MaltaToday | 24 August 2008

NEWS | Sunday, 24 August 2008

Tracing a tragedy

With the two inquiries into Nicholas Azzopardi’s death absolving the police force of any wrongdoing, what was initially feared to be a scandal has turned out to be a tragedy of epic proportions. But many questions remain unanswered, writes Karl Schembri

When Nicholas Azzopardi, 38, drove his car from his Fgura residence to police headquarters on the fateful afternoon of 8 April, he only did so upon the insistence of his seven-year-old daughter.
“I want to go with daddy,” she told Police Inspector Graziella Muscat, who, together with Appogg social worker Melissa Xuereb, was waiting for her return from school.
It is one of the bitter ironies that emerge out of the two inquiries just released about the death of Nicholas Azzopardi – one by Magistrate Antonio Vella, the other by retired Judge Albert Manché – that the man who stood accused of abusing his daughter was asked by none other than the accuser herself to accompany her to the police depot.
The officer and social worker had turned up at the Azzopardis’ home at around 2.30pm so that they could take the child for questioning at the police depot about reports of alleged sexual abuse filed by her mother, Claudette.
Accusations were echoed by both sides in what looks like the culmination of a longstanding marital breakdown that had just seen the father winning over the custody rights of the child in the acrimonious relationship that was inadvertently turning into tragedy in the hours to come.
In her testimony to Magistrate Vella, the social worker recounts how, the father and Enemalta health and safety officer had alleged that between November 2007 and February this year, “there was physical abuse and negligence” from the mother’s side, while the mother was alleging that he was “touching the daughter’s private parts”.
Insp. Muscat, who works with the Vice Squad, had received a letter in March alleging the abuse, after which the mother and grandmother of the child went to speak to her.
“They spoke to me of marriage problems and the daughter’s attitude,” she told the magistrate. “I spoke to the social worker, who confirmed the minor’s abuse. She had confirmed that in her last interview with the child at school, she was more consistent than in previous interviews in that she was being sexually abused by her father.”
A week before they turned up at the Azzopardis’ house, she had taken a declaration from the mother and grandmother Antonia Patignott, “in which they explained how the whole story started”.
They told her how she was once in a car with grandmother and the child’s maternal aunt when she told them that her dad used to wash her and touch her.
Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar had warned the mother of the seriousness of the accusations and that it was a criminal offence to lodge a false report, but the mother insisted she was saying the truth and wanted to press charges.
A week later, on 8 April, the mother panicked upon realising that the police officer had turned up at her house unannounced to take the girl for questioning, despite her own report the week before. Amid the commotion, the girl insisted to go to the depot with her dad, in his car, “as she was very close to him,” Insp. Muscat said.
Shortly after arriving in Floriana at around 3.07pm, the girl was taken for questioning by Insp. Muscat and by another woman police officer trained to deal with minors.
“She was saying that when she would be asleep in her bedroom, he would touch her from under the panty and hurt her, and at one point she made a gesture of a man masturbating and such things, but she emphasised it’s a secret,” Insp. Muscat said.
Upon hearing those words, the inspector called Duty Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera informing her of the case and getting an arrest warrant and a warrant to search inside Azzopardi’s house. At around 5.20pm, Azzopardi was informed of his arrest on charges of abuse of minors. The officer found it telling that his immediate reaction was to ask if it was about his daughter, although the fact that the child was called in must have made it obvious.
Insp. Muscat also speaks of Azzopardi’s disappointment upon learning that the accusations were made directly by his daughter, not by his wife. He told her how his daughter would seek him and stay close to him even when he tried keeping her at a distance given her age.
The search at his house in Azzopardi’s presence took till around 7.30pm, when he returned to the depot and then taken down to the lockup in cell 113 at around 9.15pm.
“When I was talking to him at around 7.30pm he told me that his wife had been recently calling him a homosexual, that he masturbated and touched the girl,” Insp. Muscat said. “He told me the girl was very close to him and that he was the only one protecting her from her mother and younger brother, that only he helped her with the homework. Whenever she slept in his bed he would use pillows as partitions.”
