Crete ‘struggling with shame’ after rape and murder of US scientist

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Lawyer for man who admitted crime says islanders feel sense of responsibility for her death

The lawyer of a man who has admitted raping and killing the acclaimed American scientist Suzanne Eaton while she attended a conference on Crete says the crime has left locals struggling with feelings of guilt and shame.

Almost three weeks after the body of the 59-year-old California biologist was found in a cave, people on Crete remain profoundly shocked, the attorney Pantelis Zellios told the Guardian.

“There is a huge sense of guilt and shame,” said Zellios. The manner of Eaton’s death, the way in which her corpse was discovered dumped, fractured and wounded at the bottom of a ventilation shaft, had been devastating for the nation of proud islanders, he said. “Across Crete many feel a sense of responsibility … so much so I keep having to remind them that in every society there are individuals who are good, and individuals who are bad.”

Yiannis Paraskakis, a 27-year-old carpenter, confessed to randomly singling out Eaton – a prominent developmental biologist with the Max Planck institute in Dresden – as she enjoyed a jog along a country road not far from the Orthodox Academy of Crete where the international conference she was enrolled to speak at was taking place.

Driving a white sedan – subsequently picked up by road cameras in the area – he admitted ramming into the American twice with the intention of incapacitating her and abducting her. A dedicated athlete and accomplished musician, Eaton had a black belt in taekwondo but appears to have been overwhelmed after falling to the ground when the vehicle hit her.

“Both before the investigating magistrate and to me he said repeatedly he was motivated by the desire to have sex,” said Zellios of the father of two, who until a month ago worked in a carpentry store before unexpectedly announcing he was quitting.

“It seems Eaton was hit in the head by the vehicle’s metal fender and likely concussed when he put her in the trunk of the car although investigations are still under way.”

The woodworker admitted raping the biologist three times outside the cave before throwing her down a ventilation shaft leading down to it.

A coroner ruled the American had died as a result of asphyxiation and was likely to have suffered “a slow and painful death”.

It wasn’t until six days after she was last seen playing the academy’s piano that her corpse was discovered in the cave around six miles (10km) from the conference venue outside the coastal community of Kolymbari in the north-west of the island.

Camera surveillance and a YouTube video that the culprit had uploaded depicting his discovery of the subterranean grotto several years ago helped police unravel the crime.

The cave, part of a cavern of underground tunnels, had once served as a bunker for Nazi occupation troops stationed on Crete during the second world war. A team, including dozens of conference delegates, worked around the clock scouring the rugged Cretan countryside after it became clear the scientist had gone missing.

The mother of two sons, Eaton was married to Tony Hyman, the renowned British scientist who in 1998 transferred to Dresden to head the newly established Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. Distraught colleagues described the scientist, who was also a professor at the biotechnology centre of the Dresden University of Technology, as a person of rare intellectual breadth, benevolence and empathy.

The cell biologist Kai Simons, widely seen as Eaton’s mentor during earlier years at the Heidelberg-based European Molecular Biology Laboratory, called her “a modern Renaissance scientist in the sheer scope of her activities”. Colleagues with whom she worked spoke of “her sudden and tragic death [leaving]us stunned and enveloped in deep, deep sorrow”. In his own tribute, her son, Max, wrote: “My mother was a remarkable woman … She managed to live a life with few regrets, balancing out her personal life with her career.”

Paraskakis has since been moved into police detention in Athens. In the coming days he is expected to be sent to a high-security prison for sex offenders in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece.

Several lawyers on Crete had refused to represent the suspect. Zellios, one of the island’s leading attorneys, said he had agreed to assume the role at the request of the carpenter’s family because it was the only way to expedite the course of justice.

“I agreed on condition that I would not attempt to defend such actions and that he would undergo a psychiatric examination,” the lawyer said. “For punishment to be meted out a defendant must have a lawyer under the laws of our country and constitution.”

Highlighting the unease the murder has caused on Crete, Paraskakis’s father also went public this week, expressing remorse for his son’s “heinous and appalling crime”.

Identified as an Orthodox priest but otherwise keen to remain anonymous, he vowed to spend the rest of his life praying for Eaton’s soul. “As a human being and a priest, and entirely in agreement with the prevailing sentiment, I am devastated at the heinous and appalling way one of our fellow humans has lost her life. Even more so when the perpetrator of such a crime is my own child,” he wrote in a letter published by local media.

“I want to express my sincere condolences to the family, husband and children of … Suzanne Eaton. I hope God provides them strength and comfort. As long as I live I will pray to the Almighty that her soul rests in peace.”

Paraskakis now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

In the published letter his father appealed for his son’s children and wife to be left alone. “As a father I cannot not stand by my child during this difficult time even if he has committed such a serious crime,” he wrote, apologising to his fellow villagers, other Cretans and “global public opinion”.

“I also beseech you: the perpetrator’s wife and young children bear no responsibility for what happened. Now it is the turn for Greek justice to have its say …. just like the family of Suzanne whose life was lost so wrongly, so shall we, from now on, die an emotional and moral death each and every day.”

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