Murder investigation continues
Off-duty policeman suspected in stabbing of American
February 20th, 2008 issue
By Radim Letovský
There remain a number of unknowns regarding the case of the off-duty police officer who allegedly killed an American in Prague early in the morning Jan. 30. But, while authorities continue to investigate, the suspect is a free man.
What is known according to police reports is that U.S. citizen Michael Murray, 44, was stabbed to death on Českomoravská street near Sazka Arena in Prague 9. His alleged murderer was an off-duty, 26-year-old officer serving with Prague’s Municipal Police. While the officer was initially being investigated on suspicion of manslaughter, he was later charged with murder, then released while the investigation continued.
The events leading up to the fatal incident seem to have started ordinarily enough. Murray was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Air Base in Hohenfels, Germany, where he worked as a programer. Late last month, says local friend Tomáš Podlucký, Murray got a few days off and decided to visit Prague.
“Mike loved the Czech Republic, and whenever he had a chance to visit it,” he did, Podlucký said. “He liked to tour the countryside, the sights and the castles. He was well educated and knew Czech history too, even more than average Czechs know. He was not the type of ‘dull and cocky’ American that Czech people often think of. ”
According to police reports, Murray drove to Prague and arrived around 1 a.m. that Wednesday. In order to spend the night in his car (as it had previously been broken into) he started to look for a parking space.
Authorities believe parking was the issue that precipitated the fatal event. Murray’s car was approached by the drunken off-duty Prague Municipal Police officer, whose identity has not been released. The officer allegedly believed the vehicle to be parked illegally. Murray got out of the car, and the argument that ensued escalated to a physical altercation in which the officer stabbed Murray several times, including a fatal wound to the chest. A witness called a help line to report the incident.
Various media reports have added unconfirmed details such as the fact that Murray had sent a text message to his wife in Hohenfels once he arrived in Prague saying he was all right, that he emerged from the car when the officer approached wearing pajamas and socks, and that the officer had attacked with brass knuckles while Murray attempted to defend himself with karate. Several reported versions also said Murray’s friends were with him in the car. Podlucký, however, thought Murray to be alone, a belief supported by witness testimonies, according to police.
Variations aside, the incident ended with Murray dead at the scene, and the suspect detained. According to police, the suspect was initially investigated for manslaughter, but, as the investigation proceeded with the help of two witnesses, details emerged that resulted in an official murder charge Jan. 31. According to police, by the decision of District Court Prague 9, the suspect (who was taken off duty by Prague’s Municipal Police) was released Feb. 1 as the investigation continued.
Due to the ongoing investigation, officials are unable to comment on the case. Josef Lottes, chief of the homicide department of Prague Police, told The Prague Post, “I am sorry but we will not be giving any information about this case. It might have an influence on the investigation. We might know more within a few months.”
However, Ludvík Klema, deputy director of Prague’s Municipal Police, was able to make a few general comments about the character of the suspect. “We have not had any problems with him. He was one of our better officers,” she said. “He worked with us for more than a year.
”Podlucký, on the other hand, does not believe Murray could have provoked the incident either. “Mike was not an aggressive man,” he said. “Though he knew karate, he would use it only for defense. He knew he could hurt somebody. I don’t remember any situation in which he acted violently. He was always cool, always smiling and didn’t go looking for trouble.
”Podlucký speculates that the language barrier could have been one of several contributing factors. “Mike always tried to settle any dispute with dialogue,” he said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t speak any Czech and I can imagine if the officer had talked to him in Czech, Mike just did not know what he wanted from him.”
The matter of the suspect’s release brings up a number of questions. While authorities involved with the case are barred from commenting on such a surprise decision (the Prague State Attorney’s Office, for example, declined to comment) distant observers such as České Budějovice Regional Court Presiding Judge Daniel Prouza concede that the move is unusual.
“It is very rare that somebody who is suspected of murder is not in custody,” he said. “This usually happens only when the case is obvious self-defense.
”In the Czech Republic, there are three reasons for a suspect to be kept in custody — if the defendant is believed to continue in crime activity, could affect the witnesses or could escape from the country.
Podlucký feels the suspect’s release is inexcusable. “He was charged with manslaughter first, and then with murder, so I think he should be in custody,” he said. “He is still young; he knows he might get 15 years in prison, so he can escape the Czech Republic. He could also, through his friends or family, influence the witnesses.”
In addition to helping to put up a small memorial at the spot where Murray was killed, Podlucký has established a Web page, Spravedlnost1414.estranky.cz, where people can support a petition to have the officer taken into custody. The petition is in both Czech and English.