PS 500 John Gusti, one of the officers who watched on Azzopardi while in the CID lockup on 8 April, speaks of Azzopardi’s anguish in the hours of confinement.
“He was all crying all the time,” Sgt Gusti told Magistrate Vella, recounting how Azzopardi sought some solace through speaking to him even though the officer repeatedly told him that he had nothing to do with the investigations.
“He told me he found it strange how he was just awarded his daughter’s custody and at the same time they were facing him with these accusations,” the sergeant said.
Sgt Gusti said how he tried consoling him but upon locking the cell door, Azzopardi burst out crying even more, until around 45 minutes later he complained of chest pains and was taken handcuffed to Mater Dei Hospital.
According to Forensic Expert Mario Scerri, who examined the hospital records for the inquiries, Azzopardi complained with the doctor of “compressive chest pain provoked by bad news”.
There, the doctors who examined him found nothing out of order although they wanted to keep him in hospital for observation.
Yet Azzopardi signed for his release and was escorted back to the depot and put in the lockup again at 3.25am of the following day.
The chest pains returned soon after and at around 4.20am he was again taken out of his cell to be taken to hospital.
“When examined … the medical impression was that it was anxiety-induced chest pain,” Scerri notes.
Again, the doctors noticed nothing abnormal, but in sticking to procedure, they wanted to keep him for further observation, to which Azzopardi signed for the second time to be released.
Back at the lockup at around 10.10am, he was put into a different cell, room 103, for suspects suffering claustrophobia, locked with a gate instead of an iron door. He was kept there till around 11.55am when the Inspector called him into her office to take a statement in a process that took more than five hours.
According to Insp. Muscat, he kept “beating around the bush” when faced with the questions, levelling charges back at the mother, alleging negligence and abuse.
During this time, court marshal Eugenio Mallia delivered a court notification to Azzopardi at around 4.15pm. In his testimony in both inquiries, Mallia said: “I spoke to him normally and he spoke back to me … there was nothing abnormal in him.” Asked specifically by Judge Manché if he noticed any signs of a beating, Mallia replied: “No, definitely not.”
By 5.20pm, the statement was inputted in the computer and ready. Azzopardi, who denied all the accusations, signed it in the end. Police Sergeant 656 Adrian Lia – the same officer who a decade ago was caught out fabricating a story about saving a woman from drowning – and constable 1359 Reuben Zammit were then ordered by Insp. Muscat to accompany Azzopardi on a search in his car parked outside the police yard, and to be then taken to the forensic section for finger prints and photos.
In the meantime, his wife and her mother were at the reception. Upon realising this, Sgt Lia called Insp. Muscat to inform her that it was better to have them removed from there, given that Azzopardi was about to pass from the same corridor to go into his car. Insp. Muscat said she was sending someone to accompany the two women to her office.
In the meantime, Sgt Lia sent PC Zammit with Azzopardi in the police yard next to the building known as the SIREN office and went to inform Forensics that they were about to have a suspect for finger printing.
According to PC Zammit, as he was waiting for Sgt Lia to call for him and for Azzopardi to proceed with the search, he tried striking a conversation with Azzopardi, but the latter was unresponsive. At around 5.56pm, PC Zammit says he suddenly heard Sgt Lia, who was returning, shouting “Reuben, Reuben, Rueben!”
At that particular moment, according to Sgt Lia, he saw Azzopardi climbing a wall and trying to jump behind PC Zammit’s back. Upon realising this, PC Zammit said he tried grabbing Azzopardi from his arm pits but given the man’s weight and resistance, he could not hold him for long. According to Sgt Lia, Azzopardi fell precisely when he arrived at the wall, to the point that he could see him “strangely holding his nose and head” as he fell some 8.5 metres into the school beneath the police building.
Sgt Lia said he rushed immediately to the place where Azzopardi fell together with another officer, climbed a gate into the school and found him still conscious.
Meanwhile, Insp. Muscat – just informed about Azzopardi’s jump off the wall – was rushing down the building into the yard when she ran across his wife and her mother who were “still smiling as they were unaware of what had happened”.
Reaching the wall, she could see Sgt Lia next to Azzopardi in the school yard. By the time she reached them, an ambulance and the civil protection had arrived, and he was rushed to emergency at Mater Dei.

