The year in crime and justice

12 months rocketed past in a blur of crime, but several cases stand out for the manner in which they were dealt with by the justice system, or indeed for their sheer mind-boggling outlandishness. By MATTHEW AGIUS and DANIEL MIZZI

From a court reporting perspective, the past 12 months rocketed past in a blur of crime, with details of individual arraignments, juries, drugs, prostitution and murder cases coalescing into one heaving, amorphous morass of illegality.

Several cases stand out, however. Be it due to the nature of the crimes committed, or perhaps the manner in which they were dealt with by the justice system, or indeed their sheer mind-boggling outlandishness.

A year of drive-by and gang murders

Crime scene  – the dead body of Pietru Cassar, 'il-Haqqa', at the scene of the crime police investigation
Crime scene – the dead body of Pietru Cassar, 'il-Haqqa', at the scene of the crime police investigation

2014’s criminal record began with a spate of gangland murders in February.

Bomb-making “expert” Pietru Cassar, known as  il-Haqqa, was gunned down inside his Zejtun garage in February by an unknown assailant. After being shot in the neck and chest with a 9mm pistol, he is believed to have walked outside to seek assistance, succumbing to his wounds before he could reach the doorstep of a residence opposite his garage.

This was followed in April by the drive-by shooting of Jonathan Pace, owner of Tyson Butcher, in Hamrun. Muscat was shot three times in the head, losing sight in his right eye and later claimed that part of a bullet was still lodged in his head.

Pace, who was released on bail in August, was himself subsequently shot dead in another drive-by shooting that month. Police experts described the weapon used as a “military grade assault rifle”.

Not a good year for fatherhood

June saw 20-year-old Leanne Camilleri plead guilty to lying under oath during the compilation of evidence against her father, Emanuel, who had been jailed in 2012 for defiling her. Medical examinations had later confirmed that the girl was still a virgin. 

The man was exonerated by the constitutional court after the daughter, now 20, recanted her testimony following the discovery of new evidence leading to her mother, Lisa May Camilleri, being charged with instigating her daughter’s perjury. Criminal proceedings against the mother are ongoing.

Emanuel Camilleri subsequently instituted constitutional proceedings against Inspector Louise Calleja, the Attorney General, and the Police Commissioner, claiming that his right to a fair trial was breached. The case will continue in February.

The compilation of evidence against drama teacher Erin Tanti also began last June. Tanti is pleading not guilty to the murder of one of his pupils, 15-year-old Lisa Marie Zahra in what appears to have been a failed suicide pact last March.

The two, who had been conducting an illicit relationship, attempted to overdose on aspirin and whisky and then leapt from Dingli cliffs in March. Tanti survived the fall with superficial fractures and bruising, however Zahra unfortunately died at the scene.

A year of sex scandals by the clergy

Dominican friar Charles Fenech is facing charges of sexually abusing a vulnerable woman. His case continues in the New Year
Dominican friar Charles Fenech is facing charges of sexually abusing a vulnerable woman. His case continues in the New Year

Sex scandals dogged the Maltese diocese throughout 2014. The Catholic Church, still bearing scars from a slew of clerical sex abuse cases as well as the humbling experience that was the 2011 divorce referendum, was forced to undergo further humiliation in the form of two clerical sex abuse scandals this year. 

In August the Church was at the centre of controversy after Gozitan priest Fr Jesmond Gauci, was charged with defiling three young Gozitan girls. The charges were kept under wraps after a Gozo court decreed that the case be heard behind closed doors, imposing a ban on the publication of the accused’s identity.

In what was described as an “unheard of” decision, Fr Gauci was granted bail before the victim’s testimony was heard, prompting an appeal by both the police and the Attorney General. A month later, the court ordered that bail be revoked until witnesses testify and lifted the ban on publication of the accused’s name. The case continues.

Then, in late October, the church was once again at the centre of a sexual abuse inquiry after allegations began to surface that Kerygma director Fr Charles Fenech OP was to be accused of sexually abusing a vulnerable woman, forcing Archbishop emeritus Paul Cremona to deny allegations that the Curia had attempted to buy the woman’s silence. The case, which is being heard behind closed doors, will continue in the new year.

Ghosts of years past laid to rest

In May, Kenneth Ellul, 39, of Marsascala was jailed for 12 years after being found guilty of burgling and assaulting former Labour MP Anthony Zammit in his Zebbug house in August 11, 2008. Zammit had described how he was beaten for two hours by three hooded men as he lay on his bed, after which the men ransacked his house and fled.

