The article by Mark Saunokonoko published on 16 November, 2017, for 9news.com.au, on the third anniversary of Laura’s death.
On the morning of March 17, 2015, Leona Sykes woke up alone and anxious inside her modest Dubai hotel room. The events of the night before had been confronting and confusing.
Retracing the final awful steps of her daughter who had died in murky circumstances inside the rich Gulf emirate of Dubai, the blonde 59-year-old mother of three had arrived at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. She hoped to find answers at the top.
Alongside a group of other tourists, Leona had stepped quietly into a futuristic, glass-panelled elevator. Quickly gaining momentum, it raced skywards, transporting her 452 vertical metres to the 124th floor in just 60 seconds. From there, she transferred into a second elevator, delivering her to the jewel in the Burj Khalifa’s crown – At the Top, the observation deck on the 148th floor.
The skyscraper’s top deck, perched 555 dizzying metres above the desert metropolis below, is the emirate of Dubai’s supreme tourist landmark. Each year almost two million people step out onto the balcony. Only one person has ever jumped to their death from this spot. That was Leona’s daughter, Laura Vanessa Nunes.
It appears the Dubai government and the developer of the Burj Khalifa, Emaar Properties, one the largest construction companies in the world, have worked together to cover up Laura’s story.
Leona had two troubling questions on her mind as she flew into Dubai from her Cape Town home a couple of days earlier. If Laura had jumped from the Burj Khalifa, as she had been told, why had there not been a single media report covering it in the four months since her suicide? And, secondly, surely it would be impossible to breach security and leap from one of the world’s most iconic tourist attractions?
Back on the observation deck it was almost 6pm, and the sun was beginning to sink under the horizon on the Persian Gulf. Below Leona lay the sprawling Dubai Mall. Tiny ant-like human figures circled the boulevard that runs around a vast manmade turquoise blue lake, where fountains dance spectacularly every 30 minutes. From this height, the fourteen lanes of the city’s notoriously frenetic main highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, appear hypnotically serene, as indeed does everything.
Leona gathered herself. It haunted her that Laura had journeyed to the top alone; that she’d jumped alone, and died alone. Her 38-year-old daughter had arrived at this point heartbroken, following a long and tempestuous on-off relationship with a powerful and wealthy local Emirati businessman who had connections all the way to the upper echelons of United Arab Emirates royalty.
Around Leona, tourists posed for selfies in the fading light. She paced forward, towards the glass barrier.
The Burj Khalifa observation deck, At the Top, is open-aired and roomy. Reinforced glass walls circle brown hardwood floors and rise to a height of about four-metres. Crucially, the day Laura jumped, there was a gap in the glass. It cut generously through each pane, separating an upper sheet from the bottom. It was perfectly positioned for visitors to reach through and stick their phones out, allowing vertigo-inducing photos of the picturesque scene below. It was also low and wide enough for someone slim and determined to slip through – someone like Laura.
After Laura’s suicide, Emaar, which has always steadfastly refused to acknowledge her death, would several times clandestinely change the design of these barriers. Orb-like security cameras with darkened lenses hang from silver rafters above the deck. Devastating footage from those cameras would help Leona work out what happened to Laura on November 16, 2014.
It was simple for Leona to ease her head through the gap. She looked into the abyss, all 555-metres of it, just as her daughter had done exactly four months ago. An African security guard instructed Leona to move back. They began talking. Leona told him about her daughter Laura, and asked him if he knew anything. The tall, well-built man from Malawi was polite and friendly. He told Leona he’d heard stories about a woman jumping. They spoke for a little longer, before he pulled out a camera and took several photos of her. As Leona continued to walk around, and then retreated to the lower observation deck on the 125th floor, she noticed the security guard was shadowing her every move.
In the morning, back inside the hotel, Leona felt a gnawing worry for her safety. The last four months, wondering how her daughter had died had been excruciating and had taken an exhausting toll. Today she was due to meet with Dubai detectives about Laura’s death. There was a macabre hope they would reveal CCTV footage of her daughter’s final movements on the Burj Khalifa.
She was to go to a major police station, which had long been linked with stories of torture, beatings and forced confessions. Before leaving, Leona sent an email to Al Jazeera, the news broadcaster based in Qatar. In short, it read: “If I don’t come back, this is what has happened.”
Laura Nunes fell in love with an Emirati man sometime around 2009. Aged 31, and full of gypsy wanderlust spirit, in 2007 Laura had moved from Cape Town, South Africa to Dubai to work in the luxurious Madinat Jumeriah, one of the city’s finest resorts. Nearby sits the famous seven-star Burj Al Arab. There, while working as a facial therapist and masseuse, she met the distinguished Youssef* (not his real name), a prominent businessman in Dubai’s stratified society.
There is no suggestion Youssef had any responsibility for Laura’s death.
The daughter of a Portuguese father and blonde-haired, green-eyed South African mother, Laura was an attractive woman of exotic appearance. Her face was framed with long dark hair, and she had been blessed with chocolate brown almond-shaped eyes. Her mouth bore the scars of a corrected harelip, which she was painfully self-conscious about. Leona described to me how a younger Laura, a sensitive soul, had withdrawn into her shell as a result.