Two minutes away
Despite all the experts’ conclusions ruling out foul play and the ample CCTV footage stills available (the actual footage is inaccessible to the public), the crucial moment of Azzopardi’s rush towards the wall and the accompanying officers’ behaviour remain unfilmed as the point from where he jumped is out of the CCTV cameras’ reach.
Magistrate Vella’s own inquiry points out that “the only time when there is no confirmation or independent account of Nicholas Azzopardi’s physical state is on 9 April between 5.57.55pm and 5.58.58pm”.
At 5.58.58pm, PC990 Joseph Abela appears on CCTV, distraught as he gets out of the building upon hearing the commotion.
The inquiry adds: “It results that in 2 minutes and 48 seconds, it is impossible for a person of Nicholas Azzopardi’s build to be beaten up and thrown over a wall that is a meter and a half high”.
The inquiry also mentions the fact that Azzopardi is seen walking freely without any evidence of injuries to rule out the claim he made alter on his deathbed that he was beaten up by two officers.
“I was taken downstairs and beaten up,” was his damning statement.
The inquiry concedes that he was “taken downstairs”, in the sense that he was physically taken down to the police lockup, but that no beating took place, as this was corroborated neither by the witnesses, nor CCTV footage, and Mater Dei medical records.

In hospital
At Mater Dei’s emergency department, Dr Thomas Armatys says he found the patient “fully conscious and oriented”. Azzopardi was in critical condition and transferred to the Intensive Therapy Unit, where he was kept until 22 April when he was transferred to Orthopaedic Ward 1 as his health was improving.
Forensic expert Mario Scerri, who examined all the medical documentation, told the magistrate that the fractures sustained by Azzopardi showed he was not thrown over the wall, nor was he unconscious, given that he had spoken to ambulance personnel and the police.
Yet he found no “resistance fractures” that one would normally find in cases of people falling from heights in their bid to cushion the impact.
“Although in 98 per cent of falls from heights one would find fractures of long bones cause by the persons’ instinct to offer resistance to the impact as it is falling or jumping, these are not found on persons who could be unconscious during the fall, or dead, or because there would be a sudden change in flight direction, or because the fall would not be long enough for the person to manoeuvre and assume a position of resistance,” Scerri says.
In this case, he says, there were no resistance fractures because “the fall was limited and he started it hanging in a vertical position, with his head upright”.
Azzopardi was found to be suffering from pneumothorax on the left side, which means that air was entering the space between the chest wall and the lungs.

Wrong medical procedure
Scerri found that Azzopardi was administered what is called an “intercostal drain” to his left chest by Mr A. Mercieca.
An intercostal drain is administered to people suffering from pneumothorax.
“This seemed to have been administered well,” Scerri says.
But another intercostal drain administered by “a member of Mr Casha’s team” was found to have been wrongly administered.
Scerri somehow reports that he could not find the document in the medical history file detailing who introduced this intercostals drain.
“This intercostal drain remained in situ until 22 April, was visible on X-rays and was in a very advanced stage,” he says, adding that it cause a perforation in the lung.
“This intercostal drain was introduced incorrectly and certainly not as required by art and science, but luckily the mistake did not contribute in any way to the death of Azzopardi.”
Doctors speaking to MaltaToday say administering wrongly an intercostals drain can be fatal, as clogging with blood or displacement of the chest drain may lead to serious complications. The autopsy into Azzopardi’s death, however, does not link it to his demise.
Scerri says that other than this mistake, there was no other mismanagement or negligence from the side of the hospital’s medical team. He was given the treatment for thrombosis, although he eventually died of it on 22 April at around 11.15pm, on the same day that he was observed making progress. An autopsy carried by Dr Ali Safraz and Prof. Marie Therese Camilleri Podestà established he died from “saddle pulmonary embolus” following deep vein thrombosis.

