Abner Aquilina transferred to Forensic Unit after alleged threats, harassment of nursing staff

Mount Carmel Hospital CEO unable to recall who had advised her to request the transfer, the only one of its kind that she had encountered in her three years in the role

Abner Aquilina (left) is accused of killing Paulina Dembska in a Sliema public garden
Abner Aquilina (left) is accused of killing Paulina Dembska in a Sliema public garden

The man accused murdering Paulina Dembska on New Year’s Day 2022, Abner Aquilina, was transferred out of Mount Carmel Hospital into the Forensic Unit after allegedly threatening the Charge Nurse and harassing a female nurse, a court has been told.

Mount Carmel Hospital CEO Dr. Stephanie Xuereb testified before magistrate Marseanne Farrugia this evening, after Aquilina’s lawyers filed an application, informing the court that he was being held in the Forensic Unit, in violation of the court’s specific order that he be held at Mount Carmel.

While the Forensic Unit is physically located inside the grounds of the Attard psychiatric hospital, it falls under the remit of the Corradino Correctional Facility and is serviced by different mental health professionals during office hours.

Xuereb told the court today that she was “not even permitted to enter the Forensic Unit.”

The hospital CEO said that an application had been filed on the hospital’s behalf by its lawyer, asking that Aquilina be transferred to the Forensic Unit. “Abner Aquilina threatened the charge nurse because ‘he wasn’t bringing him prostitutes’. He had also made suggestive comments to an attractive female nurse.”

Lawyer Mario Mifsud, representing Aquilina together with lawyer Nicholas Mifsud, asked the CEO whether this was the first time such things had happened in a mental hospital.
He suggested that Aquilina had been making progress under the care of a specialist psychiatrist but that the consultant psychiatrist at Mount Carmel had “done everything in his power to take Aquilina away from him.”

In a hospital the responsibility for the patient lies with the consultant, replied the witness, explaining that  Aquilina’s preferred psychiatrist was a specialist and not a consultant or a permanent member of staff.

The lawyer said he wanted to be clear that he was not requesting any special privileges for his client, adding that he had been angry when he learned that his client was ordering food deliveries on a mobile app and had been allowed to access social media.
“I am only saying that he should be receiving treatment at Mount Carmel,” Mifsud told the court.
Xuereb told the court that the Attard mental hospital did not have the structure of a forensic institution. “Many of our patients are vulnerable people,” she said. “While there is no open door policy, there are no armed guards, either.” Patients are in contact with each other, some in mixed gender wards as well as in the higher security unit, she said..

Patients who are prison inmates requiring psychiatric treatment are referred to the forensic unit, explained the witness.

“So prison inmates who for some reason or another need psychiatric treatment, do you agree that they are also vulnerable people?” the Magistrate asked the witness. 
“Inmates don’t go to Mount Carmel Hospital, they go to the Forensic Unit,” Xuereb replied.

Pressed about the legal basis of this distinction, the CEO replied “it is the adopted practice, not the law.” The hospital provided psychiatrists and treatment as a service to Corradino Correctional Facility, which also separately employed its own psychiatrist. “But out of hours, if a patient is admitted to the forensic unit, our duty doctors examine them. We offer this support.”

Asked by the Magistrate how the hospital dealt with manic patients, Xuereb replied that there was a dedicated section of the hospital in which patients who posed a threat to others were kept in isolation until medication and treatment takes effect. They cannot be held in isolation for a long time, in these “cells,” she added, explaining that isolation spells are usually over in a matter of hours or a few days until the manic state passes.  “We are not a high security unit,” she stressed.

Lawyer Mario Mifsud told the witness that the resident consultants had gone “all out” to have Aquilina transferred into the Forensic Unit. “They did everything in their power to get rid of him because they didn’t want anything to do with him.”

One of the consultants had previously worked at Corradino Correctional Facility before he being fired, suggested the lawyer. The CEO replied that both of the consultants treating Aquilina had already been employed at the hospital when she had taken up the role, three years ago.

Both Mifsud and the court asked the witness to identify the person who had made the recommendation that she transfer Aquilina from Mount Carmel to the Forensic Unit, in violation of the court’s order.

When the witness replied that she did not remember, magistrate asked her how many times she had made such an application. It was the first time, she replied. “We don’t have forensic powers. You’ll find nurses, not police officers at Mount Carmel. There were cases of threats towards patients and staff.

Mifsud urged the CEO to check who had “forced” her to file the application for Aquilina’s transfer. “Because you clearly don’t know anything about Abner, besides what you have read in the media.”

“We are treating sick people,” Xuereb reminded the court. “If we see that even one-to-one monitoring is dangerous to other people, we must take steps to ensure their safety.”
Mifsud asked the CEO to take Aquilina back as a patient at Mount Carmel Hospital. “We have the duty to keep all our patients safe,” she replied.

The case was adjourned to May 29 for further witnesses to testify.

Lawyers Mario Mifsud and Nicholas Mifsud are assisting Aquilina.
Inspectors Shaun Pawney and Jonathan Ransley are prosecuting, assisted by lawyers Anthony Vella and Darlene Grima from the Office of the Attorney General. 

Lawyers Stefano Filletti, Lara Dimitriyevic and Stephanie Caruana appeared parte civile, representing the Dembska family,