The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

'I found him face up with two bullet wounds' - witness in Birkirkara lawyer murder case

Tuesday, 11 May 2021, 08:48 Last update: about 8 months ago

Augustine Grixti found Carmel Chircop face up on the floor with two bullet wounds back in 2015, he testified in court yesterday.

Magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo was presiding over the compilation of evidence against brothers Adrian and Robert Agius, known as Tal-Maksar, and their associates Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio yesterday morning. Chircop was found dead with bullet wounds in a Birkirkara garage complex in 2015. They are charged in connection with the murder.

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Grixti said he had gone to the Rampol building garage complex. He heard four shots; he said his garage is next door to Carmel Chircop's.

Grixti said he saw the door of Chircop's garage open. He would see him there every day, he said, but this time he noticed a person's feet on the ground protruding from the doorway.

"I called out to him, and he didn't reply, so I went up to him. I found him face up with two bullet wounds... his right hand was still moving," Grixti says. He then called 112. Chircop was shot in his upper and lower left torso, Grixti adds.

Two policewomen from the Birkirkara police station were first on the scene. They accompanied him to the garage and confirmed that Chircop was dead. Then the Rapid Intervention Unit arrived, he testified.

Several prosecution witnesses appeared yesterday, including the aforementioned person who discovered Chircop’s body, landlord, and notary.

It also emerged that Ryan Schembri, the owner of More Supermarkets, who is believed to have absconded and changed his identity to escape his creditors, owed murdered lawyer Carmel Chircop €750,000, the court was told yesterday.

Property broker Peter Barthet told the court that he had introduced his client, Chircop, to the owners of a large warehouse in Qormi. Chircop had taken on the promise of sale together with Adrian Agius and Ryan Schembri, who had said that they needed the warehouse to supply More Supermarkets.

Asked by Superintendent Keith Arnaud about the viewing of the warehouse, Barthet said, “at first I thought it was for him [Agius], but later it became clear that Ryan Schembri called the shots, you understand?"

Chircop was pressing Barthet over the deal after the Schembri purchase fell through. However, Chircop had backed off when Barthet had engaged a lawyer.

EROM – More Supermarket’s holding company – owed Chircop between €700,000 and €800,000 according to a constitution of debt entered into by the company, Barthet said. The debt was guaranteed by the personal assets of Adrian Agius and Ryan Schembri, but before absconding, Schembri had emptied his accounts. Not even the €250,000 deposit was recoverable, Barthet explained.

Chircop had been prepared to sue the deal's guarantors for his money and had even asked Barthet if he knew a debt collector, he said.

Despite the pressures, Notary Malcolm Mangion testified that Agius and Chircop were very cordial and jovial when the constitution of debt was signed, secured by a hypothec over Agius’ property.

 

Other witnesses yesterday included RIU officers and first responders at the scene of the murder.

You can re-live proceedings from court below.

13:28 The witness finishes testifying—no further witnesses for today. The case will continue tomorrow. 

13:27 After finding the lock removed, he had rented it out to third parties, he says. 

13:27 The witness says Cassar had changed his number at some point. 

13:25 Asked to describe Cassar, he said he had no idea what he looked like. An elderly man would meet him at Siggiewi, he says. 

13:24 'Cassar' used to meet him near the Siggiewi petrol station to pay the money, he says. 

13:23 Subsequently, the garage was vacated by 'Cassar', and the lock was broken, the witness days. 

13:22 The witness says the name Charles Cassar and the ID card and address didn't match. Arnaud asks him to describe Cassar, but he is unable to. In previous settings, it had emerged that the assassins had used false names to rent out properties they used. 

13:19 They had bought the garages to rent. He reads from a document he is holding. He had rented garage 12 to a certain Daniel Portelli, he says, till 2012. In January 2013, it was rented to a Charles Cassar until January 2018. Cassar had changed his number, and he couldn't contact him. Azzopardi had put a to let sign on the garage. He gives the court the numbers used to contact Cassar and his ID card number.

