The Malta Independent 12 July 2024, Friday
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Rabat murder suspect owned five shotguns despite psychiatric illness history, court hears

Wednesday, 10 January 2024, 14:40 Last update: about 7 months ago

The man accused of shooting Eric Borg dead on New Year's Day owned at least five shotguns, despite having a history of psychiatric illness.

This emerged from court testimony on Wednesday, as the first sitting of the compilation of evidence against Noel Azzopardi, who is accused of Borg's murder, got underway before Magistrate Marseanne Farrugia.

Azzopardi, a 39-year-old resident of Rabat, remains in custody, a week after pleading not guilty to the murder of 27-year-old Borg on New Year's day.

He was arraigned last week and charged with Borg's murder and firearms offences. Borg, a cab driver, was fatally shot following an argument in Triq Fidloqqom in the Nigret area of Rabat, at around 3:20pm on January 1. He was declared dead at the scene.

Azzopardi was arrested on suspicion of murder around three hours after the incident after walking into the Rabat police station together with some of his family members to report that he had shot Borg.

Victim shot twice in the back from close range

Police Inspector Wayne Camilleri from the Homicide Squad was first to testify, telling magistrate Marseanne Farrugia that on January 1 at around 3:40pm, he had been informed of a gunshot in Triq il-Fidloqqom, Rabat, by the control room. Officers had discovered a body at the scene.

Forensics officers and a medical team from Mater Dei were already on site when he arrived at the scene, which was already well preserved, he said. The victim's body was face down with two gunshot wounds visible, one in the back and the other on its right hand side.

Two eyewitnesses had given the police a description of the incident, said the inspector. They had seen a man emerge from a grey vehicle, possibly a Toyota Hilux, carrying a shotgun, walking up to the victim and shooting him twice from very close range.

Family members of the victim who approached the police at the scene, told officers that Borg was a quiet man, who kept to himself. His sister recalled the victim saying that on one occasion, Noel Azzopardi had been tailgating him in his car, as if to intimidate him. 

Azzopardi owned a nearby field, but had no known disputes with Borg, added the inspector. He also owned a vehicle that matched the description given by eyewitnesses.

While police were still planning the operation to arrest Azzopardi, the suspect had turned himself in at the Rabat police station, saying that he was involved in Borg's death. 

Superintendent Keith Arnaud and police inspector Godwin Scerri had questioned Azzopardi, after reading the man his rights. Azzopardi told them that he had shot a man.

The family members who accompanied Azzopardi to the Rabat police station had explained that he had told them what he had done and that they had convinced him to give himself up, Inspector Camilleri added.

Later that day, Inspector Camilleri had carried out a search of Azzopardi's residence together with a number of police officers and the suspect.

A hunter's ammunition belt with shotgun shells was amongst the items seized. Around eight hunting shotguns were also recovered from Azzopardi's home. Five were registered to Azzopardi and the other two registered to his father, who lived in the same property.

Only five of the shotguns were stored in a gun safe according to law. When asked which weapon had been used in the murder, Azzopardi had told the police that it was in the sitting room, behind a grandfather clock. A shotgun was, in fact, found there and was taken away for examination by ballistics experts.

Azzopardi had asked to call lawyer Alex Miruzzi during the search, and was allowed to do so.

A post mortem examination of Borg's body confirmed the cause of death to be two close-range shotgun blasts. The gunshots were fired so close to the victim that burn marks from the combusting gunpowder were visible on the skin around the entry wound. Some of the shotgun pellets had been found close to the victim's heart, said the inspector.

During his interrogation, Azzopardi had confirmed to the police that he had gone to his field in Buskett that day. The suspect did not know Borg's name, but recognised a picture of him as the owner of a nearby field. He claimed to have been carrying his shotgun because he had been planning to go clay pigeon shooting later that day.

Azzopardi said the victim had spoken to him but did not say what the conversation was about. "He told us that after he spoke to him, Eric told him not to interfere in other people's business...He said that this had made him very angry as this wasn't the right way to speak to people," explained the inspector.

Azzopardi had caught up to Borg's car, which then stopped, got out, carrying his shotgun and shot Borg in the back twice. The victim had fallen to the ground after the first shot, but Azzopardi felt he had to shoot him again after Borg continued to move, telling the police that he thought he was about to get up.  He confirmed that Borg was unarmed at the time. 

