Fatal mugging of elderly woman: Accused tells judge she was only accompanying her boyfriend

Bernice Camilleri tells the court she was accompanying her boyfriend, thinking he was going to collect some money, when he robbed the victim for drug money in 2010

A woman on trial for complicity in the fatal mugging of an elderly woman in Sliema, 12 years ago, has told the judge that she had only been sitting in the car used by the mugger because she was accompanying her boyfriend, who had hit her in the face just moments before the crime took place. 

Bernice Camilleri, today 33 years of age, from Qawra, is on trial accused of complicity in the 2010 aggravated theft which led to the death of 80-year-old Rose Garroni, together with five other heads of indictment.

Garroni died in hospital in December 2010, as a result of an internal haemorrhage caused by her fall. The elderly woman had also suffered a fractured pelvis and a broken leg as a result of the mugging. 

Camileri, then 22, had been sitting in the back seat of the two-door hatchback, she said, adding that Charles Brincat and Richard Attard, both of whom had been jailed after admitting their guilt to avoid a trial, had been sitting in the front. Brincat and Attard had subsequently been jailed for 13 and 12 years, respectively.

Testifying in her trial, without jury, before Mr. Justice Aaron Bugeja this morning, Camilleri said that Brincat had assaulted the victim, whilst she and Attard sat in the getaway car.

Accused explains background to the fatal robbery

At the beginning of her testimony this morning,  the accused told the judge that Attard had been her first boyfriend and that they had started dating despite initial resistance from her parents who were apprehensive at the fact that she was 13 and Attard was 8 years her senior. 

Her parents had eventually accepted him, she said, but later ordered her to stop seeing him after being informed by some neighbours that Attard was a drug user who visited prostitutes. Camilleri hadn’t believed this, she said. “To me, he wasn’t the guy they were describing.”

The relationship continued in secret, with Attard meeting her outside her school.

Her parents soon found out, however and prohibited her from going out in the evenings, also confiscating her mobile phone.

Attard then suggested she escape from her parent’s house by climbing through a window to meet up. 

The end result of that relationship was that Camilleri was taken into care and Attard was charged with having sex with a minor and drug offences, she said, answering a question from her lawyer, Arthur Azzopardi. Her relationship with her parents also broke down.

“I didn’t believe he used heroin, but when I saw him injecting himself I realised I was wrong.”

Camilleri said Attard would force her to take drugs.“I never asked him for drugs, rather he forced me to take them. I threw up,” she said.

She had spent four months at the Fejda residential youth care home and had also been summoned to testify against Attard, who was then jailed. With nowhere to live after being discharged from Fejda, Camilleri later went to live with her sister in Tarxien, spending almost a year there before her parents relented and took her back in.

Answering a question by Azzopardi, she confirmed that she started dating another man and moved in with him after they had a baby together.

That relationship came to an end around two years later after the man had refused to pay for a birthday present for their daughter, but had splashed out to get wheel rims for his car.

Her daughter no longer lives with her, she said, her voice breaking. “He and I broke up and then Richard Attard contacted me on Hi5. He told me he still loved me, told me that my parents couldn't continue to dictate my life.” 

The two started dating again, she said, with Attard telling her that he had overcome his drug problems. Her family stopped talking to her when they learned of this.

The father of her child had been entrusted with its care and custody by the courts. One day the daughter was not returned to her after an access visit, she said. “He wouldn’t answer my calls or my messages. When we went to court, I found out that it had been my parents who had told him not to return the child.” 

Camilleri’s downward spiral continued unabated. Her social benefits were cut off after losing custody and she could no longer afford her accommodation, as she was unemployed, she explained.  She ended up living in a garage in Bugibba, but could only afford the first month’s rent.

Meanwhile Attard was still living with his mother. Desperate for a place to stay, she contacted him and asked permission to sleep in his car. “Richard told me to come live with him and his parents,” the accused went on. But from outside the house she heard Attard arguing with his parents, who refused to allow her to live there.

Attard stormed out of the house carrying some cash, she said. A friend of theirs offered them accommodation, and the pair took up the offer.

Half of the money Attard had taken from his parents was used for drugs, Camilleri said. “He would use [drugs] constantly, watching TV and using.”  She described how Attard would carry a pouch containing drug paraphernalia with him everywhere.

Azzopardi asked the accused to walk the court through the events of the fatal incident.

She recalled receiving a phone call from Attard, asking her to arrange for him to be picked up from Mount Carmel Hospital. Charlie Brincat was driving the three-door hatchback and she was in the back, she said. To get to the back seat, the front seat had to be tilted forward.

Brincat went to buy some wine and told Attard that he had no money. 

“When he had no money for drugs, Richard would shout at me and insult me. He would call me a prostitute for conceivng a child while he was in a cell.”

Attard had punished her whenever she had tried to dispose of his drugs to stop him taking them. “One time I flushed his drugs down the toilet and he had locked me in the toilet for the rest of the night.”

On another occasion when she had thrown his drugs away, he had threatened her with a bread knife, she said.

One day he had an overdose and refused her offer to call his parents, recalled the witness. Attard had threatened to stab her if she were to call an ambulance or the police, she said, pausing to compose herself. “He told me ‘I’ll stab you.’.”

“He would say he took drugs because of his parents’ breakup, but to me it was all his fault.”

She described the moment that Charles Brincat had got out of the car to rob the victim.

During the drive to Sliema, she had thought that Brincat was going to collect some money from someone, she said. But when they arrived in Sliema, Brincat spotted a woman and announced that he was going to rob her. Attard had objected, but Brincat insisted.

“I agreed with Richard, naturally. I said I didn’t want to do this.”

Brincat got out of the car, leaving the door partially closed and went up to the elderly woman.