A close friend of Laura’s, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against her family, was sceptical of Youssef’s intent. Laura was besotted with Youssef, who claimed to be divorced, said Sara* (not her real name). “He always made her feel that what was between them was special,” she said. Laura had dreams of marrying Youssef. He, however, was transparent about dating other women during their relationship. He would tell Laura she was different, and not to compare herself to his casual dalliances, according to Sara. Youssef had a special villa, away from his home, where he would host parties for Emirati friends and women. “She loved him so much to be able to accept that she is not the only woman in his life,” Sara said. She worried about the nature of their relationship. She watched the way Youssef could “play games with her”. Like a dance, he would push her away, and then pull her back in.
Leona recalled her daughter rushing back to South Africa in September 2012, following a lover’s fight. Even before then, Leona had harboured doubts about the romance when Laura first began to speak of her new lover. “He’s very wealthy; he’s just got divorced; he’s got all this freedom,” she cautioned Laura. “As usual she didn’t listen to me. She never listened to me.”
With her ‘insurance’ email sent to Al Jazeera, Leona left her room at Abidos Hotel. She needed to get to Bur Dubai Police Station, about a 30-minute trip from Dubailand, an outlying and unimaginatively named desert suburb. Leona had initially tried to check into room 309, the suite her daughter had stayed in for the final 26 nights of her life. But it was occupied, so she was instead given the keys to room 909.
Strangely, Dubai Police had always refused to tell Leona where her daughter had stayed in the days leading up to her suicide. Two months after Laura’s death, from her home in Cape Town, Leona spoke on the telephone with a Dubai Police detective. He confirmed Laura’s suicide from the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa, and even invited her to Dubai to see the footage. But despite Leona’s pleas he would not tell her about Abidos Hotel. Unbeknownst to Leona, the smoke screen was part of a Dubai government ploy to cover up the facts, in case the story went public.
The contents of Laura’s handbag, which had been shipped to South Africa, led Leona to Abidos Hotel. Inside her daughter’s handbag she found several envelopes embossed with the hotel’s logo. A hotel manager told Leona two police officers had turned up shortly after Laura’s death. They had taken away her personal belongings and luggage. A detailed three-page Abidos Hotel invoice, sighted by Nine, documents Laura’s lengthy stay. Dubai Police would later lie, claiming Laura was living in a high-rise tower in a neighbourhood called Jumeirah Lakes Towers, 40km south of Hotel Abidos, and that she had jumped to her death from an apartment there.
Sitting inside a marble-floored office in Bur Dubai Police Station, Leona felt a remarkable sense of calm. A large, framed portrait of Dubai’s all-powerful ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, hung on the wall, staring down on the small group. A very senior policeman, a lieutenant colonel, wearing a traditional white robe – the khandoura – sat behind his desk. Another older Emirati man in national dress was also present. Leona waited in one of several large chairs, sipping tea and eating an Arabic sweet which had been offered to her on her arrival.
Knowing what lay in store, the lieutenant colonel enquired about Leona’s health, and asked if she had a weak heart. She assured him she was fine. Concerned, he asked a second time. A detective was called into the office. In his hand he carried a computer disk. Leona said he and the senior ranking officer had a heated discussion in Arabic. “He seemed very unhappy that he had to show me the footage,” she recalled. The detective – “a horrible little man” – beckoned her to follow.
Without speaking, the policeman ushered her into an empty office down the hallway. Leona sat down and he slid the disk into a computer. “It was very quick,”remembered Leona. She asked the detective to replay the death of her daughter two more times.
“It’s still very raw,” Leona told me, her voice becoming noticeably fragile. The camera peered down on Laura, on the 148th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa. Though the precise time was unclear, it was daylight, and a sprinkling of tourists moved around the deck.
“She was agitated and nervous,” Leona remembered. She watched her daughter stick her head through the gap in the glass barrier, before pulling back in and rushing away. Seconds later, Laura returned to the glass. She turned away from the edge and looked skyward. “I don’t know if she was praying or she was looking for strength. Then she put her head through and tilted her body forward and she disappeared. And that was it. No one noticed. No one noticed she was gone.”
The Dubai coroner’s report, obtained by Nine, declared Laura’s shattered body was found on a third level balcony at the foot of Burj Khalifa. It is a harrowing four-page document outlining catastrophic injuries consistent with suicide from a 550m drop.
“She just looked so scared. She was just like a little girl, so vulnerable and fragile,” Leona told me, recounting watching Laura’s final moments. “I think I always had hoped if I ever saw that footage that I’d see this calm person who had decided she was going to take her life. But she wasn’t. She was nervous. She was panicky.”
Laura fell close to a fine dining restaurant located inside the prestigious Armani Hotel, which has 16 floors of uber-deluxe rooms and private residences in the Burj Khalifa. Armani Hotel Dubai is part owned by Emaar Properties. The hotel’s general manager, a Briton named Mark Kirby, immediately shut down communications when asked about Laura. Armani Hotels & Resorts head office in Milan, Italy also refused to comment.