Asked why he had shot him, he said "a darkness" had come over him and he didn't know. 

Cross-examined by lawyer Joe Giglio who appeared for the victim's family, who asked whether the man had explained why the shotgun was behind the grandfather clock, the inspector said Azzopardi would often put it there when young relatives would visit.

Cross-examined by Alex Miruzzi, the inspector confirmed that the inquiring magistrate had appointed a psychiatrist to examine the defendant, who has a history of mental illness and had spent time at Mount Carmel Hospital.

Miruzzi asked about previous police reports filed by the defendant about being followed. The inspector said he had not mentioned the victim in connection with these alleged incidents, which had been followed up.

Lawyer Jacob Magri, representing the defendant, asked whether, during his interrogation, the defendant had told the police about a childhood operation to remove a tumour from his brain and about his past treatment at Mount Carmel Hospital. The inspector confirmed that he had and that these were recorded in his statement.

Sister says victim and father spoke of harassment and stalking

The victim's sister took the witness stand, recalling how she had been dining with family at a Rabat restaurant, when her mother received a phone call to tell her that something had happened in the street where she lived. They had all rushed home and found the police already there.

They told them that there was an ongoing dispute between Eric and someone whose name they did not know. "My father and brother would tell us that someone was harassing and following them around." This was in March and April, she said and targeted her father in particular.

"He would stop next to them in his car, drive around their house in Triq Fidloqqom," she said, adding that no motive for the odd behaviour had ever been suggested and that she had never seen this person's face.

Giglio asked when the last time the victim had told her about this situation. "It was around the end of last year. Eric told me 'he did it again...' I asked him what he meant by that. 'He stopped next to my car again.'"

Azzopardi's father would make similar complaints, she said, and had repeatedly found Borg outside his house or near his field in Buskett. Borg had also tailed the father in his car, added the witness.

Police reports about this had been filed about a year and a half ago, she said. Officers from Rabat police station had called her in and asked her about her car and her reasons for being in Buskett. When she explained, the police told her that a report had been filed about her following someone in her car.

It was only in recent days that she had learned that the person who had filed the reports was the defendant, she said.

Defendant had filed multiple spurious police reports against victim's father

On the witness stand, the victim's father was asked to describe what he had found on the crime scene. He paused for a few moments, before quietly saying: "I found Eric on the ground." Speaking almost inaudibly, the grieving witness recalled a policeman telling him that his son was dead. 

He said that in the past, the defendant had repeatedly filed police reports against him, for reasons unknown. "He started picking on me, filing police report after police report. Noel Azzopardi, they told me. They said that he claimed I was harassing him." He was not told what form the alleged harassment had taken, he said.

He recalled how, on one occasion, Azzopardi had wedged his car next to the witness', requiring him to reverse for a considerable distance to get away.

Azzopardi or his family were owners of a field near his, said the father. He said he had no other connection to the man and neither had his son ever spoken to him about Azzopardi.

Cross-examined by the defence, the man said he recognised the defendant. "I had to recognise him, because he would often drive up our road very slowly."

"I didn't want to look" - victim's girlfriend recalls rushing to murder scene

The prosecutor asked how she knew the deceased. "Eric Borg is my boyfriend," she said, her voice quavering. Borg had walked to her house early on New Year's Day, as she lived close by. Borg had told her on WhatsApp that he was going to feed his animals at the field near Buskett, after which the couple made plans to visit relatives later that day. His last message was asking to confirm whether the visit was going ahead as planned.

"I heard sirens passing nearby," she said, briefly breaking into sobs on the stand, before regaining her composure. She had received a Facebook message from a friend they had in common, asking whether Eric was there. When she asked why, the friend sent a screenshot of a news report of the murder, prompting her to rush to the scene on foot.

"I didn't want to look," she said. Lawyer Joe Giglio, appearing for the victim's family, asked her why. "There was no communication [from Borg]. I was calling and calling."

Borg would not tell her about his concerns so as not to worry her, she said in reply to other questions, confirming that the first time that she had heard the name Noel Azzopardi was on the day her boyfriend was murdered.

The compilation of evidence continues next week.

Azzopardi is being represented by lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Jacob Magri and Alex Miruzzi.

Inspector Wayne Camilleri is prosecuting, together with lawyer Kaylie Bonett from the Office of the Attorney General. 

Lawyers Joe Giglio and Michela Giglio, are representing the family of the victim as parte civile. 

 


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