Court lashes out at decision to prosecute former police inspector for HSBC heist

‘Those who are entrusted with respecting and implementing justice don’t even possess a sense of justice,’ Magistrate comments, after defence closes submissions

David Gatt
David Gatt

A court has lashed out at the decision to charge a former police inspector with masterminding a million-euro bank robbery on the strength of the testimony of a former police constable who has since been boarded out due to mental health issues.

Former inspector, now lawyer, David Gatt, 40 of Birkirkara, stands charged with 14 counts of serious offences, including the €1 million heist in 2007 from the HSBC Bank branch in Balzan, three failed robberies of armoured vans, an attempted robbery of the main vault at HSBC Bank’s national headquarters and a foiled hold-up of a jeweller in Attard on November 30.

“Those who are entrusted with respecting and implementing justice don't even possess a sense of justice,” said magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona at the close of submissions in criminal proceedings against Gatt.

The magistrate, who has been hearing the case for the past six years, heard defence lawyer Joe Giglio launch broadside after broadside at the prosecution's case against the defendant, dismantling the credibility of the prosecution's star witness, Mario Portelli- ubiquitously referred to by his service number: PC 99.

“This witness tells us the following: that when he met with Dr. Gatt he had described the defendant as having an imposing presence that sowed a psychological impression that eventually 'possessed' PC99. He had recalled an incident where they had allegedly gone somewhere while drunk and Gatt had burned a holy picture, placed the ash in his hands kissed him on the face,” said the lawyer with disdain, as he read the transcript of PC99's evidence.

PC99 has said that at that moment, he had “felt superior. I felt like him, that I was special and special to him.”

“It's almost as if you're reading the gospel's account of Pentecost...” observed the lawyer, as the magistrate quietly chuckled.

Giglio railed at the decision to prosecute Gatt on the strength of PC99's evidence, which the lawyer described as being both fantastic and incredible. “You end up not knowing whether to laugh, cry or be angry.”

Pointing to the accused, the lawyer mocked the fantastical claims made by the witness. “This man has been involved in God only knows how many murders, how many arson attacks… he said he burned Saviour Balzan’s car, he said he was going to burn down the Attorney General’s house, burn down Eddie Fenech Adami's house. You get the impression that the accused is not so much a capo dei capi, but a Dio degli Dei!”

Giglio recalled a case he had defended, in which Gatt had been involved. The fact that Giglio had allowed Gatt to take his seat had been interpreted by PC99 as a sign of Giglio’s reverence towards this Gatt’s godlike figure, said the lawyer.

Another time, PC99 claimed that Gatt had pointed a gun at his head and told him that he would soon hear Enter the Dragon, which he took to mean that he would rob a bank.

But arms importer Steven Petroni had testified that he had imported and sold that handgun after the date of the hold up, the defence pointed out.

The owner of Ganesha restaurant, who the PC99 claimed had kissed Gatt’s hand and offered him cocaine, had testified that he had no idea what the witness was on about, argued the lawyer.

Gigilo said that it was clear that not even the Attorney General had believed PC 99, because Gatt is not charged with, for example, the arson of Balzan’s car.

“There was also a lawyer who had failed to hold a place for Gatt next to her at a Sant Ivo meal and so Gatt is supposed to have set her car alight. He’s not charged with this, though. Two homicides: he’s not charged with them. How is the AG believing the witness on one story but not all the others?” Giglio asked.

“All I know is that a citizen of our country is facing these charges, because of a person who was not fit for purpose.”

The defence moved on to the testimony of John Zammit Montebello, who had testified against Gatt's alleged accomplices Darren Debono and Vince Muscat. Debono had chosen not to testify due to separate criminal proceedings against him.

Darren Debono had been shot in the mouth during the HSBC heist and had gone to a doctor to have the bullet removed from his jaw.

While out on bail for the HSBC robbery, he had been shot again, in the leg, during a failed hold-up at a jeweller's shop.

Zammit Montebello had testified, during the proceedings against Debono, to having received a phone call explaining the nature of the problem and had given an appointment at St. Anne’s Clinic during which the police had raided the premises and arrested the men.

Testifying again in these proceedings, he added that David Gatt had made this phone call. Asked why he had not mentioned Gatt before, he had replied that Gatt had “asked him to not mention him if he could.”

Giglio posited that maybe the witness had genuinely not felt Gatt's involvement to be relevant. The wording of the law spoke of ‘hindering,’ which required some form of moral or physical coercion, said the lawyer, highlighting that Zammit Montebello had “clearly not been threatened.”

Giglio argued that not only was the element of coercion missing, but also that of necessity. “What was the necessary proof in the Darren Debono case? The bullet or the phone call?”

He closed his submissions, by saying that he was not in a position to tell what had led to these proceedings being filed, or “what led to the giving of all this glory to PC99 and then have him boarded out and sent to Mount Carmel Hospital,” quipping that he hoped that it was not because he was “possessed by the defendant.”

Gatt had fought his dismissal from the force and his arguments had been vindicated by the courts no less than three times, Giglio said. “What he knows is that when he went to the registry of the courts to claim his award, he was arrested and detained for 6 weeks.”

“The machinery of justice sometimes takes time to work, but it found for Inspector David Gatt and had awarded him his pay in arrears. I want to believe that this did not happen because of his dismissal from the Police Force, but the coincidences and timelines give me cause for concern,” the defence lawyer said, closing his submissions.

Before adjourning the case to November for judgement, the magistrate could not help expressing his frustration at the fact that the case had not been abandoned earlier, ruing the time that had been wasted on it.

“Now I will spend a summer reading that which everybody knows,” said the magistrate, before turning to prosecuting police Inspectors Joseph Mercieca and Michael Mallia.

“I’m not talking about the merits and I'm not criticising you, but those who sent you,” said Magistrate Micallef Trigona. “Those who are entrusted with respecting and implementing justice don’t even possess a sense of justice.”