“I told Richard to drive away. At that moment, Richard turned around and slapped me hard.” She was stunned by the blow, she said.

“Charlie came running back and got back into the car, holding a handbag. It was a dark coloured handbag.”  Brincat found around €20 or €25 and some keys in the bag, Camilleri said.

He told Attard to drive somewhere so they could buy some cocaine. “Charlie was on cocaine but Richard was more into heroin,” Camilleri explained.

They travelled to Valletta but Attard didn’t find anyone to buy drugs from, so Brincat suggested they try Paola.

On the way there, as they drove through Marsa, Brincat had thrown the empty stolen handbag away, Camilleri recalled.. 

Azzopardi asked the woman what she had done and how she had felt at the time. “I was too scared to talk because there were two men in the car now and it wasn’t the first time that Richard had raised his hand to me. I stayed quiet. I was still a little dizzy from the slap.”

Brincat told them to drive to Bormla, but whilst going through Zabbar, they stopped at a petrol station near Hompesch Road.

“Whilst Richard was buying petrol, I asked to get out and urinate. There was a low wall.

“I wanted to run away. But I knew that they were two men in a car. The police station wasn’t far, but they would have caught me before I got there.”

Instead, they drove to Bormla, Attard parking the car near a tunnel.

There, Brincat had bought some cocaine from a person he knew and told them to drive to his mother’s house in Cospicua. Brincat and Attard decided to consume their drugs there.

“Richard brought out his pouch and told me to take some heroin because I was jittery.” 

But Brincat intervened, telling Attard not to give her “the needle”. He gave her cocaine instead.

The men then decided to commit a second robbery, she said. They drove out of Bormla and headed to Sliema. Brincat spotted another woman who he wanted to rob. 

“So both victims were selected by whom?” asked Azzopardi. “Chalie,” she replied.

Richard dropped Brincat off and picked him up a few minutes later. Brincat was holding another stolen handbag, from which he fished out a Nokia mobile phone. “This is what I found,” he said. “Richard took it to have a look and said he knew someone who he could sell it to.” They went to Paola but the mobile was not sold, so they went to Bormla to the person they had bought cocaine from and were offered  €20 in exchange for the mobile.

Brincat asked the dealer to pay him in cocaine, which he did.

The men drove to a secluded spot and injected heroin, the accused said. After that they took Brincat back to Mount Carmel before heading back to Gzira.

“I told Richard that he had made a mistake and had to accept it. At that moment he pushed me and kicked me in the stomach. Then he opened his pocket and gave her a joint. 

“When I lit it, I started vomiting and realised that it was heroin not marijuana. Richard started laughing.”

Wiping tears away, she said she realised that she couldn’t carry on living like that.

The next day they went to a computer shop in Cospicua where Attard told her they needed to steal something as they were out of money. “He picked up a laptop and stuffed it in my jacket.”

Later that day, Camilleri went to the police to tell them where the stolen laptop was and that she had nothing to do with it. She was arrested that same day together with Attard over the stolen laptop, said the woman. Wiping away tears she said “I thought they had made a mistake.”

Camilleri concluded her testimony, saying that in the 8 years since the incident, she had been in a stable relationship and had found a cause close to her heart: rescuing stray animals and taking them to animal sanctuaries.  “I dedicated my life to caring for animals. I’m better off caring for animals than caring for humans. When I cared for a human, it came back to bite me. Animals don’t do that to me.”

She was scared of men because of what Attard had put her through, she sobbed.

Her lawyer asked her whether she had anything to add. “I am very sorry. This guilt will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Cross-examined by prosecutor Karl Muscat, Camilleri seemed to say that she might have not told the truth during criminal proceedings against Attard over an unconnected incident. “It could have been that I wasn’t telling the truth because I was scared of Richard.”

“I was scared to lose him,” she then corrected herself. “In fact he would tell me what to say in court. Not to drop him in the shit.”

Muscat began to ask her to confirm that she had lied under oath, but was stopped by the judge.

Later in her cross-examination, the accused woman again told the court that she had been forced to lie in court.

Although she had testified in previous proceedings that her parents would beat her with a belt, she told the court today that this was not true and that she had been forced to say this by Richard for fear of losing him. She also denied the suggestion that Richard had left her parents’ house because he couldn’t stand seeing her being beaten.

Muscat asked her whether she remembered telling that court that some gold and jewellery had been stolen from her parents’ house. Camilleri confirmed this, going on to explain that she had been forced to steal them by Richard who threatened to run away with a certain Sarah. 

The accused informed the court that she had bumped into Sarah in the lockup this morning. “He said the same to her as he had said to me and he got her hooked on drugs at 12 years of age.”

Taking her up on her claim to have never been a drug user, Muscat confronted her with a 2005 sentence in which she was placed on probation for heroin possession. “I don’t remember that case, but if it is true, the drugs were definitely not mine.”

“They took Richard to court so many times…” Azzopardi confirmed to the court that the case had indeed happened.

Camilleri said she knew Brincat had a drinking problem but denied knowing that Chalie used drugs. She had known him for 8 years before the incident, as he was her sister’s husband. 

Muscat asked her whether she had heard the men discuss stealing anything in the car. “Charlie never said he was going to steal. He said “sejjer niddobba xi haga.””

“When a drug addict craves drugs they will not care whether someone gets hurt or announce their intentions,” she added.

She denied knowing where they were going or even seeing the elderly victim. “Remember I was in the back seat. We had passed her when Charlie told Attard to stop the car, saying ‘hawn din, hawn din il mara, waqqafni hawn.’”

The trial continues.

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Rebecca Mercieca are defence counsel to Bernice Camilleri. 

Lawyers Anthony Vella and Karl Muscat, from the Office of the Attorney General, are prosecuting.