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‘Crime boss’ alleges frame-up

Lawyer David Gatt hardly gave the impression of being a crime boss before police spectacularly arraigned the person they claim to be the mastermind being major armed hold-ups.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
14 December 2010, 12:00am
Alleged ‘crime boss’ David Gatt will face his main accuser in a courtroom on Thursday morning, as the main prosecution witness – a policeman – will take the stand before Magistrate Tonio Micallef Trigona, who has been appointed to preside over what is being touted as the case of the year.

Former police inspector David Gatt, 40 of Birkirkara, faces no less than 14 charges, which vary from conspiracy in organised crime, of being an accomplice to four major heists and of harbouring fugitives.

Confined to a prison cell since last Tuesday night, when he was denied bail on arraignment, a heavy-eyed David Gatt has reportedly been mulling over what the main witness has to say about him, and how the prosecution arrived at labelling him as a ‘boss of bosses’.

The main witness, identified as ‘PC99’, is being described by Gatt as an acquaintance and denies knowing anything more about the man, his defence team has told MaltaToday.

“I never engaged in anything with PC99, so what is he saying about me?” Gatt was reported as saying by his defence team who visited him in prison twice last week.

“Our client is a destroyed man, mud has been thrown at him, and we smell a rat,” defence lawyer Edward Gatt told MaltaToday when asked to comment about the charges brought against his client.

Informed sources explained that the prosecution’s case heavily depends on the testimony to be given by PC99, while it still remains to be established if the officer had managed to infiltrate himself into the criminal organisation allegedly masterminded by Gatt.

HSBC connection

The arrest came at the height of public outrage at the news that an attempted hold-up on a jeweller in Attard a week ago was committed by at least one of the controversially bailed suspects in the foiled heist on the HSBC Qormi headquarters last June.

Darren Debono, known as ‘it-Topo’, was seriously injured by his own gun in that attempted hold-up, and is reportedly crippled for life after he was injured in a confrontation with the jeweller’s son.

The other suspect, Fabio Psaila from Hamrun, who has previous convictions for theft and drug trafficking, and even an arrest in Italy, remains at large. Investigators believe he was also injured in the shoot-out that ensued in the Attard hold-up.

To the surprise of many, David Gatt was charged with complicity in that hold-up, and another three hold-ups, one in December 2007 on the HSBC branch in Balzan where €1 million was stolen and never recovered; and last January’s attempted heist on an armoured bank vehicle in Mriehel.

While David Gatt had appeared as defence counsel to 48 year-old Vince Muscat – a suspect in the HSBC Qormi heist and the spectacular shoot-out with police – he is now being charged with complicity in that same heist. Additionally it is believed he sought medical help for a wounded Darren Debono, hit by a police bullet in the ensuing shootout, and then having pressured a doctor into not testifying about this fact.

While Debono and Muscat were charged with the Qormi heist, investigators kept mum on the information that Gatt had worked behind the scenes to seek medical help for a suspect.

While the toughened criminals refused to even say a word during any interrogation, police had to tread very cautiously as Gatt was a lawyer and strong evidence was needed to prove that he acted as an accomplice, rather than a defence counsel.

This is a point that many lawyers are considering pivotal for the case as it will unfold in court in the coming days.

Crime boss or ‘frame-up’?

Meanwhile, friends have expressed surprise at the news on David Gatt’s arrest. Working from a small room inside Labour MP Chris Cardona’s legal office in Birkirkara, with a handful of clients, driving a VW Passat with a personalized ‘DVD’ number plate, Gatt essentially gave the impression of a ‘normal guy’.

David lived with his parents in Birkirkara, almost opposite to former Commissioner George Grech, who had dismissed him from the police corps over suspicions that he had aided criminals avoid police suspicion.

While David Gatt is insisting that he is being “framed” and is pointing an accusing finger towards Commissioner John Rizzo for seeking revenge after his dismissal from the corps was ruled ‘unfair’ by a court of law, senior police sources stress that an “interesting but complicated case” has been built to prove the charges.

