Landlord found guilty of stealing electricity from hair salon tenant

A Ghaxaq hair salon’s landlord has been convicted of stealing thousands of euros worth of electricity from his tenant

File photo
File photo

A Ghaxaq hair salon’s landlord has been convicted of stealing thousands of euros worth of electricity from his tenant.

Francis Vassallo, 67, had been investigated by the police and subsequently charged with electricity theft in 2020 after his tenant, the operator of a hair salon situated underneath Vassallo’s home, noted that the exorbitant electricity bills she had been receiving had not decreased during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Tenants John Paul Cesare and his wife Louisa had testified before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, explaining that they had realised they were being robbed when, during the COVID-19 pandemic mandatory shutdown, they had noticed the salon’s electricity metre consumption light blinking despite all appliances having been disconnected.

Contacted by the tenants, an Enemalta representative recommended they inform the police.

This they did, filing a report at the Zejtun police station, but nobody was sent to verify their claims, noted the court. 

The Cesares will have to file a separate civil case for damages to get her money back. The court said it was not in a position to quantify the exact amount of electricity stolen.

Investigators discovered that a hidden electrical connection to the mains switch was concealed in the property’s shaft, which the tenants had no access to.

John Paul Cesare explained that they had been receiving electricity bills varying from €400 to €600. The couple had engaged an electrician to inspect the property, discovering a wire embedded in the wall, which led to Vassallo’s shaft. When confronted with this fact, the accused denied any wrongdoing and invited the tenants to “open a court case.”

He said he had heard drilling noises from Vassallo’s side after the confrontation and before the police informed him that he would be charged. 

Court experts appointed to assist the inquiry had confirmed to the court that the wire in the shaft led to the mains circuit breaker in the accused’s property. “He told the man [the accused] to hand him a lightbulb so that it could be connected to the wire. Once the mains switch was turned on, so did the lightbulb. The lightbulb was in his private residence.” The expert also testified to seeing the electricity meter light blinking despite the salon being disconnected. Another electrical engineer confirmed to the court that the meter was functioning correctly.

The court said it had no doubt that the drilling noises from next door, right after being confronted, were made by the defendant as he was trying to remove all traces leading to him. Experts had also reported finding fresh plaster covering the trench dug in the wall through which the electrical cables were passed. 

It also observed that in 2005, the tenants had paid the accused, their landlord, Lm2,300 (€5,357) to install the water and electricity connections.

The court said that in his testimony, Vassallo had attempted to give the impression that the plaster was not fresh, but the court-appointed engineer had observed that although the plaster was not new, not much time had passed since it was laid.

Magistrate Frendo Dimech was entirely unconvinced by the defendant’s attempts to explain away the evidence against him, saying that he had failed to bring “even a crumb of evidence” to support his explanations. She remarked that it was obvious that Vassallo had tried to cover his tracks during the five months which passed from the initial confrontation with the Cesares in April 2020 to the inspection in September 2020.

The court said it was unfortunate that the fact that Vassallo had been called to the police station in April 2020 had only served to tip him off about the report filed against him, giving him time to try and cover his tracks.

Finding him guilty of the charge, the court moved on to deliberate on punishment, noting that the accused had found no difficulty in stealing from the very same people who were paying him to earn a living. In addition to this, it observed that at no time had Vassallo shown any remorse or attempted to compensate the victims and that the crime was a continuous offence, meriting an increase in punishment.

Vassallo was sentenced to imprisonment for 15 months and suspended for three years. He was also ordered to bear the costs of the case.

Lawyer Lennox Vella was defence counsel, whilst lawyer Edward Gatt represented the victim in the proceedings.

In comments to MaltaToday, Louise Cesare said that the couple had to be treated for depression because of the man's actions, adding that she felt especially hurt by the fact that apart from the €5,000 they paid Vassallo in rent paid every year, they were also forking out money to cover inflated electricity bills because of the landlord’s theft.

She also lamented the lack of cooperation from the police.