13:13 Azzopardi is being shown pictures of properties. One is the entrance to the garage complex; another is the second entrance to the same complex, he says.

13:10 His company, Natal Properties Ltd owned garages - 150 of them - and other properties, he says. 

13:09 The next witness to take the stand is Natal Azzopardi.

13:06 It is unclear whether the witness was summoned over the Chircop or Caruana Galizia murder. 

13:06 "One time, I had asked him and said, 'do you owe him money?' He started laughing," the witness says. 

13:04 Arnaud asks the man what Muscat had told him the first time about the money.

13:04 Lawyer George Camilleri asks him to describe the driver of the car. "Short in stature, greying hair with a parting," the witness says. 

13:03 This had taken place around three times, he said. Pace had asked Muscat once about the money. "I said can't you do this yourself, and he patted me on the shoulder and said ejja minn hemm." 

13:00 The witness says he bowed his head and handed the money over. He gave him a receipt, which Pace passed on to Muscat later without looking at it. Muscat had told him to expect the car, he explains. 

12:59 He says he was given money by Muscat, "around €250", and went to a petrol station in Siggiewi. A small grey car drove up, and he had asked the driver if the money was 'Censu's.'

12:56 Pace spoke to the police because he used to go to the pjazza in Hamrun, and Vincent Muscat, known as il-Kohhu, had picked him up and took him to Siggiewi. They used to be neighbours, he says.

12:54 The next witness takes the stand, Lawrence Pace from Tarxien.

12:53 The prosecution has no further questions. 

12:53 What I remember about the body is that I was looking at his nose and chest to see if he was breathing," the witness says.

12:51 The witness says he had seen Chircop's body on the ground near a 1980s Mercedes. He notes a hole in the bonnet and the garage door.

12:50 A police constable stationed at the Rapid Intervention Unit in 2015 takes the stand. He confirms that while on patrol, a call on the police radio came through, and he had obtained permission to proceed to the call at John Borg Street Birkirkara.

12:49 The court is back in session.

12:18 The court will now take a 15-minute break. 

12:18 Looking at the contract, he said that the bank paid € 1.3million, €1.7million was paid by cheque, but he was not in a position to confirm whether this was a bank draft or a private cheque.

12:15 The notary says that he was not involved but had heard that Agius was contesting the debt. But no explanation was given to the notary at the signing. The parties were very serene, and the process was uneventful, he says.

12:13 In September 2017, the hypothec was cancelled. What led to this cancellation? asks the lawyer. 

12:13 The lawyer asks about the contract of cancellation of the debt. It appears that the widow and son of Chricop had appeared on the deed together with Adrian Agius.

12:11 He is shown the documents presented by the notary and is examining them at the moment. 

12:10 Lawyer Vincent Galea for the Chircop family asks to question the witness.

12:08 Agius had an evident problem because aside from the BNF hypothec, there was hearsay evidence of other creditors, says the notary.

12:07 A hypothec over Agius' property was made. "Usually, a constitution of debt is in three parts, the title, the debt, the guarantee." The hypothec was over the property only, says the notary. "Agius and the Chircop were very cordial and joking around with each other; he recalls when asked if there was any animosity between the two.

12:04 Chircop appeared in his own and his wife's name, not for a company. His wife was among the people not there, the witness says. 

12:03 Was no reference ever made to cession but only to a constitution of debt? asks the lawyer. "I don't believe I had ever made a promise of sale where Chircop had bought a property," says the witness. He says he cannot recall exactly what happened after eight years. "The point of a constitution of debt is to give executive title where there wasn't one." 

11:57 The witness is signing some documents which he will be exhibiting. Lawyer Alfred Abela will then cross-examine him. 

11:56 More supermarkets were looking for investors. The notary says the brains behind the business was Ryan Schembri. He notes that Schembri had shown him some documents but that he had thought them "too good to be true."

11:52 "I wasn't Chircop's usual notary. He engaged me to do this job. But he appeared agitated and eager to close this deal," the witness says.

