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Court told robbers beat elderly jeweller unconscious before pillaging his shop

The gang of robbers who targeted a jeweller’s last month had beaten the shop’s elderly owner unconscious after he cried out for help, a court heard on Thursday.

He remains in a critical condition and unable to communicate.

The compilation of evidence against the gang accused of the August 25 heist continued before magistrate Ian Farrugia on Thursday.

Two Moroccan men: Zuhair Hadoumi, 26, a resident of Sliema and Mohamed Anas Boualam, 37, living in Zebbug, were charged together with 29 year-old Donna Sciberras, a habitual criminal with no fixed address were arraigned in connection with the crime four days after its commission.

Police inspector Lydon Zammit took the witness stand first. In testimony lasting over an hour, the inspector gave a blow-by-blow account of the investigation, which is still underway, and the arrests of the three suspects. The court has imposed reporting restrictions on some aspects of the testimony, in view of ongoing investigations into third parties.

The trio are pleading not guilty to charges of attempted murder, grievous bodily harm with a sharp and pointed instrument, holding the victim against his will in order to threaten him, aggravated theft and causing voluntary damage worth over €2,500. Further charges relating to carrying a knife in public and using it during the commission of a crime, as well as disobeying lawful police orders.

Inspector Zammit explained how the police had received a call about an unconscious and unresponsive person found, hands bound, inside a jewellery shop in Zurrieq. “We were informed that this person was the owner of the shop and had been taken to hospital.”

The victim was in a critical condition and unable to communicate at that time, he said.

The victim’s son had told the inspector that the first indication that something was wrong was when his father had failed to pick up his mother at the agreed time. He had gone to the shop to see if everything was OK and found the shutter closed. 

Peering through the shutter, the man caught sight of his father in the back room, tied up and unable to move and tried to force the metal shutter open, unsuccessfully. Family members later arrived and gained access to the shop by smashing a window.

The victim was in a pool of blood inside a room used as the workshop. In that room, police officers had also found two large safes, one of which was open and empty and the other closed but not locked. 

The damage to the shop’s interior was extensive, said Inspector Zammit, adding that pieces of jewellery were evidently missing from the display cases.

“It appeared that the biggest struggle took place behind the counter where the victim would serve customers,” said the inspector. Referring to photos taken by the shopkeeper’s family members before his rescue, showed how the victim was found upside down with his hands tied behind his back.

A man who lived nearby had seen the break-in happening, telling the police that he had been on his balcony when he saw a woman and two men entering the shop, closing the shutter behind them. 

Footage extracted from CCTV cameras installed on neighbouring residences showed the robbers coming from the direction of the Żurrieq parish church, crossing the road near the school, crossing again close to the shop, before loitering outside it for a few minutes. 
“Donna Sciberras was easily recognisable from the footage,” he said. The route taken by the robbers was traced using CCTV footage to Blue Grotto avenue, where they changed cars. Police recognised the second suspect, Mohammed Anas Boualam from CCTV footage capturing the change of car.

Investigators noticed that the three had arrived in a white Peugeot, which had dropped them off near the Zurrieq church. The owner of the car was questioned and told the police that the trip had been booked on Bolt using an account registered to the name “Anas Ines.” The passengers had been picked up from Zebbug at 6:31pm and had arrived in Zurrieq around 20 minutes later.

After the robbery, they had made their getaway in what appeared to be another taxi. Investigations into the driver are ongoing, the court was told.

Arrest warrants for the three suspects were issued. At the first address searched, the police found an Egyptian man. He told the police that Boualam lived in a room on the lower floor and recently a woman called Donna had moved in with him. Police found drugs when they searched the room used by the pair, said the inspector.

A search of the Egyptian man’s room led to the discovery of a small price tag typically used for jewellery together with the jacket worn by Donna Scibberas during the robbery. A mobile phone and a file containing Moroccan documents for Boualam. A small diamond earring and a pearl were also recovered from the room.

Police discovered a bag containing around 620 pills suspected to be ecstasy inside one of the wardrobes. The Egyptian man was later arraigned on drug-related charges and investigations are still ongoing, said the inspector.

The third suspect was seen at 3:15am on Saturday, catching a taxi from Sa Maison and heading towards Sliema, but the information was not enough to trace him. A breakthrough in the investigation happened later on Sunday when the investigators were told that the name of the third person was Zuhair Hadoumi, who might be living at a residence in San Gwann or Sliema.

A Sliema apartment in Manuel Dimech Street, a stone’s throw from the Sliema Police station was identified and later raided by the police. 

“The three suspects realised we were inside the residence and tried to escape across the rooftops. Donna Sciberras was found on the roof of the building in question, while the other two suspects were found on the roof of another apartment, five doors down the road.”

All three were arrested.

A searches in various other apartments revealed a black handbag containing €1,785, together with a man bag containing more cash, a gold cross and a price tag similar to those found in the Żebbug house. 

