Rabat kidnap: Suspect told police he had 'wanted to interrogate' victim about stolen van

A police inspector tells the court there is evidence that abduction victim stole a van from the accused • Court grants bail to all but one of the accused

Jeremy Borg (top left), Burton Azzopardi (bottom left), Thorne Mangion (middle), Tyson Grech and Christian Borg (far right) were all charged with the abduction of a man in Rabat
Jeremy Borg (top left), Burton Azzopardi (bottom left), Thorne Mangion (middle), Tyson Grech and Christian Borg (far right) were all charged with the abduction of a man in Rabat

A police inspector has told a court how one of the men accused of kidnapping Carlos Schembri had told her that he had wanted to “interrogate him” about a stolen van, before turning him over to the police.

Inspector Sarah Zerafa testified at the end of a tense three-hour sitting before Magistrate Monica Vella, as the compilation of evidence against Christian Borg, 28, from Swieqi, Thorne Mangion, 27, from Qormi, Tyson Grech, 26, from Isla, Burton Azzopardi, 20, from Bormla and Jeremy Borg, 20, from Qormi continued.

They stand charged with the 21 January abduction of Carlos Schembri and severely beating him. All are pleading not guilty to the charges.

Schembri had reported being bundled into a vehicle, where he was beaten and threatened in connection with the alleged theft of a van. He managed to escape and report the matter to the police.

An unspoken, yet palpable, fear was the common denominator of almost all the prosecution witnesses summoned to testify today.

Inspector Zerafa told the court how the owner of Princess Garage, Christian Borg, and its director Joseph Camenzuli had filed a police report after finding parts of one of their vans in a garage in Marsaskala.

The police had gone to the garage in question and found the parts there. The garage belonged to brothers Charlton Magro and Alessio Magro, she said, adding that they had informed the police that the van’s engine was in another garage in Fgura. The inspector had accompanied Borg and Charlton Magro to the garage in question and found the engine there. It was returned to Borg, together with other parts, she said.

After this, they had gone to the Paola police station to sign off the returned items and were asked about a report they had received from Marsaskala. They told the police that they knew about six cars being stolen, as the day before, a certain Carlos Schembri had been caught breaking into his yard. Borg told the police that his friends had caught Schembri and put him in a van. He added that some Peugeot 208s had also been stolen by Schembri.

There was evidence that Schembri had stolen the van, the inspector told the court.

'I wanted to interrogate Carlos'

Inspector Zerafa testified that she had asked Borg why Schembri had not been reported to the police. He replied that he had “wanted to interrogate Carlos” before turning him in.

Soon after, the inspector learned that Carlos Schembri had reported being abducted. She had immediately informed her colleague, Inspector Roderick Attard about the previous report. Christian Borg was called to the police station and arrested. He was found to be carrying a mobile that had been taken from Carlos Schembri, she said.

Christian Borg (Photo:Facebook)
Christian Borg (Photo:Facebook)

From there, more arrests were made, she said, naming the rest of the accused present in the court today.

She had also questioned Tyson Grech, who had renounced to his right to have a lawyer present and subsequently released a statement.

During her cross-examination by defence lawyer Giannella De Marco, the inspector said she had seen a chat on the stolen phone, which was later passed on to a court expert. The chat was between Schembri and a woman who was possibly his girlfriend, she said. “Chris Borg drew my attention to it. It was a photo of a car part and an acetylene torch, with the message ‘I’m in Fgura’.”

The Magro brothers had told the police that Schembri had gone to their garage, which was just a three or four minute walk from the police station, with a Peugeot Expert van that had no number plates, and had sold it to them.

A separate investigation is underway into the van’s provenance, the court was later told.

Victim's sister testifies on threats

Also testifying today was Schembri’s younger sister, who described how on 21 January this year, her brother had called her and invited her to accompany him to the barber. She had gone to his garage and found his Mercedes parked outside, unlocked. Her brother was nowhere to be found, so she sent him a message on Facebook messenger, she explained.

She told the court that she opened the car at around 4pm and noticed blood on the windscreen and around two hours later, her mother called her up and asked her whether she knew a certain Tyson Grech, informing her that Carlos was in hospital after being beaten up.

The woman, who said she already knew Grech, sent him a message on Facebook, asking for her brother’s keys and mobile phone. The next day, she had received 10 missed calls, all from Grech. Five calls on Facebook and five on her mobile phone.

Lawyer Jason Grima objected to this, asking whether the woman’s mobile phone was being exhibited in the acts of the proceedings. The court allowed the witness to hand over a pen drive with the evidence relating to the calls and messages in its stead.

