Updated | Criminal gang used bump keys to commit string of thefts

Two Georgian citizens, one Polish man, a Lithuanian man and a woman from Kyrgystan arraigned in connection with 15 cases of theft and three cases of attempted theft • Sliema council ‘delighted’ by the news

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Five Eastern Europeans have been remanded in custody after they were charged in connection with a spate of thefts that recently afflicted the Sliema area.

The accused, who were arraigned in one sitting this morning, are thought to be part of a gang responsible for the recent string of thefts using what are known as “bump keys.”

Before Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras, the accused - Kartlos Dolaberidze, 41, from Georgia, Kryzsztof Tadeusz Latocha, 30, from Poland, Algirdas Sliogeris, 48, from Lithuania, Adilet Shakirgazieva, 28, from Kyrgyzstan and Mate Oniani, 25, from Georgia - all pleaded not guilty to charges relating to conspiracy to commit a crime, participating in organised crime, forming part of a criminal organisation and receiving stolen goods.

Dolaberidze, Latocha and Sliogeris were also charged with 16 counts of committing aggravated theft and two of attempted aggravated theft, Latocha alone also being accused of separate burglaries in Sliema streets Nazzarenu, Mrabat, Tigne, Tower, Ghar id-Dud, Sir Arturo Mercieca, Hughes Hallet, Cathedral, Pace, Dingli and Graham. 

They were also charged with attempting to burglarise homes in Karm Galea, Cathedral and Locker streets, in Sliema. All of these thefts took place this year.

Latocha alone was additionally accused of burglarising homes in Reggie Miller Street in Gzira, Tower Road in Sliema and Triq ix-Xatt in Pieta’ in 2014.

Dolaberidze alone was additionally charged with burglaries in Tower Road and L. Graham Street in Sliema committed in 2014, while Sligoris was charged with separate burglaries in Tigne, Tower road, De Piro Streets in Sliema and others in St. Paul’s Bay and St. Julians, also in 2014. The latter was also charged in connection with accusations related to falsifying an official travel document.

Inspector Fabian Fleri told the court that the group, who all reside at the same Qawra address, were arrested on Wednesday 9 September. Sliogeris was found in possession of a Lithuanian ID and driving licence, said the inspector, but although his picture is on them, the authorities in that country confirmed the documents to be false. He had then exercised his right to silence and not answered any questions.

The arrests came after a long and intensive investigation, said Inspector Fabian Fleri, which began after it was noted that a string of thefts had the same modus operandi

The same three people were being identified from CCTV footage, said the inspector. Two of the persons identified were spotted on a bus in St. Paul’s Bay on Wednesday and subsequently arrested. Eventually, police extracted the accused’s address and raided the apartment, where they arrested three other people and recovered several keys and burglary tools “related to the MO,” together with stolen jewellery and cash.

Inspector Kurt  Zahra, also prosecuting, opposed the defence’s request for bail on the grounds of the serious nature of the offence, the fact that the accused have no ties to Malta and the money they lived off had all been stolen and this would also mean that they would need to continue stealing to keep themselves fed and housed. They were not trustworthy, said the inspector adding that other persons may yet be arraigned.

Mizzi argued that the accused are presumend innocent until proven otherwise. There was no risk of tampering with evidence as none of them know the victims, said the lawyer, and there was no risk of absconding as they live at the same address. Bail canot be refused on the grounds of fear of reoffending, Mizzi pointed out. "Refusing bail should be the exception, not the rule."

Police inspector Jonathan Ransley however answered that this was the exception. Their modus operandi was such that they come and go from Malta, he said, “and when they suspect that they are being watched, they leave the island.”

The court turned down the request for bail due to the serious nature of the charges and the fact that they effectively have no ties to Malta. The accused were remanded in custody pending the allocation of the case.

Commissioner describes investigation 

Speaking at a press conference Police Commissioner Michael Cassar and assistant commissioner Pierre Calleja said that a lot of work had been going on to tackle theft in Sliema, but that the developments couldn't be communicated earlier for fear of "scaring off" the criminals temporarily. 

He explained that there had been 15 cases of theft and three theft attempts in the first nine months of this year but that they had finally been resolved. They added that two of those arrested were Georgian, one Polish man, a Lithuanian man and a woman from Kyrgystan. 

"The suspects are all residents in St Paul's Bay, and we are not excluding the possibility that there might be others connected with these crimes."

He explained that the suspects were thought to be connected to 13 of the reported cases of theft in the same area that had occured last year, when there was a total of 34 total in the Sliema area, some of which had been resolved.

"The fact that we didn't say anything about this work gave the impression that citizens of the area were not being protected," he said, stressing that the reality was totally different.

He added that if the investigations were made public, these criminals would never have been caught. Cassar added that the police were regularly in touch with European police forces and Europol due to the similarity of the methods used by the five robbers to others used in thefts across Europe.

"Finland has 50 thefts a day using the same methods," he said adding that the criminals were particularly difficult to trace because of their movement across Europe, and that Malta was not alone facing this issue.

He explaned that there had been varous officers working under-cover, and that the operation had included the CID, the general crimes unit and district police as well as transport police, among others.  

"The CID had carried out various investigations and the district police had carried out various patrols, with some 30 police officers on patrol in the area every night."

Speaking about Swieqi, they said that the area was more affected by disturbance complaints rather than theft, adding that calls to the Swieqi police station are being diverted to the police headquarters, if the latter was unmanned at the time. 

Sliema council welcomes arrests

In a reaction, the Sliema local council said it was delighted to hear news that arrests have been made following investigations into thefts at our locality both this year and last year.

“Sliema local council wishes to thank the Police Authorities for the professionalism shown, their dedication and necessary action taken to arraign these persons,” it said.

The council added it will continue offering its unrelenting support to both residents and the Police Authorities to ensure peace of mind and safety in the locality.