Phone data proves to be burglar's downfall

Johan Pace was jailed for three years after being found guilty of theft aggravated by means, amount and place, wilful damage to property, and relapsing

Mobile phones have led to the conviction of a burglar who stole over €25,000 from an elderly couple, after signals from his phone placed him at the scene during the commission of the crime and a picture taken on a neighbour's mobile phone led to his positive identification.

39-year-old Johan Pace had been charged in connection with a February 2008 burglary from a Pieta residence, which was home to an elderly couple.

Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, who was assigned the case upon her appointment to the Bench, had heard how a neighbour called the police reporting a burglary in progress. Police inspector Mario Tonna, who had attended the scene, testified that the couple's front door “had been reduced to splinters.”

The neighbour had told police that the previous Saturday morning, three days before the burglary, she had seen a suspicious-looking man seated on a bench near the property. She had also spotted the same man at around 9:00am on the day of the break-in, sitting on the same bench, looking around, mobile phone in hand. Her son had taken a photograph of the man on his mobile phone.

The suspicious-looking man had then been observed talking with another man, with whom he had left on foot.

The neighbour also gave evidence in court, saying that at around 9:15am that morning, she had been hanging the washing on her roof when she heard banging noises. When the noise started getting louder she peeped over the ledge to see what was going on in the street below. From her vantage point, she had observed “the same man who had been on the bench...shoving the door open with his shoulder.”

She had identified the person she had seen forcing his way into the house as the person in the photograph taken by her son. The accused had been wearing sunglasses and a beanie, which were subsequently found by police in a search of Pace's car.

The court also heard experts testify that signals from the accused's mobile phone had been registered on two cell towers close to the scene of the crime from 9:18am to 10:04am that morning.

In order to explain the positioning data, the defence had produced Catherine Mackay, the mother of the accused's infant child, who testified that she would occasionally allow the father to spend time with his child in a nearby public garden.

However, the court noted that the woman had not mentioned this fact to the police during the investigation and that the accused himself had not been able to provide an explanation as to his presence in the area, during his interrogation by the police.

“A person who holds his liberty and innocence dear would certainly not remain silent and subject himself to false and unjust accusations,” Magistrate Frendo Dimech remarked.

There had been nothing holding the woman back from discreetly giving the police this version of events, noted the court, pointing out that Mackay herself had testified that she would have frequent telephone conversations with the accused.

This indicated that the relationship between them could not have been so bad that Mackay woud have been prepared to allow the father of her child spend five years accused of a serious crime.

Mackay's testimony was deemed not credible by the court, which held that the charges had been sufficiently proven.

Pace was found guilty of theft aggravated by means, amount and place, wilful damage to property, and relapsing and handed a three-year custodial sentence, during which time he was also ordered to repay the €25,623 he had stolen.

The court also imposed a restraining order, preventing Pace from approaching the elderly couple's and neighbour's families for three years after his release from prison.