The girl went on, “he told me to tell him where Carlos was as he needed to speak to him… he said my family and I would be responsible for what happens to Carlos. Then he called my mother…”

Magistrate lambasts Tyson Grech

At this point, Grech suddenly stood up and gesticulated, walking over to his lawyer to protest about something. The magistrate was having none of it and ordered Grech to behave. “Mr Grech you are in a courtroom, what are you trying to do? Intimidate a witness? These are things that shouldn’t happen outside, let alone in a courtroom!” shouted the magistrate.

The witness told the court that she was worried about the safety of her child.

She said she recognised all the accused. “Tyson, Chris, Thorn, Burton and Jeremy.” She informed the court that Grech had just pulled down his mask and smiled at her.

Lawyer Jason Grima asked her who she was afraid of. “Understand there were five of them on my brother,” said the witness. She said she was afraid of Tyson Grech and denied the lawyer’s suggestions that she had been in a sexual relationship with him in the past.

Grima, undeterred, suggested that she had met with Grech and had sex with him on the day of the crime, to uproar from the prosecution bench.

Witnesses’ reluctant testimony

Several other witnesses testified today: the owner of a garage next to Schembri’s, who reluctantly said that she had heard someone call out to Schembri from a van in the road. “'Carlos come out!’' I thought they were going to take him to the polyclinic,” she said, later explaining that she had seen “some blood on his mouth.” Carlos was sitting inside his own car at the time. “It wasn’t any of my business,” said the woman.

Asked whether she recognised anyone in the courtroom today, she replied before the prosecutor had finished the question. “I don’t know anyone, whether he was fat, thin, nothing!”

Another reluctant witness, a petrol pump attendant from Fgura also testified. He instantly bristled at being asked his details and whether he was an employee, asking the prosecutor why he was asking him all these questions and earning a rebuke from the magistrate.

“They brought me here and I don’t know, and I have nothing to do with these things. The police came to gather CCTV. I gave them access, I don’t know how to modify these things,” protested the witness.

The footage was about a white vehicle, which had briefly stopped at the pump before driving off, whilst he had been inside the office as there were no clients, he said.

Lawyer Giannella De Marco interrupted, saying that there was no need for the witness to be asked to interpret the footage.

The magistrate asked him whether the vehicle had stopped.

He replied that he had been packing items inside and walked outside to give the vehicle fuel, but the van had driven off in a “fraction of a second,” and had not taken on any fuel, he went on. “The van stopped for petrol, I assume,” said the man. There had been other employees in the car wash and tyre changing stations, but only he was dealing with the pumps, he confirmed.

“There was nothing. It was normal for this to happen, maybe he realised he had no money on him,” insisted the witness.

Asked whether he knew who the van belonged to, he insisted that he hadn’t seen it. He denied seeing the CCTV footage, as “as far as I’m concerned, nothing happened.”

De Marco objected several times, saying that there was no need for the witness to tell us what he saw in the film. The magistrate overruled the lawyer, saying that it was relevant at this stage.

Man running away from van

“What was the reason they left again, from the footage?” asked prosecuting lawyer Karl Muscat from the Office of the Attorney General. “I saw it when the police showed it to me,” replied the witness. “I saw the van stop and a person getting out of the van and running away.”

“Did anyone else emerge from the van?” He asked. “Yes. One, from the back too.”

The prosecutor asked him why he had just told the court the opposite, under oath. “I am talking about the film that I saw. At the time I saw nobody except the van stopping for fuel. Don’t try to trip me up!” the witness shouted at the prosecutor.

Muscat then asked how the van had driven off when the driver had just got out. “I saw that on the footage, at the time I didn’t [see anything]. I saw everything now with the police.”

“The video speaks for itself, why are you asking me? Don’t ask me what I saw with the police, ask them!” shouted the witness.

Defence lawyers Michael Sciriha and Steven Tonna Lowell criticised the questions being asked, but were given short shrift by the court.

Cross-examination was reserved.

Shouting and crying in pain

Another witness then took the stand, telling the court that he did not know the victim.

“I was down in the garage where I work, right across from where the incident happened.” He didn’t have an address for the garage as it was in a field, he said. “I heard someone shouting, like he was crying in pain and I went to see what was going on. I went to look. There was a white van, I don’t remember the model, parked across the road, Triq it-Taghbija. It was parked in the main road, I don’t know if you can do that, it was blocking a car. A Mercedes… like grey?” He said he didn’t know who the Mercedes belonged to.

“I thought they were joking, to be honest, as they weren’t so aggressive,” said the witness. Asked who he was talking about, he replied: “there were people walking by, two or three, I couldn’t see properly.”

“What were they doing?”