11:50 The property was later sold for €1.2million through transactions involving APS Bank and BNF Bank, the witness says.

11:48 The notary says that he had gathered from the media that Agius had tried to impugn the act but says that nobody had ever spoken to him about the contract at that time.

11:45 The witness adds that it was signed at Schembri's lawyer's office at Vincenti Buildings, Valletta.

11:44 Camilleri asks what Etienne Cassar had said, but the notary says he cannot recall.

11:43 This sum represented Chircop's investment in EROM and services given to Agius and Schembri, the witness says.

11:41 At the time, Ryan Schembri and More Supermarkets had built a substantial business. Chircop had contributed by loaning the money to him. They confirmed that €700,000 was due, while €50,000 had already been paid, explains the notary.

11:39 The debt was €750,000, for money loaned by the Chircops' to EROM Ltd, the witness says.

11:38 "These partners were Ryan Schembri on behalf of EROM Ltd and Adrian Agius. There were others involved too. The co-guarantors, the spouses, had come to my office later that evening to crystallise the constitution of debt, the witness says. 

11:36 Mangion is asked how long he knew Chircop. "Not long. He was known in the circles of work as a veteran lawyer. I met him around 2013 or 14. I knew him from the notarial aspect. Chircop had asked me to draw up a constitution of debt with commercial partners of Chircop."

11:33 The next witness is notary Malcolm Mangion. 

11:32 Schembri had left a raft of problems for Agius to deal with, says the witness. Agius had dealt with him properly; there was a good relationship, he says. "In your eyes, was Adrian Agius, a gentleman?" asks the lawyer. "Definitely," replied the witness.

11:29 Etienne Cassar was "a puppet", the witness recalls Chircop telling him.

11:29 Chircop was angry at Ryan Schembri, suggests the lawyer. The witness agrees.

11:28 There was mutual respect between Chricop and Agius, but at the same time, he wasn't paying Chircop. Agius said he had offered Chircop his house. Adrian was doing everything he could. Even Chircop had told him this, the witness says.

11:26 The witness confirms Chircop's wife was also not present. 

11:26 Abela asks if Etienne Cassar's wife was there. "I don't think so," the witness replies. "There was Ryan Schembri's wife, for sure, but I don't think Etienne's was there."

11:24 Chircop would deal as C&K ltd, his company, explains the witness. 

11:24 But in the Chircop scenario, the witness said, this was not done, and a constitution of debt was done instead.

11:22 Abela asks what happens to the profits in a contract of cession (the normal way of ending the contract). The witness says that the original buyer and the subsequent buyer appear on the day of the final contract, and the cession is signed together with the sale.

11:21 "I took it that he was tired of dealing with More Supermarkets," the witness says.

11:20 Abela asks about promises of sale and the right of substitution. The new buyer would be substituted in the final deed, the witness answers. But in Chircop's case, it was done by a constitution of debt, "it was the first time I ever heard of this practice."

11:16 Lawyer Alfred Abela asks to cross-examine the witness. 

11:15 "One day, he had asked me if I knew a debt collector. I played the fool and said I didn't know," the witness says.

11:12 Chircop had said that he was ready to sue "them", says the witness. Asked who "them" referred to, he said that he understood that he was referring to the deal's guarantors.

11:11 "I needed something to show the bank that I had these assets," says the witness. Chircop had explained that he wasn't paying him because he hadn't gathered the money yet.

11:09 Ryan Schembri had emptied his accounts before absconding, so not even the €250,000 deposit was recoverable, the witness says. 

11:07 The guarantees were over properties at Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq belonging to Adrian Agius, another to Etienne Cassar, a property belonging to Ryan Schembri's father.

11:06 There was between €700 and €800,000 pending to be paid to Chircop by EROM; at least that is what was signed on the constitution of debt. But the guarantees were on Adrian Agius and Ryan Schembri.

11:03 Chircop was pressing the witness over the deal after the Schembri purchase fell through. Barthet had engaged lawyer Adrian Delia to send a legal letter to Chircop, who then backed off. 

