Police officer says interrogators blamed him for colleague's rape

Witness napped on police station sofa, but insists that sounds of a struggle would have woken him up

A police inspector broke down in tears on the witness stand this afternoon, as he described how investigators had suggested that his medicine-induced somnolence had allowed a female colleague of his to be raped and would result in a male colleague being jailed.

The trial of a former police constable, accused of raping one female colleague and sexually assaulting another continued before Madame justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera this afternoon. 

One of several witnesses to testify today was Inspector Brian Xuereb, who had been a sergeant at the Msida police station in 2018.

He had been on light duties, working shifts both with the female constable allegedly raped and her alleged rapist, the defendant. “My relationship with them was the same. I never preferred anyone over the other. We would always go out together,” he said.

The judge asked him about social events. Officers from the Msida station would often invite officers stationed at Mater Dei Hospital when they went out together, he said. The witness recalled attending a lunch with other officers at a sushi restaurant in late February or early March that year. “At first it was just us men, because I was told [victim #1] didn’t like sushi. But she came along in the afternoon and the dining party had moved to a bigger table.

The judge asked whether he had seen any disquiet between the alleged victim and the defendant that day. “I never saw any disagreements between them. The only disputes in his shift had been about work-related matters, he said.

He recalled how, during a retirement party in Zebbug, the WPC had asked to speak to him about a personal matter. “She told me recently, [the defendant] had grabbed her hand and tried to kiss her.” 

“She was smiling as she was speaking,” recalled the witness, not the first witness to say this.

He asked whether she had told her sergeant or inspector and she hadn’t. “I imagined that it was because she was too shy.”

He had suggested she entrap the defendant asking him about the time he kissed her and recording it on her mobile phone, but she wasn’t happy with the advice, so he then suggested she speak to a lawyer if she wasn’t comfortable talking to another officer. She had asked him whether he knew any lawyers and he had recommended Alfred Abela, he said, as Abela had previously been a police Major, and given her the lawyer’s phone number.

“From that day onwards…I sometimes encountered her on shifts and would gesture to her to see if everything was OK and she would indicate that it was.” 

Her work had been the subject of numerous complaints, he said.

Prosecutor Darlene Grima asked the witness whether he remembered the shift during which the alleged rape had taken place. “I remember because a lot of things happened afterwards and I was accused of things too,” he said.

“That day I had started work at around 8pm…night shift. I remember I had been following up on some previous reports that I had written.”

Grima asked about the second alleged victim. “She had been working at the Gzira police station, but we don’t usually leave female officers to work alone in a police station. I would never leave people alone at police stations, even though I got in trouble for it,” he said.

She was the last member to have joined the team at that time, he said. He remembered receiving a phone call from Inspector Mark Mercieca, who asked whether the first alleged victim had ever confided in me and whether I had replied to her by email. At that point, I didn’t know about anything, but some time before the defendant was showing some interest in her. Body language, smiling. That’s what I noticed.”

The judge asked how the young female officer would react to this interest. “I never heard her tell him to stop, but she had a forthright character, and wouldn’t hesitate to send you to blazes if you were bothering her.”

The defendant had told him that he was interested in dating her, he said, “I remember him asking me what do you think of [victim #2]. I replied that I would never date a police officer.”

He had not spoken to the female officer about this, he said,  “because between him telling me this and all the rest happening, only a couple of days had passed.”

“I was one of the few officers who had not been asked to release a statement…I was unable to go [for questioning] when [Inspector Mercieca] called me late on Sunday night because I was taking care of my daughter. So I sent him an email with my account of what happened and my replies to the questions he had asked me.”

He was frozen out by his colleagues, he said. “It was a great shock to me and I took it very personally. Because nobody was giving me any information and officers were telling me that they had orders not to speak with me. I started going through my messages and tried to make sense of what happened. There were particular issues which didn’t make sense to me and I was not getting answers when I asked about them.” 

As he had been unable to ascertain anything, he said, he had decided to exhibit a screenshot relating to an argument between the shift and the officer allegedly raped. “An issue had come up because she had not been answering calls, and I had taken a screenshot of the calls she rejected.” 

Cross-examining the inspector, lawyer Edward Gatt referred to his testimony before the Court of Magistrates, where he had described being called to Inspector Mercieca’ office, expecting to be asked to give a statement about the matter. Instead, he was admonished, he had told the court. “The inspector said ‘because of you a policewoman was raped and a police officer is going to end up in prison,;” said the lawyer, reading out the transcript of his previous testimony.

“That was the trigger,” said the witness. “I felt threatened at that point. I had always tried to defend my officers from criminals and other threats….I said ‘are you making this declaration before even asking me what I had seen? If you decided not to believe me and already condemned me, we are drawing a line between us.’”

Gatt suggested that Inspector Xuereb had faced many problems because of this incident. 

The witness’ eyes welled up with tears at that point and the lawyer asked the judge to allow the inspector some time to compose himself.

When the cross-examination resumed 15 minutes later, Gatt asked the inspector about the problems which he had subsequently encountered. 

“I ended up on the Internal Affairs’ speed dial. They would call me all the time…even if I posted something on Facebook I would be interrogated about it.” His relationship with Inspector Mercieca hit rock bottom.

