Jordan Azzopardi mum as he takes witness stand in Etienne Bartolo's murder trial

Etienne Bartolo is accused of murdering Roderick Grech in Birkirkara three years ago

Alleged drug baron Jordan Azzopardi
Alleged drug baron Jordan Azzopardi

Accused drug kingpin Jordan Azzopardi shed no light on the murder of his alleged associate Roderick Grech as he took the witness stand this afternoon to testify in Etienne Bartolo’s murder trial.

Today was day three of Etienne Bartolo’s jury for the murder of Roderick Grech. Bartolo, 39, is accused of having stabbed Grech, 26, in a Birkirkara street in 2017.

Bartolo had been involved in an argument with the victim over drug payments, the jury was told this morning. The accused had told the police that he was scared of Grech.

When the jury resumed this afternoon, before the jurors filed in, Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera informed Azzopardi, who is subject to separate criminal proceedings in which he is alleged to have built a local drug-smuggling empire, that he had a right not to answer self-incriminating questions.

Azzopardi was shown a car hire agreement by prosecuting lawyer Maria Francesca Spiteri. Asked what it was about, he said, “I hired a car,” going on to say that the car was hired in Azzopardi’s name on 22 March 2017, he said. The car was a Ford Fiesta.

But this was the sum total of all the information that could be squeezed out of the witness in this sitting. Azzopardi was asked who was driving the car on the night of the murder, but he chose not to reply as it could incriminate him in other ongoing court proceedings. His testimony before the court of magistrates was read out. During the compilation of evidence, Jordan Azzopardi had been asked whether he had let Grech borrow the car and he had said that he had done so in 2017.

But today, before the Criminal Court, Azzopardi opted not to answer any further questions, on the grounds that this could potentially incriminate him in other proceedings.

In cross-examination, one of Bartolo’s defence lawyers, Mark Vassallo, asked that Azzopardi’s testimony before the Court of Magistrates be read out.

From that testimony, given to the Court of Magistrates in 2018, it emerged that he had rented the car from someone in Gzira, a couple of times. "I had lent it that time to Roderick…Roderick Grech.” The witness specifies that “that time” referred to the murder. Grech was a friend of his from Birkirkara, he had said. “I let him use it for a short while…from 28 to 29. I was doing a small favour. It wasn’t my car, it was a rental car… I didn’t lend him my car, I lent him a rental car, not something big,” Azzopardi had testified.

In that sitting, Jordan Azzopardi had told that court that he worked as a rubbish collector and before that, as a storekeeper. It was established that he had several cars at his disposal.

He had been asked why he had needed to rent a car when he had so many cars at his disposal. His car was being repaired, he said.

“Something had happened in this car. Roderick got hurt and died,” Azzopardi had told the Court of Magistrates about the rental.

In stark contrast to his relative loquacity before the court of Magistrates two years ago, Azzopardi clammed up when asked questions today.

He was shown the car rental contract. Asked about the date of the contract and why it was chosen he replied that he was choosing not to comment.

Asked by Vassallo about a large number of phone calls between him and Grech: “Naghzel li ma nikkumentax” (I choose not to comment).

“Vince Azzopardi said that Grech was a worker of yours. What work do you do?” asked Vassallo. “Naghzel li ma nikkumentax,” came back the expressionless reply.

Asked whether he had tried to call Grech after the car got a ticket: “Naghzel li ma nikkumentax”

Are you known as “el Chapo?” asked the lawyer. “Naghzel li ma nikkumentax.”

Earlier today: Accused told police he stabbed victim in drug deal argument

Etienne Bartolo at the scene of the crime in Birkirkara as jury panel was brought on site
Etienne Bartolo at the scene of the crime in Birkirkara as jury panel was brought on site

Earlier today, the jury heard how Etienne Bartolo had told the police that he had stabbed murder victim Roderick Grech with a pocketknife after they argued over drug payments.

A police officer from the CID Homicide Squad told the jury empanelled before madam justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera this morning, that after his arrest, Bartolo had given the police his version of events.

Bartolo, who had refused legal assistance for his initial questioning, had told the police officer that Roderick Grech had called him to buy drugs and they had met in Naxxar and got into a car, driving towards Birkirkara.

Bartolo said that the men had argued after Grech refused to give Bartolo drugs because he didn’t have enough money. Bartolo had wanted to pay the next day, he said. At a point the argument became physical and Grech had punched Bartolo in the shoulder. Bartolo had then stabbed Grech with a pocketknife. The victim was unarmed at the time, the policeman said, adding that Bartolo had explained that he was scared of the victim.

Also this morning, the owner of the rental car that was being driven by the victim took the stand. Vincent Azzopardi told the jury that he was a car dealer and also rented cars.

He was presented with a document, leasing a Ford Fiesta of his to Jordan Azzopardi on 22 March 2017 till the 14 April 2017, which he confirmed was genuine.

Lawyer Mark Vassallo cross-examined the witness, asking about his relationship with Jordan Azzopardi. “I don’t know him. I would speak to him on the phone. I only saw him once,” said the witness.

He was confronted with statements made by Azzopardi, to the effect that he was on very good terms with the car dealer and would lend him money whenever he needed. A second contract, for a Chevrolet, was also shown to the witness. “In the beginning I had leased this to them, to Jordan Azzopardi, and he had been given it by my employee. I don’t even know him. One Sunday I got a phone call reporting two punctures. The Fiesta was sent as a replacement.”

Phone records show that he had received a phone call from Roderick Grech, a two minute call thought to be related to the puncture on 19 March that year. “He said he worked for Jordan,” recalled the witness. They had gone to his office on Sunday to pick up the new car.

But asked why the contract started from the 22nd and not the 19th he faltered. “But there is a problem, because the date on the contract is 22 not 19,” said Vassallo, in cross-examination.

“Could it be that the contracts were made later, because you were summoned to testify?” “No no no, I always make papers,” protested the witness.

But as the cross-examination moved forward, it emerged that more than one car was rented to Azzopardi by the witness, who faltered when pressed for details.

“Did he tell you that he was prohibited from driving because he couldn’t be insured,” began Vassallo. “No,” replied Azzopardi. “Did you rent out cars to him on long lease?”

“Sometimes other people would take care of clients,” said the witness.

Vassallo pointed out that on the 22nd March, there had been 6 phone calls between the men and on the 28th -  the day of the murder - another phone call.

The calls were “always about money,” said the witness.
“So on that day when you called 15 times you were only talking about this rental which was for around €200?” suggested Vassallo.

“Where there other reasons? You weren’t friends were you?” he probed. “No,” replied Azzopardi.

The jury was told that on March 29 – the day after the murder - he was called 3 times by Jordan Azzopardi. “No the police told me about the murder. I spoke to Jordan later,” said the witness, adding that from then on he didn’t rent to Jordan anymore.

Asked by the prosecution whether he knew Roderick Grech, he said he didn’t. He had seen him once when he brought him the damaged car. “I told him you shouldn’t be driving as its not leased to you.”

Had Grech told you his name? “No.” Court warned him that he was under oath, but he insisted that he was telling the truth.
The trial continues tomorrow.

Lawyers Kevin Valletta and Maria Francesca Spiteri from the Office of the Attorney General are prosecuting.

Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo are defence counsel.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Amadeus Cachia are appearing parte civile for the victim's family.

READ ALSO: Lawyers defending Etienne Bartolo suggest murder victim was involved in loan sharking

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