A jury also delivered a guilty verdict against Pasqualino Cefai last October after hearing how he had brutally stabbed another man at least 14 times in a Gozo courtroom. He was sentenced to seven years behind bars. Cefai, who was cleared of the more serious charge of attempted murder, was recently back in hot water after he allegedly threatened to kill a magistrate and an inspector – once again in open court. The case continues.

Also in October, George Xuereb was jailed for 13 years after a jury convicted him of attempted murder and complicity in an attempted bank heist in 1996. The verdict ended the 18-year long legal saga that followed the 1996 hold up of the St Andrew’s branch of Mid Med Bank, which was foiled by police. Had it been successful, the heist would have netted the three robbers, Carmel Spiteri, Joseph Polidano and George Xuereb a sum in the region of Lm100,000 (€232,400). Spiteri and Polidano had admitted to the charges and had been jailed for their part in the robbery.

A bad year for fraudsters

In September, Maltese Cross Financial Services director Jean Claude Bugeja was charged with misappropriating and laundering €4 million in clients’ investments. The arraignment took place barely a month after the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) had suspended the company’s operations, declaring that there had been a shortfall in clients’s assets after the possible misuse and manipulation of assets.

The firm’s fellow directors alleged that Bugeja had privately admitted to the undeclared €6 million shortfall in clients’ assets. Bugeja had racked up the enormous losses over the span of six years in an attempt to recover a €250,000 loss. The court was told that the MFSA had not carried out an inspection for six years, a shocking revelation further compounded by the fact that Bugeja had described the system as very easy to exploit.

A month later, Fantasy Tours director Karl Azzopardi was charged with misappropriating €400,000 in clients’ funds. Investigations revealed that in the week preceding the company’s announcement of bankruptcy, it had accepted €30,580 in 31 bookings. The police attributed the company’s downfall to Azzopardi’s resistance to accepting that his business was failing. One group of customers have demanded compensation from the government, threatening to take the issue up with the European Commission, arguing that the government failed to ensure that Fantasy Tours had set up an insolvency fund.

A year of interesting extraditions

In other spheres, 2014 also saw two fugitives subject to international arrest warrants, apprehended in Malta. In October, Sicilian Mafia boss Sebastiano Brunno – leader of the Nardo Cosca, a branch of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra – was arrested by police in an apartment in Bugibba, five years after being convicted of murder. A court upheld the prosecution’s extradition request, however Brunno has since appealed the judgment and is currently being held in custody.

Meanwhile, in October, Gozitan police made the front pages after they apprehended Roderick McDonald, a 76-year-old man on the run for 22 years after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. McDonald, a known sex offender who has also been linked by the British tabloid press in connection with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann was previously caught in Thailand after which he absconded to Australia, New Zealand and Portugal. The court ordered he be extradited to the UK to serve his sentence.

A year of unusual cases

Last June, nearly two-and-half years since Mosta’s infamous “cat killer” crucified no fewer than 11 cats and three dogs, 37-year-old Enemalta engineer Nicholas Grech from Mosta was cleared of all charges after a court ruled that he was “mentally incapable of being held criminally liable for his actions”.

Grech, an engineer at Enemalta, had been arraigned in March in the wake of a string of animal killings, with cats and dogs having been found crucified outside various chapels and statues in Mosta between October 2011 and February 3.

Police had moved in on Grech, after studying CCTV footage of a crucified cat being put up near Mosta church. Grech was subsequently charged with animal cruelty, violation of burial grounds, trespassing on religious grounds and vilifying the Catholic religion. However a team of psychiatrists appointed by the court concluded that Grech was suffering from schizophrenia and had not been taking his medicines at the time the crimes were committed. Grech was adjudged as mentally incapable of forming criminal intent and was ordered to be kept at Mount Carmel Hospital “for as long as necessary.”

Chinese employers

The latter months of 2014 also saw two unusual arraignments in the form of the arrest of Han Bin, the Chinese director of Leisure Clothing, a Bulebel textile factory, who was charged with human trafficking and exploitation of the Chinese and Vietnamese workers and the infamous arraignment of a certain ministerial driver following a road rage shooting incident, which has been dealt with ad nauseam in the media and features elsewhere in this edition. Both cases are yet to be decided.

While on the subject of unusual cases, one cannot but mention last November’s acquittal of a 49-year-old man from Kalkara who had been accused of the rape of a 17-year old girl inside a fertilizer tank two years before. During the hearing of the case it emerged that some sexual activities had taken place in the tank, which the court judged were consensual.

Summing up, 2014 will be remembered as quite the busy year for the Maltese courts, which had to deal with drive-by shootings, human trafficking, sex-slaves, clerical sex abuse, failed suicide pacts, child abuse, misappropriation, fraud and murder.

Clearly, at least in terms of courtroom drama, 2014 will be a hard act to follow. The defence rests.