Emaar, which has ownership ties to Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed, has always maintained an immovable wall of silence over Laura’s suicide. Emaar’s corporate affairs department did not respond at all to multiple interview requests. Billionaire Mohamad Alabbar, the chief executive and chairman of Emaar – and one of the UAE’s wealthiest men – also blanked requests for comment. Meanwhile, after Laura’s death, Emaar quietly went about changing the design of its glass barriers on the observation deck. The gap is now higher and has been fitted with a thick cylindrical steel bar that would have stopped Laura slipping through. Signs warning of danger have been emblazoned on the glass.
In May 2015, British website The Daily Mail published a story about Laura’s suicide. The very next day, Dubai government, through one of its highest-ranking policemen, categorically denied she had jumped from the city’s iconic Burj Khalifa. In unison, various arms of the UAE’s state-controlled media ran “the official line”, saying Laura had been living in a suburb called Jumeirah Lakes Towers, and that she had fallen from her 14th floor apartment.
The Internet is censored inside the UAE. News that could reflect poorly on the country or important people, including the ruling royal family, is blocked. There is a brief entry about Laura’s suicide on the Wikipedia page of the Burj Khalifa. Leona has attempted to add more detail about Laura’s death, but it has been edited out several times by a user named Emir of Wikipedia. Activity logs show the Emir of Wikipedia has a dedicated interest in editing the Wikipedia pages of Dubai’s elite ruling class and some of the Emirate’s most significant organisations.
Despite Leona’s repeated requests, Dubai Police have always refused to share Laura’s case file. “They treated Laura like she was a piece of dirt, buried and obscured,” Leona said. Laura wanted to die and no one was to blame for her death, she told me. But Emaar was “highly, highly irresponsible” to design a gap in the glass, she added.
A US citizen who threatened the reputation of Emaar found himself thrown in a Dubai prison for 20 months, according to papers filed in a Louisiana court in 2011. Lionel Lombard, at the time living in Dubai, told Nine how he was tortured, starved and beaten in jail, after raising concerns over the welfare of south-east Asian labourers on an Emaar construction site. On his release, when all charges were suddenly and mysteriously dropped, the US embassy whisked him home to America. Lombard told me he tried to sue Emaar for $US61.1m but his suit had foundered. He claimed the US State Department made it extraordinarily difficult to get information it held about his imprisonment. He also alleged Emaar wielded its influence with the UAE government to have him arrested and imprisoned on false charges.
Contacted about Laura’s suicide and the misinformation about her death, both the UAE embassies in Canberra and Portugal refused to comment. A Freedom of Information request lodged with Portugal’s Foreign Ministry, targeting communications inside their embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, proved more fruitful.
Portuguese embassy emails obtained by Nine under Portugal’s freedom of information laws confirmed that Laura had jumped from the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa.
“The death of the national citizen Laura Vanessa Nunes is under CID (criminal investigation department) investigation, regardless of suicide being the most likely cause,” wrote Luis Camara, deputy consul at Portugal’s embassy in UAE, in a message to his staff the morning after Laura’s death, on 17 November, 2014.
“She left only a feminine handbag with some personal belongings. She committed suicide by jumping from the 148th floor of Burj Khalifa Dubai.”
Luis Camara confirmed to Nine via an email statement that Dubai Police had informed him that Laura had jumped from the Burj Khalifa.
“The police … called us in the morning of the 17 November and informed of her death,” Camara told Nine.
In response to how he knew Laura had leaped from the 148th floor, Camara said: “The information was given to us by the Dubai Police when we asked where it had happened.”
Camara said Portugal’s embassy had requested Laura’s case file from police in 2015 but, two years on, were still waiting.
Around 15,000 Australians live and work in the UAE, mostly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is a vibrant ambitious nation, unique to the Middle East. Lured by sunshine, attractive employment packages, travel opportunities and tax-free salaries, western ex-pats usually live a very safe and happy existence – unless a mistake is made. Then, very quickly, lack of human rights in an opaque legal system becomes punishingly clear. Disputes with local Emiratis and companies will generally only end one way.
In early 2015, Leona set Laura’s ashes free into the Atlantic Ocean off Hout Bay, a small beach enclave south of Cape Town. On weekend mornings Leona walks the serene stretch of white sand, which is framed by rocky cliffs blanketed with tussock grasses and hardy coastal bushes. She is still filled with sadness and disbelief.
“In all honesty, Laura wasn’t meant for this world. She was too open and honest,” Leona told me. She hoped the truth would give her daughter back some dignity. “Laura and I used to fight a lot. Sometimes I used to wish I’d never see her again. After she died I realised just how much I loved her.”
It is likely Laura chose to leap from the world’s tallest building to make one final grand statement. Perhaps she saw the tower as a kind of gateway into a new life. We won’t ever know. But she did jump from the Burj Khalifa. That much is true.