11:03 The witness says that because More Supermarkets were desperate to use it, they agreed with GDL for payment of €10,000 a month.

11:00 "I would communicate with Adrian, and sometimes it appeared there were communication problems with Schembri. Notary Malcolm Mangion took care of the contracts, said the witness.

10:56 Lawyer George Camilleri takes up the questioning. 

10:55 At the second meeting, Ryan and an accountant, Etienne Cassar and Carmel Chircop and Adrian Agius, were in attendance. 

10:55 At the first meeting, Agius had said that he needed to show it to his friends 'tal-More.' 

10:55 Arnaud asks him about the viewing of the warehouse. "At first, I thought it was for him, but later it became clear that Ryan Schembri called the shots, you understand?" says Barthet.

10:54 Arnaud takes up questioning. He asks the witness to identify Adrian Agius in the courtroom. He does so.

10:53 The final deed was never made, as Schembri left Malta. The only source of concrete documentation was Adrian Agius, he says.

10:52 Another payment of around €50,000 was made to Chircop upfront. Schembri had refused to give the witness a copy of the contract, he says.

10:49 A new promise of sale was entered into between EROM and the seller; the payment was to be made over a period of around six months, he says.

10:48 The men met at Vincenti Buildings, the witness says. Ryan Schembri and Chircop had made a contract of cession on the promise of sale to access the seller directly, says Barthet. Ryan Schembri and EROM trading were involved. It resulted that full compliance was not carried out.

10:44 Negotiations were difficult because Schembri was hard to make an appointment with, the witness says. 

10:43 They said they needed it to supply more supermarkets and that Schembri had plans for 20 more supermarkets and export business. "They were stuck for space," he explains.

10:42 Adrian and Ryan Schembri representing More Supermarkets, had come with Chircop. They liked the property, he says. 

10:42 In the meantime, Chircop found no compliance on the place, so he had applied for it. 

10:40 Barthet says that someone with cash in hand had asked for a large warehouse. He was Adrian Agius, he says. 

10:40 The witness says Grech was in a hurry to grow his business, and Chircop took on the promise of the sale himself.

10:39 Chircop had come to see the property with a certain Ray Grech. "They had a meat importation business or something like that," Barthet says.

10:38 There had been some interest in the warehouse which he was the agent of. "Out of the blue, Dr Chircop had called me...he liked the property," the witness says. 

10:34 Barthet had been spoken to by the police about a warehouse which he had brokered the sale of. The warehouse is in Qormi. 

10:33 The court is back in session. The next witness is Peter Barthet. 

10:09 The court is suspending the sitting for 15 minutes. 

10:08 The contract with Vella was for about a year, she says. To pay his rent, he would call her up and say lets meet to settle the bill. 

10:05 The witness is now describing the property's layout. 

10:05 The witness points out Vella in the courtroom. 

10:04 The property had been rented out through an estate agent. It was to be rented to a couple with children, but Jamie Vella had met her. 

10:02 The press is prohibited from publishing any of the addresses mentioned. The maisonette had been rented to Jamie Vella.

10:01 She had spoken to the police about a property of hers in Santa Venera, a maisonette in an apartment complex, she says. She would rent it out.

09:58 The next witness is Ruth Chircop.

09:57 Arnaud asks her what time the sounds were heard. "Between 7-7:05 am," she says.

09:54 "Nothing. No cars were coming or going," the witness replies. Arnaud asks what made her look at the garage building. "The sound came from that side," she explains.

09:53 Arnaud is now questioning the witness. He asks what she saw from her balcony overlooking Sqaq San Pawl.

09:52 Witness says she had later given her testimony in court.

09:51 The witness says she spoke to her husband about the incident and also the police. She was leaving the house when the police had stopped her, she says. 

09:49 She adds the time between the sounds were "not even a second." 

09:48 Camilleri asks the witness what she saw. "Nothing. I saw my husband in front of me and nobody coming in or out of the garage complex," she says. 

