NEW YORK – She grew up amid the Lebanese civil war and was orphaned at 9. A nursing director who came to admire businesswomen, Andree "Sara" Bejjani moved to New York to foster her new career in her 40s, settling in an apartment in an elegant hotel overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. She felt safe there, she told her sister.
Within months, Bejjani was found strangled on her kitchen floor at the Jumeriah Essex House with a knife sticking out of her neck, police said. She had been murdered by a housekeeping manager who used his employee key card to break into her apartment and attack her as she slept.
"All of us will pass away, but none of us deserves to be butchered the way Sara was," her sister, Nada, told a court through tears Friday as the former housekeeping supervisor, Derrick Praileau, was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
Praileau, 31, pleaded guilty last month to killing and trying to rape Sara Bejjani. He has said he held said a knife to Bejjani and choked her to death when she resisted his sexual assault.
He has told authorities he was drunk and high on cocaine during the September 2009 assault.
"I apologize. I'm sorry for your loss," he said in a soft, calm voice at his sentencing. "To the courtroom, I'm sorry."
His lawyer, Richard Siracusa, said the killing "should be a lesson to any of the younger people who think they can get away with abusing cocaine and alcohol, particularly at the same time." An Essex House spokeswoman didn't immediately return a telephone call Friday.
Bejjani, who died at 44, and her sister were each other's "father and mother" as they grew up, Nada Bejjani told the court Friday. They eventually moved from Lebanon to the United Arab Emirates and lived next door to each other there for 18 years. Ultimately, Sara Bejjani became an investment adviser and moved in 2005 to New York, joining their brother, Joe.
In 2006, she moved into the Essex House, a 44-story, Art Deco tower on the south side of Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel and Fifth Avenue.
Nada Bejjani and her then 7-year-old daughter, Reem, arrived at the Essex House for a long-anticipated visit with Sara on Sept. 19, 2009. "She was anxious to show Reem New York City, the 'Sara' way," her sister recalled Friday.
Instead, they found her 10th-floor apartment surrounded by staffers. Eventually, they learned the brutal truth from police.
"Sara was murdered while we were in the air on our way to see her," her sister said. A maid had found her body that afternoon. "I lost the shoulder that I used to cry on."
The sister rued Praileau's plea deal, saying she now questions "how the world defines justice." If convicted, he might have gotten a life sentence without parole.
"The criminal justice system is imperfect," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman replied, "and even the death penalty would not bring your sister back or erase these memories."
Jennifer Peltz can be reached at http://twitter.com/jenn peltz