. Image supplied.

When they arrived in Peru in January, they rented a 15th-floor apartment on the Malecon Cisneros — an expensive, popular street that snakes along Lima's scenic coastline. On January 19, just hours into their two-night stay, they heard a loud thud.

It was this thud — the sound of doorman Lino Rodriguez Vilchez hitting the ground after falling to his death — that would place the six Australians in what would later be described as simply "the wrong place at the wrong time."

"We were asked to help in the initial police investigation, which we found to be strange as we were not witnesses," recalls Jessica.

From "seeing a dead body, to having police investigate us as if we were suspects," it was an unsettling time for the six young Australians. The now 28-year-old says the group were questioned by police multiple times and even found themselves in a situation where the police attempted to take their passports and "touch Australian money" — which they "didn’t feel comfortable with."

When one of the group contacted the Australian embassy in Lima, they were advised to continue their travel and assured everything was resolved in terms of their involvement in the crime.

The group continued to travel after the incident. Image supplied.

The six returned home and tried to forget the tragic incident they'd witnessed in their Lima apartment.

But three months later, some of the group started to receive odd messages on Facebook, many of them in Spanish. It was when they saw a television segment from Peru, labelling them as the faces implicated in the murder of the doorman, that they began to process the weight of the situation.

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"Due to our innocence and collective clear conscience, we didn't think it would eventuate into anything more," says Jessica.

"There was no evidence to support these ridiculous claims."

As it turned out, the doorman's brother, Wimber Rodriguez Vilchez, refused to accept the death was a suicide, and had a dream that told him the Australians had murdered his brother.

In 2013, he described his dream to the ABC: "I went running to him, to embrace him, ‘Lino my brother’, and he said, ‘Let me go, let me go, don’t hold me, they killed me. I didn’t want to die’."

He said the ghost of Lino Rodriguez Vilchez had also visited his sister. "Lino said he had been arguing with somebody," he said. "His hands were (moving out) and there was a tall man and a short man and a girl."

The group recognised themselves on a Peruvian television segment sent to them via social media. Image via ABC.

"After she said, ‘my little brother, tell me, tell where did this happen?’, and my brother said, ‘nine plus six. Add it up, nine plus six’."

"And so we said, ‘hey, it’s in the 15th, in the 15th floor, they have killed Lino, let’s go to the police and see how the investigation is going’."

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Jessica says the doorman's family alleged the Australians "bashed [Rodriguez], threw him off the balcony and fled the country."

"In Peru it’s guilty until proven innocent," she says. "The scariest moment of the whole ordeal was that we just didn’t know if justice would prevail."

"I was afraid the worst would happen and we would have to go back to Peru to face the courts. If we did get to Peru, we would have been put in jail until the case was ruled, regardless of whether we were guilty or innocent.

"That was my biggest fear. I had a few people reach out to me via Facebook of experiences they or their family members have had and ended up in jail of being falsely accused. It sounded horrific and I don’t think I could have handled it."

The group made contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who advised them to get a local lawyer. But fighting the bizarrely false claims coming out of Peru was harder than Jessica and her friends could have ever imagined.

Hugh Hanlon, Jessica Vo, and Tom Hanlon on the front page of the Geelong Advertiser in 2013. Image via Facebook.

"We faced so many delays and hurdles to have the case properly passed through the court," she says.

Jessica describes "false claims of having evidence that wasn’t true, recorded corruption of the Judges being put on the case (we have had a record of approximately 10), bribing of police by Mr Rodriguez’s family, 'witnesses' not showing up to court and month-long delays of strikes within the Peruvian Courts regularly."

For example, it took two years for the group to get their statements through the courts, "and not from lack of trying from our end," adds Jessica.

For more than four years the group fought the Peruvian courts to have their names cleared. During that time, Jessica says they experienced "threats and possible restrictions, mainly to do with travel."

"But it wasn’t just legal restrictions that stopped us from living our normal lives. Financially it has been a big strain and also emotionally. The worry that something may happen to us whilst we weren’t in Australia scared me so much and my family," she adds.

"It was years before I travelled and even getting into the UK, which is where I moved, I had issues with visas due to the ongoing case.

"Getting a job proved to be difficult given if you typed my name in Google, all you could find is 'alleged murder' ... It was a constant black cloud hanging over us in everything we did."

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"It wasn’t just legal restrictions that stopped us from living our normal lives." Image via Facebook.

The "overwhelming" support Jessica and her friends received from the Australian public was perhaps the silver lining of the harrowing ordeal.

"Like any subject put in the media, we had our trolls and haters, which was disappointing but likely to happen. I think the worst was the threats and comments as if people knew us or were there and had their 'facts' so wrong and untrue," she reflects.

"But I think I speak for us all when we say we feel very blessed to have such support."

On October 8, the group shared a statement via their Facebook page Completely Wrongly Accused announcing they had been cleared of any involvement in the death of Lino Rodriguez Vilchez.

"We are heartened and relieved to announce that the Lima Third Court...has confirmed that we had absolutely nothing to do with the tragic death of Mr Lino Rodriguez in January 2012," the statement read.

"The past four and half years have caused immense uncertainty, frustration as well as emotional and financial strain. The immeasurable stress and has left a dreadful toll on all of us. Today, we feel overwhelming relief as we close this chapter of our lives and finally move on."

All six have completed their studies and are working in their chosen fields. Today, Jessica is working as an Account Director in Advertising in London.

The group have been cleared of any involvement in the death of Mr. Rodriguez. Image via Facebook.

Jessica describes the experience as "a very taxing and emotional rollercoaster ride, to say the least."

"I can’t put into words just how hard it’s been, but I can voice the amount of relief and gratefulness I have that it’s over. It’s just the most amazing feeling to be 'free.'"

While she doesn't think she'll ever travel to South America again, Jessica considers herself "lucky" for the outcome.

"There are a lot of people out there that have fallen into similar situations and have come out a lot worse and I am grateful everyday that that we were able to get through it without ending up in jail or being extradited," she says.

"It’s brought the boys and I closer together in a way that’s life changing and I am grateful that I have the love and support of them for the rest of my life.

"At the end of the day, we are blessed. We had some testing times and we certainly didn’t deserve to go through what we have, but we have survived and we can now move on with our lives."