Gatt reminded the witness that he had described the alleged rape victim’s face when she had spoken to him at the retirement meal. “It was almost like she was laughing,” read the lawyer, asking the witness to give more detail about this point.

“When she said the defendant had taken her by the hand and had tried to kiss her, she smiled. It wasn’t a ‘hahaha’ smile, but she smiled.”

The witness said the effect on his relationship with the other officers had immediately suffered. They were being spoken to by the inspector, he said.

“I noticed something like a cold war had developed. The Sliema police officers were instructed not to speak to us. I imagined that it was to preserve evidence.”

The inspector had described the officer allegedly raped as normally being well-behaved but who was involved in “many commotions.” The Inspector said he would also try and help her correct mistakes in her work. 

“There were many there who wanted to report her to internal affairs, I would calm people down,” he said.

“At first I put it down to the fact that she was new…at one point she had a particular problem with some women, housewives, of a certain age, educated. She had called me up telling me to come urgently because they had been aggressive towards her. I rushed to the station and tried to figure out what was going on. They gave me one version and she gave me another and they really wanted to report her to internal affairs.” The women were eventually dissuaded from doing so by the inspector on duty, Lara Butters, he said.

The lawyer read on from the witness’ previous testimony, quoting a passage about the alleged victim’s numerous conflicts with her co-workers. He highlighted one incident where she had claimed not to have been present in the police station and had ended up arguing with her fellow officers,  trying to make them out to be lying. 

Xuereb had told her not to lie and to fix the situation, read the lawyer.

“In this incident, a civilian, the son of a police officer, came and took some files out of the station. She must have felt the pressure as she was the orderly responsible and had called me up. I told her that I was on the way. By the time I arrived, Lara Butters had already spoken to the father of the officer and he had returned the files.

He recalled finding a massive argument going on at the station, with officers accusing her of lying about not being there. “I told her not to worry and that the problem was in the past, but she insisted that she hadn’t been present, to escape all responsibility [for the incident].”

He had also testified about her jealousy, which had been directed, in particular, towards the second alleged victim. 

She always wanted to be the prettiest, the best, the most popular, he had told the Court of Magistrates. The woman’s tendency to shift the blame for her mistakes onto others meant that other female officers were refusing to go out on patrol with her.

The alleged victim had also tried to seduce a number of other male police officers, going out with them, driving them home, he said. Some officers from other stations would visit the Msida police station just to meet with her. Others had rejected her advances.

Asked by Gatt, the witness confirmed that the defendant didn’t smoke. This jars with the account given to the court yesterday by Inspector Mark Mercieca.

The second male constable who had been stationed at Msida police station at the time the alleged rape took place also testified today.

The judge asked him about the sushi party. It was supposed to be exclusively for male officers, he said but he had not attended as he was working. He recalled being told that the alleged rape victim had joined the party, later on, but said he had no idea how or why she had done so.

Regarding the alleged rape incident, he explained that he had been unwell that day and had gone to sleep on the sofa in the police station, being drowsy due to the medication he had taken.

“I had no indication that anything was going on,” he said. He hadn’t heard any noises, including when he had been awake. Nobody was sullen or angry and nobody had told him about anything, he said.

He had gone to the sergeant’s room and dozed off on a couch. The sergeant was out of the station on  a call out, leaving the accused and the alleged victim alone. 

Grima asked whether he was a deep sleeper. “It couldn't have been a deep sleep, because it was uncomfortable.” He recalled hearing talking voices but insisted that there hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary.

“If something big happened, I would have woken up. I didn’t sleep till the morning.”

He denied seeing any fighting or tears or hearing anything about an assault during his shift as orderly. “Not even the next day, or the day after.”

In cross-examination Gatt read from the witness’ prior testimony before the court of magistrates, which he had tendered after refusing a lawyer despite being warned that he would face internal disciplinary proceedings.

The lawyer asked what had happened when he was called to speak to Inspector Mercieca. “On 19 March he called me up and told me to go to the Vice squad office at HQ.” 

Inspectors Busuttil and Mercieca had spoken to him in the kitchen before he went in, he said. “They told me, you know what happened, right? You have to tell the truth.”

“They said there was an allegation of rape between the accused and [victim 1]. I went cold at that moment. 

“He showed me footage…of the accused’s interrogation,” said the witness, adding that there had been five officers in the room when he was being questioned.

The interrogation footage showed the accused looking shocked, he recalled.

“They didn’t believe my account of having been in the sergeant’s room and Inspector Busuttil suggested that I had been watching them going at it, a peeping tom. I replied and told him that those things happen in Pierino films, not in real life.”

Gatt read from the transcript of his testimony in a compilation of evidence. He had said that he couldn’t say precisely what time he had woken up but around 3:30am and that he had been asleep for around two hours “for sure.”

“So between 3 and 5 when you changed shift, you had been awake for another two hours,” remarked the lawyer.

In those two hours the witness had seen nothing amiss, he said. “She could have come to me calling for help.But there was no call for help.”

“Surely, definitely I would have woken up. Their faces would have shown that something was wrong…this is why I was shocked when I was shown the video.”

The trial continues tomorrow.

Lawyers Angele Vella and Darlene Grima are prosecuting on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General.

The defendant is being represented by lawyers Edward Gatt and Franco Debono, while lawyers Lara Dimitriyevic and Stephanie Caruana are appearing for the victims.