“When I was looking, I saw no type of violence. But then something happened and the van’s door closed and it drove off.” Whatever happened had taken place behind the van, where he couldn’t see, claimed the witness.

The defence argued that the prosecution was pressuring the witness “by standing close to him.”

“I want to make it clear that I don’t know anyone of these people,” said the witness, seemingly taking the cue.

“I don’t know these people, completely, no idea. When a police officer came and asked me who these people are and what they have, I said I didn’t know anything. I don’t even have Facebook.” He didn’t know who Carlos Schembri was, he insisted.

“I heard the van’s slide door slam shut, I don’t know what happened and what didn’t.” The people had been beside the van, three of them left, another dark skinned one turned around the corner and disappeared, he said.

The defence raised an objection to Muscat confronting the reluctant witness with his original statement, as it had not been exhibited in the proceedings.

Muscat then asked the witness to describe any of the persons who were there. “I didn’t see anyone. I only saw one man after the van left, going around the corner.”

Lawyer Shaun Zammit, appearing parte civile for Schembri, asked the witness to describe that man. “He was dark skinned.” Asked to point him out in court, he indicated Jeremy Borg, albeit not with certainty.

Amongst the other witnesses to testify today was a Transport Malta representative, who exhibited information about a white Peugeot Expert Traveller van, registered to Christian Borg, under Princess Garage. “This is a rental registration,” he said. Another foreign numberplate he had been asked to run searches on, had never been registered in Malta, the court was told.

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Bail granted to all accused bar one

After the witnesses had tendered their evidence to the court, lawyer Giannella De Marco asked for bail for her client Christian Borg. Lawyer Michael Sciriha, also for Borg, told the court that it was “evident” that Borg qualified for bail.

Parte civile lawyer Shaun Zammit interjected, saying that Schembri’s sister was outside the courtroom, terrified. He was shouted down by the defence lawyers for addressing the court when he had no right of audience. Lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell suggested that she might be terrified “because she had not told the truth,” arguing that besides, there were controls which could be put in place.

Lawyer Franco Debono submitted that the witness evidence had now been conserved and that he had no doubt that the magistrate would calibrate bail conditions as necessary. He lauded the court for hearing evidence so swiftly.

But the prosecution countered these submissions, Muscat arguing that there although the witnesses had testified, he had given more serious reasons for the court to refuse bail. He pointed out that the inquiry was still open and there were still opportunities for the accused to tamper with evidence.

“There were a few developments over the past few days. With Jeremy Borg acting as he had in this court. This begs the question as to if he was acting in this manner in court, how will he act outside.” Borg stood up and leaned over to someone, before being pulled down.

Muscat was stopped by the court, when he referenced revelations about the accused which had surfaced in the media, linking the accused to Luke Milton. “No media. We are in a court of law,” said the magistrate. Muscat asked that the accused be remanded in custody until the magisterial inquiry is concluded and Luke Milton is charged, saying that the accused would “definitely breach their bail conditions.”

Lawyer Franco Debono dismissed this as “conjecture” and pointed out that Burton had obeyed his bail conditions.

De Marco quoted her father, the late Prof. Guido De Marco, as saying that “human rights, if not translated into action, remain words etched in marble.”

She said she was sorry if the woman was terrified, although pointing out that she had testified without difficulty, but pointed out that her client had gone to the police himself and had given them the location of the stolen items. She denied that he had threatened anyone.

Borg had not breached any court orders and had provided a third-party guarantor. Even though the other accused had been granted bail, there had been no threats or breaches of bail.

The court could also impose a protection order, suggested the lawyer.

For Jeremy Borg, lawyer Jason Grima argued that he was the least person involved in the incident. With regards to his other client, Tyson Grech, he said the victim’s sister had lied during her testimony today and that he would be exploring further action against her.

Bail and prima facie evidence for bill of indictment

The court granted bail to Christian Borg, ordering him to surrender his ID card and passport. He was prohibited from speaking to, directly or indirectly, the prosecution’s witnesses. He has to sign twice weekly at St Julian’s police station and must observe a curfew between 11pm and 6am. Bail was granted against a deposit €3,000 and  a personal guarantee of €5,000.

A protection order in favour of Schembri and his family was also issued. Borg was also forbidden from following Schembri, approaching his home or contacting him on pain of a €7,000 fine, imprisonment of up to two years or both imprisonment and fine.

The court also granted bail under similar conditions to Jeremy Borg, who told the court that he did not have an ID card or a passport.

Bail was denied to Tyson Grech as he was not deemed sufficiently trustworthy. The remaining accused had been granted bail in the last sitting.

The court decreed that it had seen sufficient prima facie evidence of guilt to allow a bill of indictment to be issued.

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