One of two wrist watches, found inside a haversack on the bed was identified as having been handed over to the jeweller for repair shortly before the robbery inside a black pouch, which also contained documents belonging to the victim. Another bag found on the stairs leading to the roof was found to contain wrist watches, earrings and jewellery, as well as a business card from the Żurrieq jewellery which had been targeted by the robbers.

The owner of a boat moored at the Ta’ Xbiex Marina handed the police a pouch that he had found abandoned near the marina entrance and was found to contain the victim’s documents and a small red window glass breaker.

After her arrest, Sciberras had led the police to an abandoned house in Pieta where the gang had been living. When it was searched immediately after the arrests, the police had found a large number of empty maroon boxes with the logo and address of the Żurrieq jeweller’s shop targeted by the gang.

Boualam told inspectors Steven Gulia and Shawn Pawney that he had been present during the robbery but denied beating the elderly jeweller. He led the police to a hiding place where he had stashed his passport, some jewellery and €3,920 cash which he said were his and had not been taken during the robbery.

He told the police that he had met Hadoumi and Sciberras at a Sliema Cafe two days before the robbery, where they had told him about their plans. Hadoumi said it was Boualas who had beaten the victim up. “He said Donna was first to go in, she was carrying a knife in her pocket… the handle of which was used to beat the victim. He said he had helped tie the victim up and break the glass display cases.”

He also told the police that some of the stolen gold may have been purchased by third parties. Investigations in this regard are ongoing, said the inspector.

Suspect tells police that elderly victim was beaten unconscious after he cried out

Sciberras was interrogated next, refusing legal assistance. “She cooperated with the police and immediately told us that the information had been received from a third party, who had demanded payment after the robbery.”

There were other persons who were going to be involved in the robbery, she told the police, but had been dropped from the operation by Boualam. 

Sciberras denied holding the knife, saying it had been held by the third man, Hadoumi. 

Hadoumi had beaten the victim the most, the inspector recalled her as saying.  

Boualam and Sciberras were in a relationship, he added, informing the court that the woman had a tattoo of his name on her arm. She told the police that the victim had been beaten unconscious after he cried out.

The robbers had not booked the taxi which had picked them up after the robbery, the woman had said, adding that the driver had called out toBoualam. Further investigations are also still ongoing in this regard.

A female prison inmate had come forward after hearing about the robbery, to tell the police that she had spoken to Sciberras while the two were inmates and the jewellery shop in question had been mentioned. She denied giving Sciberras inside information about the shop’s security setup and had refused Sciberras’ offer to participate in the robbery, he said.

‘I saw one of the men approaching my car,’ eyewitness tells court

The first civilian witness to testify in this case told the court that she had been in her car outside a nearby playground, not far from the jewellery shop, waiting  to pick up her husband. .

“I moved my handbag from the front seat to the rear, closed the door and got into the passenger seat so that my husband could drive,” said the woman. “Then I saw these two men walking in the direction of the playground. One of them started heading towards the car and I wasn’t very happy about it. I got out of the car to get back in the driver’s seat and then I drove away.” She recognised the two men in the dock. 

Prosecutor Anthony Vella asked whether she had heard the men talking, which she did.

The next witness was an elderly man who lived up the road from the shop. He told the court that he had been at home at the time. “I saw three people walking around and it was suspicious.” 

“I saw a woman and a skinny young man knock on the door and he opened for them. The man pushed the door and went in. Ten minutes later another man, bigger than the other one, arrived and closed the shutter. Half an hour later there were lots of police.”

“I thought to myself, what could have happened to [victim], he usually closes at 7pm.”

He identified Boualam as the bigger man, saying he remembered he had been wearing a top with a large number 35 stencilled on it. 

First responder describes bloody scene inside the shop

A police sergeant stationed at Zurrieq took the stand next. He had been on night watch duty, when the station received a call from the control room informing them that a person was locked inside the jewellers and needed assistance. 

At the scene they found the victim’s son, who told the officer what he knew at that stage. “We could see a man face down on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. He was moving his legs and making sounds.” 

 The victim had suffered head injuries and was lying in a pool of blood, he said. Two safes were noted open and empty.

The officer’s bodycam had beem switched on while he was on the scene, he said.

A police constable who had accompanied the previous witness to the scene testified next, giving a similar account to that described by his colleague. 

Lawyer Mark Mifsud Cutajar informed the court that no request for bail would be made at this stage, “for reasons independent of his client’s declaration of guilt or otherwise.”

As the sitting came to an end, the court declared that it had seen sufficient evidence for the three defendants to be indicted, sending the acts to the AG for a decision on whether further evidence was to be compiled.

The case was adjourned to mid-October.

Lawyer Brandon Kirk Muscat is appearing for Sciberras while lawyer Mark Mifsud Cutajar is representing the other two defendants.