Four charged in drug trafficking, theft and usury case

Three men, aged between 21 and 31, faced charges after stealing what turned out to be cannabis from a man with whom they had a long-standing feud

Three men have appeared in court after being caught stealing drugs from an alleged usurer, as an act of revenge for a beating in which one of them had lost an eye.

Construction worker Kevin Zerafa, 31, from Marsascala, Luke Vella, 20, from Zabbar, and 21-year old Rennie Fava, a plasterer from Zabbar, all pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated possession of cannabis and possession of penknives when they were arraigned before magistrate Audrey Demicoli this morning.

Lawyer Joe Giglio, defending Vella, told the court that his client had borrowed money from a certain Dylan Azzopardi, who was to be arraigned separately this morning.

Azzopardi and his brother Clayton had been charged in September with tying up and severely beating Vella after the latter had been unable to repay a sum of money he had borrowed from Azzopardi.

Azzopardi was reputed to be involved in usury, added Giglio. Vella had allegedly been pulled out of his car by men who then beat him up, bundled him into the vehicle, and then threw him out of the car. Vella lost his sight in one eye as a result of the attack, which took place outside Top Choice in Zabbar in September this year.

Giglio explained that Vella had subsequently been offered €5,000 in compensation for the loss of his eye by Azzopardi, but had refused.

“What happened here was that Vella then decided to take the law into his own hands and had, together with the other two co-accused, broken into a house owned by Azzopardi, by removing bricks, with the intention of burglarising it.”

On the roof of Azzopardi's property, the trio had found a bag wrapped in brown paper, the lawyer said. “It is what a thief would go for. He understood that these were either cash or gold. They had not known that he was involved in drug dealing.”

In addition to the shared charges, Fava was also charged with breaching the conditions of a suspended sentence, driving dangerously, damaging two cars, being in possession of burglary tools after a burglary conviction and possession of a firearm. Vella was also charged with relapsing and the possession of burglary tools after a theft conviction. Zerafa was additionally charged with breaching the terms of a suspended sentence.

The men's exit, however, had been blocked by the police, and the men were arrested just 20 metres from the house. The brown paper packages were found to contain 3.5kg of cannabis resin and 100g of cannabis grass. “The prosecution is saying the case is serious because of the amount of cannabis they were in possession of, but it all boils down to theft.”

Fava's lawyer, Roberto Montalto, argued that the man had been driving the getaway vehicle and had not entered the house or retrieved the package. At the time of arrest the other two men were sitting in the back, he added. The charges relate to possession, which is directed to all of the accused, but it must be proven that all the possessors were aware and had the necessary criminal intention, Montalto said.

In a separate arraignment this morning, the alleged usurer who was robbed, Dylan Azzopardi, was also charged with possession of cannabis and cocaine in circumstances which denoted that they were not for his exclusive personal use.

Azzopardi's lawyer, Veronique Dalli, explained that there had been a long-standing feud between Azzopardi and Vella, which had started between the men's parents. She argued that there was no risk of tampering with the police's evidence – the 0.5kg cannabis, which had already been preserved. There were also no eyewitnesses, she said.

It would not be the first time that bail had been granted to aggravated possession of soft drugs, Dalli added, pointing out that people had been arraigned by summons for possession of 1kg cannabis resin in the past.

The court released all four men on bail, on condition that they sign a bail book daily, observe a curfew and against a deposit of €1,000 and a personal guarantee of €4,000. As the charges relate to drug trafficking, the men's assets are also being frozen.

Lawyer Franco Debono argued that the trio should be granted bail because, as co-accused, they were not competent witnesses and there was, therefore, no fear of tampering of evidence.

Lawyer Franco Debono appeared for Zerafa, whilst lawyer Joe Giglio defended Vella. Lawyer Roberto Montaldo was legal counsel to Fava. Lawyer Veronique Dalli appeared for Azzopardi.