Former policeman, accused of HSBC heist, testifies after five-year wait

Lawyer David Gatt blasts prosecution's star witness, former police constable Mario Portelli

Lawyer and accused David Gatt
Lawyer and accused David Gatt

The former police inspector turned lawyer, David Gatt, has denied charges of involvement in four hold-ups, telling a court that he will not forgive the former policeman who had testified against him.

Gatt finally had his day in court after waiting over five and a half years for the opportunity.

Gatt is accused of complicity in no less than four attempted armed robberies: the 2007 hold-up of the Balzan HSBC branch, in which around €1 million had been stolen, an attempted hold-up of a security van carrying €2.8 million at Santa Venera in 2010, another failed hold-up at HSBC’s Ruzar Briffa Centre at Qormi that same year and an attempted hold up of a jewellery shop in Attard.

The 2010 heist at the high-security HSBC centre had culminated in a shootout with police, in which nobody was injured.

Gatt was also accused of assisting his accomplice Fabio Psaila to escape from police custody, arranging for medical treatment for Darren Debono, another accomplice who had suffered gunshot wounds in the failed Attard robbery and with attempting to prevent Dr John Zammit Montebello, who had treated Debono, from contacting the police.

From the witness stand, Gatt recalled how, as he had been leaving for a holiday in Scotland, he had been approached by former Police Commissioner John Rizzo in 2001 to resign over allegations that he had close relations with known criminals. He was sacked from the police corps three months later.

Gatt practiced law for nine years since his dismissal from the force, having won a constitutional case for unfair dismissal which ordered his reinstatement into the police force but was objected to by the Permanent Secretary to the Office of the Prime Minister. A court injunction on this case is still pending.

In court today, Gatt attacked the prosecution’s star witness, former police constable Mario Portelli, who had appointed Gatt as his lawyer during his own marital separation proceedings.

He and Portelli would occasionally go out drinking together, the lawyer said, adding that Portelli would badmouth several police officers during these sessions. Gatt recalled how on one occasion, Portelli told him that he had gone to a farm belonging to his ex-father in law and killed two dogs. Portelli had also revealed to him that he had been blackmailing a surgeon from Kappara with a video, the contents of which were not mentioned in court.

Gatt hinted that Portelli was gay, and that this had been a factor in their falling-out, as Portelli had taken offence at Gatt warning his client Fabio Psaila about fraternising too much with Portelli.

Portelli later had several meetings with Commissioner Rizzo, during which the witness told the court that he surmised that he had been the topic of discussion.

The lawyer said that he had given Fabio Psaila Dr John Zammit Montebello’s phone number and “a day or two later” heard the news that police had raided a Balzan clinic to arrest Darren Debono and Vince Muscat.

Gatt denied suggestions that Zammit Montebello had asked him not to mention his name during proceedings.

Portelli had alleged that Gatt had planned the hold-up on jewellery shop after its owner, Michael Mizzi, had refused to pay Gatt a reward or tip for finding a suitcase belonging to the businessman. Today, Gatt insisted that he had never found any suitcases during the course of his career in the police force and alleged that Portelli would use a police car to cruise near Manoel Island for prostitutes.

He also claimed that strands of long hair which had been found in the car belonged to those prostitutes, shed as they serviced Portelli and another officer.

The accused also claimed that pirated copies of “the Godfather” films which had been found at his house during a police raid, had been obtained by Portelli. Prison warders would play the Godfather soundtrack whenever his parents would visit him in prison, Gatt recalled bitterly.

He would not forgive Portelli for testifying against him, he said. “I’m not a priest.”

“I suffered a great deal [because of him]. I lost my job and office. For a time I was treated like a leper. There were many betrayals by many people,” a pained Gatt recalled.

The case continues on the 25th May.

Inspector Joseph Mercieca is prosecuting. Lawyers Joseph Giglio and Edward Gatt are defending the accused. Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona is presiding.