Bernice Cassar had lost hope in police, protection order before being killed by estranged husband

Alessia Cilia Portelli details the abuse endured by her sister Bernice at the hands of her husband Roderick Cassar

Bernice Cassar, who was shot and killed by her estranged husband Roderick last November, had given up all hope in police protection on the eve of her death. 

Cilia Portelli testified in front of Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, who is presiding over the case.

The sister said that Roderick’s abuse towards Bernice was not a recent phenomenon. Years before, when their son was turning two years old, Roderick accused her of being in a group chat with work colleagues where they joked about Bernice’s period coming late. He ended up not attending their son’s birthday 

“The day after, he hit her,” Cilia Portelli said, recalling seeing visible bruises around her neck as if she had been strangled. “That’s when we noticed.”

In a separate incident, Roderick had a silicone gun at home and kept slamming it on a table. He told his wife, “I’ll kill you with this”.
“She was scared because she felt that she lost all control of her life,” Cilia Portelli said. The two sisters had several arrangements to make sure Bernice was safe. Cilia Portelli would never be the one to call Bernice just in case Roderick was next to her. Before Bernice left her mother’s house to go to work every morning, she would look around to make sure that the road is safe before walking to her car.  

Cilia Portelli recalled another incident of abuse. She was going to leave her daughter with Bernice one time so that she could attend a wedding, but Bernice called her crying. She explained that Roderick had left home at 5pm the day before to go to the doctor, but returned home at 11:30pm without explanation. He went home angry because Bernice called his mum in worry. 

That night, Bernice locked herself with her children in the kids’ room while Roderick went to sleep in the main bedroom. “I’m too scared to even go to the bathroom,” Bernice told her sister. 

Cilia Portelli said Roderick would often use their children to manipulate Bernice and make her feel guilty for leaving him. Roderick used to say that he prefers the son, and would take him but leave their daughter with Bernice. Cilia Portelli said, because of this, Bernice would rarely be able to go out with friends in order to take care of the children. 

When the son once showed an interest in taking some of his toys to his grandmother’s home, where Bernice and the kids were staying after moving out from the matrimonial home. But Roderick didn’t allow him to take anything there, instead telling his son, “if you want toys tell Mummy and come back home”.

Roderick would make repeated threats to Bernice and her family. When Bernice took her kids to the Floriana polyclinic for vaccination, Roderick approached her unannounced, opening her car door and telling her to come back. 

Cilia Portelli told the court about a particular threat made to her sister: “Everyone will pay for this, from those in Żebbuġ to those in Santa Luċija”. This was a reference to the family home in Żebbuġ and other relatives living in Santa Luċija. 
A few days after this, Roderick told his son, “by next week I’ll be in prison”.

Cilia Portelli said her sister mentioned several other threats made to her by Roderick. “I’ll blow your head off in front of your father”, and “If I can’t see my children, no one can”.

In court, Cilia Portelli also recalled a post uploaded to Facebook by Roderick where he promised revenge against his estranged wife. When confronting Roderick about this, he told her “Yes, you will all pay for this” in a cold, determined voice.

In the Facebook post, Roderick mentioned Bernice and a colleague of hers with whom he suspected she was having an affair. Defence lawyer Franco Debono asked Cilia Portelli whether she knew this colleague, but she said she only met him after her sister’s murder. 

Cilia Portelli said her sister felt things were out of control, and had little hope in the police towards her murder. She had spent 45 minutes crying out of frustration because, despite her estranged husband having breached a protection order, the police said that the next steps were not as straightforward because she didn’t have physical injuries.

“She said ‘I feel like the protection order is working against me’,” Cilia Portelli said, quoting her sister. “I feel like I have a ticking time bomb.”
Her sister was particularly scared of the morning routine, since Roderick knew where she worked and knew when she would clock in to work. Bernice had a set of rules she would follow to ensure her safety in the morning, such as locking the car door and always making sure that the road is safe before leaving her car and entering the office. 

“But as the facts have showed, the rules meant nothing,” Cilia Portelli said.

After the sitting ended, the magistrate ordered that her testimony be sent to the Home Affairs Minister, Justice Minister and Police Commissioner. 

Attorney General lawyers Angele Vella and Darlene Grima are assisting Inspectors Wayne Camilleri, Shaun Pawney and Paul Camilleri.
Lawyers Franco Debono, Arthur Azzopardi, Marion Camilleri and Jacob Magri are defence counsel.
Lawyers Stefano Filletti, Marita Pace Dimech, Ann Marie Cutajar and Rodianne Sciberras are parte civile.