David Gatt was arrested on Monday morning at the Court registry by two plain-clothes policemen. He was arrested at a legal procurator’s desk while he was renewing an application for a court injunction to stop the Public Service Commission from dismissing him again from the police corps, after having been reinstated by the court’s decree.

During his interrogation where he was faced by Chief Superintendent Pierre Calleja and Inspectors Joseph Mercieca and Michael Mallia, David Gatt denied any accusation, allegedly shouting the word “vendikazzjoni” (revenge) at his interrogators.

He was confronted by evidence that he harboured wanted fugitive Fabio Psaila, with Gatt insisting that his role was limited to giving advice as a lawyer.

Dismissal from the corps

David Gatt’s trouble with the law started back in 2001, when he was dismissed from the police corps by George Grech

For Commissioner of Police John Rizzo, it is the start of a new case that resurrects previous accusations by his predecessor George Grech: accusations that Gatt had been in communication with criminal suspects, advising them how to avoid police suspicion during the investigations on a Lm1 million heist on a Group 4 van.

In 2001, Gatt was dismissed from the corps without ever appearing before the Public Service Commission.

Right up until this year, when an Appeals Court confirmed his unfair dismissal, it seemed Gatt had been the victim of an unfair hearing by a zealous George Grech.

Gatt – along with two other police officers dismissed from the corps for other reasons – sued the Commissioner of Police and the Prime Minister and asked the courts to order his reinstatement. In these cases, which featured both Grech and his successor John Rizzo, a new picture of David Gatt emerged.

Rizzo told the court that Gatt had been intercepted in phone calls the Security Services were tapping from the G4S heist suspects. “Not only did he communicate more than once, but he communicated in such a way so as to give certain information as to how the suspect should act to police suspicion,” Rizzo said about Gatt’s conversations with George Briffa, known as ‘il-Piccoli’.

Back in 2001 Rizzo was then Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). “Information came to me that David Gatt was communicating with one of the suspects who was later charged with the theft. Not only did he communicate more than once, but he communicated in such a way so as to give certain information as to how the suspect should act to avoid police suspicion,” he told the court.

Rizzo said the G4S heist suspects were meeting near the Siggiewi cemetery. “We went to check on them. These people left the site and we – the police – followed them and I gave the order to stop them on Triq 13 December, near the Republic monument. There were two Mazda 323s, one blue, one red and one registered in the name of Carmel Camilleri, known at that time as ‘Pissipellu’. And there was George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’, from Qawra. There were three other notorious persons: there was George Briffa ‘l-Piccoli’ and Degiorgio’s brother Alfred ‘il-Fulu’.”

Not everyone was charged. Rizzo told the court that his “reliable information” – because the Security Service transcripts were not deposited in court at first – was that Gatt had called Briffa to tell him that they found a piece of “the Cadbury chocolate”, ostensibly a code to indicate the police had put together part of the puzzle.

Gatt countered that what he spoke about with Briffa was the “leasing of a bar”, and not about any crime. Gatt knew George Briffa as a rowdy 16-year-old, frequently involved in fights during football matches when Gatt – a police officer who made the grade in 1989 – was stationed in Valletta. “We had met by chance some time later and he had asked me how to go about leasing a bar,” Gatt told the court.

Gatt himself insisted with the court that his telephone conversations had been intercepted, because he had seen the transcripts of the phone calls, and even challenged the Attorney General to produce the documents in court.

But the very transcripts would eventually be removed from the court record, after the court upheld an application from Gatt’s defence team because the warrant for the telephone interceptions was never presented in court: a procedural bungle that might have cost the prosecution its case.

On his part, David Gatt said he was being targeted by George Grech, because the former Commissioner had taken a fancy to a policewoman with whom Gatt had had a relationship with.