Sensational admission in Lisa Maria Zahra murder: Tanti sentenced to 20 years in jail

28-year-old Erin Tanti pleads guilty to wilful homicide of 15-year-old Lisa Maria Zahra in 2014 • Judge sentences him to 20 years, six months in jail and €22,000 in costs

Erin Tanti (left) and Lisa Maria Zahra (right)
Erin Tanti (left) and Lisa Maria Zahra (right)

A young teacher accused of the murder of the student who became his lover has pleaded guilty of the wilful homicide of Lisa Maria Zahra, daughter of the hotelier Tony Zahra.

Zahra, 15, died in what was believed to have been a suicide pact when she fell from Dingli cliffs in March 2014.

Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera sentenced Tanti to 20 years and six months in prison, and ordered him to pay €22,000 in costs.

Tanti’s trial by jury was due to start on today in the court of Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera, but as the trial was about to begin and before the jury had been empanelled, he filed a last-minute admission in order to receive a mitigation in punishment.

Tony Zahra, the father of the victim, had to be restrained by the police after the judge gave sentence, as he hurled abuse at Tanti.

Tony Zahra (centre) at the launch of the Lisa Maria Zahra foundation
Tony Zahra (centre) at the launch of the Lisa Maria Zahra foundation

The sensational case saw Erin Tanti, 28, then her boyfriend, jailed for the murder, despite having been rescued from beneath the cliff during the search for the two persons.

Tanti was indicted for wilful homicide, assisting a person to commit suicide, participation in sexual activities with a vulnerable, underage person to whom he was an authority figure, as well as creating and possession of indecent images of the underage girl. However, as the charge of assisting suicide was added as an alternative to the wilful homicide charge, it was dropped by the prosecution.

Tanti faced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and lengthy sentences of up to 40 years for the other charges. It is understood that the accused's lawyer brokered a plea bargain in which the accused would plead guilty in return for a sentence of 20 years

During the compilation of evidence, it had emerged that the former teacher had been in a sexual relationship with the 15-year-old victim. Zahra was described as a promising young student, passionate about drama, but it was also revealed that she had been going through a period of depression and had attempted self-harm on a number of occasions. Despite the turbulence of her adolescence, she had done well in her O-Levels and had expressed the wish to study drama abroad after completing Sixth Form education.

Despite being her teacher and the fact that Zahra was a vulnerable person, Tanti had embarked on a romantic and sexual relationship with her, whilst doing his best to keep the illicit relationship under wraps.

A keen-eyed groundsman at the Zahra family home, however, had noticed Tanti’s green Mazda 323 spending the night and informed Zahra’s father, who cut short a business trip abroad.

The girl’s father had instructed the groundsman and Lisa Maria’s brother to have the 15-year-old stay at her brother’s house and to seize her mobile phone.

But when Lisa Maria Zahra was informed that her father and brother were aware of the relationship she became angry and refused to go sleep at her brother’s house. She went to her bedroom and called Tanti to tell him the news.

Tanti immediately asked her if they knew he was her teacher and whether they had contacted the police or the school. “Instead of trying to calm her down and try to face the situation and her family, as was his duty in the circumstances as an adult, teacher and boyfriend… the accused Erin Tanti sent her a message saying that if she was going to confirm to him that her family knew his identity, he was going to kill himself.”

Erin Tanti is driven away from court after being sentenced to 20 years in prison

Lisa Maria, in her agitated and the vulnerable state of the tragico-romantic emotions of a 15-year-old in love with Tanti, answered that she had no reason to live if he were to commit suicide, and that they should both do so together, according to the Bill of Indictment.

The indictment states that Tanti had been unable to accept the fact that he had been caught sleeping with a pupil and would end up jobless and branded a paedophile, so he had come up with a desperate plan. “The plan was clear: in that night between the 18th and 19th March 2014, Lisa Maria Zahra had to die, and he had to escape.”

Tanti had bought several packets of aspirin and a bottle of whisky and had arranged to pick up the girl later that night. “What he hadn’t told her, however, was that aside from the aspirin and the whisky, that night (in which he was supposed to be committing suicide with her) he was also taking with him around €2,500 in cash, a number of cheques as well as his passport.”

He had driven her to Dingli cliffs from where, at 4 am on 19 March, 2014, Zahra jumped from a height of 32 metres to her death.

Later that day, from the bottom of the cliffs, Tanti had managed to draw the attention of passers-by who, in turn, called the emergency services. Unlike Zahra, Tanti had survived with injuries “certainly incompatible with a 13-storey fall.”

In the moments before her fatal leap, “when he saw her in that extremely vulnerable state, he did nothing to help or comfort or calm her down or open her eyes. Rather, he gave her whisky and aspirin.”

Lawyers Michael and Lucio Sciriha were defence counsel.

Assistant Attorney General Philip Galea Farrugia and lawyer Anne Marie Cutajar appeared for the Attorney General’s office.

Lawyer Reuben Farrugia was parte civile.

Bail, university and realtor

Tanti was finally granted bail on 23 June 2015 subject to a €20,000 deposit and €50,000 personal guarantee, and on condition that he lives with his mother and submits himself to the care of psychiatrist Maria Axiaq.

He had enrolled himself in the University of Malta to read for a bachelor’s degree, and for some time worked as a realtor.

A Finnish criminal who shared a jail cell at the Mount Carmel forensic unit with Erin Tanti, had also said that Tanti told him that he and Lisa Marie Zahra did not jump together from Dingli Cliffs. The witness said that Tanti had told him that the couple could not live together if not in the afterlife, because the girl was under age. “Nobody would approve. When someone says something like that, it’s tragic.”

He said Tanti told him that he had saved up money to leave the country, possibly for Ireland.

In the wake of the murder, Zahra’s family set up the Lisa Maria Zahra Foundation, for the protection of children.

‘We have always known that this was a case of murder’ – Zahra family

In comments after Tanti’s guilty plea, the family said that Lisa Marie had been killed by the very person who had the duty of care to look after her.

Rather than a suicide, the family said her death was always a case of murder.

“Today we can finally speak out,” read the family’s statement. “By Erin Tanti’s own admission in court this morning, on the 19th of March 2014, Lisa Maria Zahra was murdered by the very person who had a duty of care to look after her.”

The Zahra family and their legal team outside court this morning
The Zahra family and their legal team outside court this morning

“Erin Tanti was an adult. He was Lisa Maria’s drama teacher. Lisa Maria was his 15-year-old student who would still be alive today were it not for this man. We have always known as a family that this was a case of murder and finally after a long drawn out five years Erin Tanti has admitted in court to the crime of murdering Lisa Maria.”

The family said that losing a child is one of the worst things that one can experience in life and is all the more difficult to comprehend when this happens “suddenly and as a result of the heartless actions of a third party”.

“The past five years since Lisa Maria’s tragic death have been extremely difficult for all the Zahra family who had to come to terms with Lisa Maria’s death. Apart from the trauma of what happened, the long drawn out legal process, and the fact that as a family we could not publicly discuss the case to correct the misconceptions reported by some of the media, despite having seen all the clear evidence that Lisa Maria was murdered, made matters more difficult.”

“Lisa Maria was a beautiful 15-year-old girl whose life was snatched away in the cruellest of ways.  As a family we have set up the Lisa Maria Foundation in order to honour her memory and try and derive something positive out of this tragedy.”

The family said the foundation would “continue to work hard in her name to do whatever possible to help safeguard our children and continue to ensure that there are the necessary checks and balances in place when people are employed and entrusted with the care of children. In this way we hope to keep Lisa Maria’s memory alive and work towards avoiding something like this ever happening again”.