Abner Aquilina sexually abused by River of Love member before Paulina Dembska murder, lawyer claims

Abner Aquilina's defence lawyer hammers River of Love witness and claims he abused the murder suspect in the hours leading up to Paulina Dembska's murder • Witness denies suggestion

Derek Spiteri (left) shared his apartment with murder suspect Abner Aquilina (right) and the two were together in the hours leading up to Paulina Dembska's murder
Derek Spiteri (left) shared his apartment with murder suspect Abner Aquilina (right) and the two were together in the hours leading up to Paulina Dembska's murder

A River of Love member denied suggestions he took Abner Aquilina home, gave him alcohol and a sleeping pill before trying to sexually abuse him, hours before Paulina Dembska’s murder.

The witness, Derek Spiteri, was testifying in the compilation of evidence against Aquilina, who stands accused of raping and murdering Dembska.

Spiteri is a member of the evangelical Christian group River of Love and was the last witness in today’s sitting before Magistrate Marseanne Farrugia.

Dembska, a student visiting Malta from Poland, was brutally raped and murdered during the early hours of New Year’s Day this year, after being attacked while attending to a cat colony at the Sliema Independence Gardens.

Aquilina was arrested some time later, inside Balluta parish church, where he had been causing a disturbance. Police investigations later tied him to the murder.

When taking the witness stand on Monday, Derek Spiteri told the court that he shared his apartment with the accused in Żejtun.

Aquilina had joined him in attending a River of Love service on New Year’s Eve and Spiteri had then let him sleep at his house. 

“When I woke up in the morning, I went to his room and he wasn’t there,” said the witness, explaining that “he had slept at my house as it was getting late.”

Spiteri said that he had later been spoken to at police headquarters. “It was about a murder and I was immensely shocked,” he said.

Further details emerged when Spiteri was cross-examined by parte civile lawyer Stefano Filletti.

They had not consumed alcohol at River of Love, but afterwards they had gone to have a pizza and a beer, the witness said. On their way home, Aquilina’s behaviour had been normal, Spiteri testified. They had chatted about New Years’ Day, River of Love, and the sea, he claimed.

Spiteri told the court that he did not recall any disturbing conversations with the accused. When he woke up the next day at around 9am, he had found a suitcase in Aquilina’s room, but the accused was not there. Finding his front door ajar, Spiteri said he had then called Aquilina’s mother.

“Why did you call his mother, he was 20 years old… how does she figure in the picture? Were you worried?” asked the defence lawyer.

“It was because I didn’t find him at home,” insisted the witness.

“What did his mother tell you?” Filletti asked. “That he was in hospital,” Spiteri said.

“Why? Did you take any drugs?” probed the lawyer. “No,” replied the witness, adding that he had gone to Mater Dei Hospital to look for Aquilina “and ended up at the depot.”

River of Love, pizza, home

Asked whether he had gone to the police of his own accord, he explained that the police had called him up, but didn’t recall whether he had been told why. The witness admitted to being a drug abuser.

“I tried to help him,” said the witness, pausing. “From the spiritual aspect.”

Filletti asked about the sequence of events: “River of Love, pizza, home. New year dawned… When did the suitcase arrive?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t awake,” said Spiteri, insisting that Aquilina’s phone had been switched off at the time.

Filletti asked whether the witness was worried about something in particular, pointing out that a 20-year-old could be expected to come and go as he pleased. 

The worry was general in nature, Spiteri replied.

Sitting in the dock, Aquilina grinned, seemingly finding the cross-examination funny.

The lawyer asked why the witness had ended up looking for Aquilina at the police headquarters, of all places.

“If someone is sleeping at your house… you know? I felt responsible for him,” Spiteri replied.

‘You got scared of both God and Maltese law’ – defence lawyer

Aquilina’s defence counsel, Mario Mifsud took over Spiteri’s cross-examination. Reminding the witness that he was entitled to ask direct questions, before pummelling him with quick-fire questions.

Spiteri admitted to knowing that Aquilina had been sexually abused twice before.

“So, you slipped him some sleeping pills and opened his zip,” suggested the lawyer. “I am telling you clearly. You tried to abuse Abner and then you got scared of both God and Maltese law. Is that why you went to the depot? To make sure he hadn’t filed a report?”

“No, no,” protested the witness. 

Spiteri had previously mentioned that he had gone to Sliema for a late-night swim, together with Aquilina and another River of Love follower. “Is it normal at River of Love to go swimming in the depths of winter?” asked the lawyer.

Sitting at the back of the courtroom, Aquilina’s mother wept bitterly as the defence lawyer asked the witness what help the River of Love had given Aquilina in the most crucial two days of his life. “You are an accomplice!” shouted the lawyer.

The witness grimaced, visibly uncomfortable.

“Is it normal that when you have a boy, girl or dog staying with you, to go to look for them at the depot if they’ve left in the morning?” Mifsud asked. The magistrate repeated this question to the accused. “I don’t know.”

‘Baptised’ in the sea

Asked what the two had spoken about before he had slipped Abner the sleeping pills, the witness said he didn’t remember.

Mifsud changed tack, suggesting that Aquilina had opened up to him about sexual relationship problems. He had, Spiteri replied. “About girls. He likes girls, but I don’t.”

Was it normal to need sleeping pills after drinking a single beer, asked the lawyer, suggesting that Spiteri and the other man had taken Aquilina to the sea in order to “baptise” him. Spiteri denied this.

Mifsud asked Spiteri what had been done to Aquilina the day before the murder took place. The River of Love congregation “spoke to him in the language of the Holy Spirit,” the witness replied.

“You are taking long to answer, you have a guilty conscience,” taunted the lawyer. “Do you want a break? Do you want a lawyer? Perhaps all of the River of Love to come support you?”

‘Was Jesus there?’

Spiteri insisted that he did not give the accused sleeping pills. “I am not a psychologist, I don’t know what was going to happen,” said the witness, before ill-advisedly telling the lawyer to “bring me proof,” a reply which earned him a rebuke by the court.

Asked to name the other church member who had been with them, the witness said that a certain Jeffrey Spiteri had been with them at the beach. 

“Jesus is always with me...” added the witness.

“Even when you slipped him a sleeping pill and opened his zip? Was Jesus there then?” asked Mifsud. “No further questions, your honour.”

The case was adjourned to 22 December.

Inspectors Wayne Camilleri and Jonathan Ransley prosecuted. Lawyers Anthony Vella and Darlene Grima represented the Office of the Attorney General.