09:47 She says she had got up and went onto her balcony immediately, together with her husband. 

09:47 "It was around seven in the morning. It was my day off. My bedroom overlooks the garage entrance," the witness says, adding that she heard three sounds after each other. She knocks on the stand three times, "we thought it was a door being hit," she says. 

09:42 The next witness is Maria Camilleri Paigi, who lives near the murder scene. She testifies in English. 

09:41 Camilleri says his window was closed. The sound of the shots was "sharp", he adds. 

09:40 Lawyer Alfred Abela asks the witness whether he was asleep. "I had just woken up," he says. 

09:38 Camilleri is currently describing the exits to the garage.

09:36 Camilleri says he did not see anyone coming or going. He then spoke to the police.

09:34 "After about five minutes, I went to have a look out of the window, overlooking the entrance of the garages," Camilleri says.

09:33 The witness says he is a fan of first-person shooter video games. He recognised the sound as a pistol. "They weren't rapid shots. I heard around 4 or 5 shots. Maybe a second or two apart." 

09:30 "I remember I was in bed at my mother's house in Birkirkara. She lives opposite the garage complex. I heard some shots... it was early morning between 7-8 am," Camilleri says.

09:28 There are no further questions for this witness. He steps off the stand. The next witness is Clive Camilleri. 

09:27 There were two gunshot wounds on Chircop's front and back, the witness says. He couldn't tell if the ones on the back were entry or exit wounds. 

09:26 A new witness, Dr Cherubino, takes the stand. He had been on duty at the Mosta health centre and had been informed that there was a shooting in Birkirkara and that he had to go and certify the victim's death. 

09:23 Lawyer George Camilleri said this witness was vital because he had discovered the body. 

09:21 Grixti steps off the stand. The magistrate asks the prosecution why witnesses who testified in the inquiry were being brought to testify again. 

09:19 They were always open, he says. 

09:19 Grixti is asked about the other doors. They are pedestrian doors, he explains. One opens on to Triq John Borg and the other onto an alleyway, Sqaq Riku. 

09:16 The gate to the complex was always open because it wasn't working. It hadn't been working for at least a year before then, he adds. 

09:15 The witness is now being asked about his interactions with the victim. He says he would meet him there when going for his car. 

09:15 There was a hole in the victim's shirt surrounded by liquid and blood, the witness says. 

09:14 Arnaud asks him to describe the wounds on the body. 

09:14 The witness says he had been walking his dog when a friend who lived opposite the garage told him that four shots had been fired. 

09:11 Superintendent Keith Arnaud takes over questioning from George Camilleri. 

09:11 The witness went to the depot and released a statement. Later, he also testified in the magisterial inquiry. 

09:10 Two policewomen from the Birkirkara police station were first on the scene. They accompanied him to the garage and confirmed that Chircop was dead. Then the Rapid Intervention Unit arrived. 

09:09 "I touched his hand. I didn't know what to do... it was cold but flexible. It was October, so his hand was cold," he says. 

09:07 Chircop was shot in his upper and lower left torso, Grixti adds. 

09:07 Grixti says he then called 112. 

09:06 "I called out to him, and he didn't reply, so I went up to him. I found him face up with two bullet wounds... his right hand was still moving," Grixti says. 

09:05 Grixti says this time he noticed a person's feet on the ground protruding from the doorway. 

09:05 Grixti says he saw the door of Chircop's garage open. He would see him there every day, he says. 

09:04 The building has three entrances, Grixti says. 

09:04 Grixti is asked what he remembers. He says he went to the Rampol building garage complex. He heard four shots; he says his garage is next door to Carmel Chircop's. He went to pick up his motorcycle to go to work. 

09:00 The first witness, Augustine Grixti, is summoned to the stand.

08:58 Magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo enters the courtroom. The sitting begins.

08:56 The accused have been led into the courtroom. They stand in the dock, discussing something with their lawyers, Alfred Abela and Rene Darmanin.

08:46 We are waiting for proceedings to start. 

08:46 Good morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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