Cassone murder | Italian chef says killer jumped into waiting car

Italian chef testifies in trial by jury of 1993 murder of Vittorio Cassone in St Julian's restaurant

Silvano D’Agostini, the former chef at the St Julian’s restaurant Chef Italy, now 76 years old, took to the witness stand as the trial of the man accused of the murder of Vittorio Cassone entered its fourth day.
Silvano D’Agostini, the former chef at the St Julian’s restaurant Chef Italy, now 76 years old, took to the witness stand as the trial of the man accused of the murder of Vittorio Cassone entered its fourth day.

The robber who shot and killed an Italian restaurant employee during a robbery in 1993 ran out of the shop and into a waiting getaway car, a jury was told this evening.

Silvano D’Agostini, the former chef at the St Julian’s restaurant Chef Italy, now 76 years old, took to the witness stand as the trial of the man accused of the murder of Vittorio Cassone entered its fourth day.

The accused, whose name is being withheld on the orders of the court, is indicted on charges of wilful homicide in connection with a botched robbery at Chef Italy.

D’Agostini testified in Italian. He had come to Malta in 1991 and had been working in Chef Italia in 1993, aged 53 at the time. “It was a restaurant and I was the chef responsible for it,” the witness said.

Cassone’s job was to serve clients from behind the counter. Marco Russo would help, doing a bit of everything, while Fabrizio Commandini was the son of one of the owners, and would also lend a hand in running the establishment. An Italian kitchen helper named Sara, together with a new female Maltese hire, surname Buttigieg – the daughter of a police inspector – was the rest of the staff complement on duty at the time of the robbery.

“I was working in the kitchen. At one point I heard someone shouting. I stuck my head out to see what was going on and I saw a man with tights over his head holding a small pistol. It looked like a toy. Vittorio was standing with his hands in the air, paralyzed with terror. I went to the kitchen to pick up a knife to throw at the robber but I heard a gunshot. Marco told Comaldini to come out. I stuck my head out of the kitchen and saw Vittorio on the floor. I didn’t see any blood and thought he had fainted. I slapped him a couple of times, but he was dead.”

“The pistol was tiny, like a toy. I think it was a .22 calibre. In fact, even the wound was tiny, not even a drop of blood. It was incredible... a man with a family.”

After killing Cassone, the robber stood his ground in the shop pointing the pistol while the staff struggled to open the till. The robbery took 8 to 10 minutes, he recalled. “I opened the cash register using an emergency lever and gave the robber, I’m not sure... Lm150 or Lm300.”

The robber then snatched the handbag off a woman in the restaurant and fled, the witness recalled. D’Agostini exited the restaurant after him, he said. “I saw a car driving away quickly. I’m sure he wasn’t alone but that someone had been waiting to drive him away.”

The car was old, badly sprayed, the man said, unable to recall the colour. “I don’t know if it was dark blue or dark green. It looked like it had been painted with a brush.”

There had been two other people in the car, he said. One driving and the other in the front passenger seat beside the driver, he said.

The robber had been very young, of average height, his facial characteristics clearly visible through the dark brown tights, he said. “His hair was a strange colour, a shade of blonde. It wasn’t very pretty. His cold eyes struck me most. His evil eyes.”

Earlier today, Rose Mary Suda, whose handbag had been stolen during the robbery , gave a similar account of events. “I had been at Chef Italy for 20 minutes. All of a sudden a man came in with a firearm in his hand. I was the only customer there. Salvatore (Vittorio) and another man had been behind the counter. Everyone was stunned.

“Someone came out of the kitchen to see what the noise was about and the robber shouted ‘get out get out!’ “I heard (a subdued bang), followed by a sigh and then the other man gave him the money.”

The robber was “not old, thin, of normal height. I can’t picture him exactly because it was so long ago. I seem to remember that he had been wearing a denim jacket and jeans. He was wearing a light coloured transparent tights over his head.”

The whole incident took around ten minutes, the woman said. Judge Antonio Mizzi remarked that ten minutes was a long time. She replied that the money was not handed over straight away, “then the man came out from the kitchen... there was time involved. The Italian took a long time to open the till... The robber seemed to become angry and I turned to tell the second guy, in Italian, to comply when I heard the gunshot.”

Witness says he was 99% sure 

Tensions in the already fraught trial, reached fever pitch as Marco Russo took to the witness stand.

Russo told the jury that he had thought he had recognised the robber in the first line-up that he had been shown, he said. “There was a person who with the tights and without them looked like the guy, but then after seeing all the line ups I identified another person as the suspect.”

In court today – 23 years after the event – the witness appeared to pick out a different person who was not the accused from pictures of the identification parade.

In 1993, however he had identified the accused during the identification parade. “I had told him 99% it’s that person.” Asked why, he said “at the time I didn’t know Maltese and I was worried. I didn’t want to get involved in any trouble. Before committing myself to the figure of 100%, I wanted to understand what the situation was. I was a bit scared.”

He hadn’t heard the name of the accused before the identification parade, he said, in reply to a question by the defence.

“People can have doubles. You can’t say that there is definitely not someone who looks exactly like that guy out on the street,” Russo said.

Defence lawyer Marion Camilleri confronted the witness with his testimony made during the compilation of evidence that had itself taken place 13 years after the events. “I took a decision when I was asked to testify about the case. I felt that I should tell the truth and not continue to lie,” (mhux noqghod nigdeb) she read.

“Whoever wrote that must have been lying,” he replied. “So you lied,” the lawyer shot back.

“I am Italian, I didn’t speak Maltese fluently at the time,” the witness protested. He explained what he had meant in Italian, the word having a less negative connotation.

The judge ensured that the jurors had understood the subtle difference that had been lost in translation and appointed a translator to allow the witness to continue to testify in his native tongue.

Lawyer Franco Debono was visibly angered by this. “He gave 50 pages of detailed testimony. Now we need a translator. For the record, the defence is objecting. At the time, Former Police Commissioner John Rizzo had testified that he had not taken steps because the Italians hadn’t been certain during the identity parade. Now you have told us that you are certain. “

“At the time I was young, I didn’t know Maltese and I was in a foreign country,” Russo coolly replied. “What happened, happened – I didn’t know the laws. I thought it would be better to take a step back. Then in time you mature and start to see things differently.”

Russo strenuously denied ever saying that he was uncertain, suggesting that he had been misinterpreted. “I did my bit, I testified, said I was 99% sure.” It was someone else’s job to process the evidence, he said.

“This is the fourth time I am explaining this. Only God has 100% certainty. People can have doubles in the outside world.”

The trial continues.

Lawyers Kevin Valletta and Anne Marie Cutajar from the office of the Attorney General are prosecuting.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri are defence counsel.