The big questions
Azzopardi started recovering his senses on 17 April, which is when he started trying to communicate to his brother, Reno, and his father, Joseph, although he could not speak because of a breathing pipe.
On 19 April, Reno took a video camera with him so that he could record anything that his brother would say. On the same day, Azzopardi said he was beaten up in what he called “xebgha tal-beati pawli” inside the depot, although he could not recall exactly when.
He mentioned two police officers wearing blue pullovers but without numbers on their epaulettes, and that he retaliated against one of them by pushing him violently against a gate.
“I couldn’t bear it any longer,” he told his brother, adding that he received sidekicks to his chest and started throwing up blood.
Azzopardi would repeat his beating allegations with friends and work colleagues who went to visit him and to his lawyer, Raphael Fenech Adami, and finally to Magistrate Vella himself hours before he died.
The Vella inquiry also looked into claims that an officer took sick leave after being injured by Azzopardi – a claim which was not corroborated by the police doctor, Carmel Michael Sciberras, who said that from his examination it did not result that there were any injured officers at the time.
The two inquiries rule out Azzopardi’s allegations, triggering the big question as to why he would make them in first place.

Inconsistent timing
Inspector Muscat admits she inputted the wrong time on the statement given by Azzopardi. According to legal expert Anthony Cutajar, the time inputted by Insp. Muscat was 10.55am on 9 April, whereas the depot records show that Azzopardi was taken out of his lockup at 11.55am.
Another discrepancy that emerges relates to the timing on the CCTV footage showing Azzopardi going out with the two police officers (Lia and Zammit) an hour before they time they mentioned in their testimony. The explanation given in the inquiries was that the CCTV clock was not updated to summertime.
Also, Insp. Calleja vehemently denied the statement made by Azzopardi’s brother, that is that Nicholas had jumped from a window after injuring a police officer.

Why did the police cover it up?
On 9 April, the police issued a statement saying that a man had escaped from police HQ, jumping over a wall and injuring himself and was in danger of dying. Yet nothing was reported when he made his allegations, still less when he died. The press was never informed of Azzopardi’s death through the police. It was only on 27 April, five days after his death, that his brother and father came out with Azzopardi’s allegations in a story on MaltaToday, triggering Manché’s inquiry. Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici himself had said he was not informed by Police Commissioner John Rizzo about Azzopardi’s allegations and eventual death.

Why did he sign for his release against the doctors’ recommendation?
It is unclear why Azzopardi twice persisted with being released despite the doctors’ intention to keep him under observation, but the inquiries do produce the release forms signed by Azzopardi himself.

Why did the magistrate take so long to interview Azzopardi?
Magistrate Tonio Vella had been investigating the case of Azzopardi’s fall from 9 April, as he was duty magistrate on that day. Yet it took him three days to go to hospital since Azzopardi could speak again to get his testimony, just three hours before his death.

What led him to jump?
That, ultimately, is the big question, together with the question as to why he would fabricate allegations on his deathbed. It is unclear from the inquiry whether Azzopardi was suicidal or just attempting to escape, although the height of his fall shows it is totally irrational to believe he would have remained uninjured. Ultimately, those two minutes of CCTV obscurity are perhaps the most irrational in all this tragedy. It is clear he was distraught upon learning that the accusations were made by his daughter. It also emerges that Azzopardi must have realised he was about to be arraigned in court, although he was not told directly.
Among his work colleagues, Azzopardi enjoyed an excellent reputation.
“We know Nicholas and he was always a great friend and a gentleman,” an Enemalta colleague had said shortly after his death. A total of 198 workers, managers and senior management staff had signed a letter delivered to his family thanking Nicholas for his sterling work and loyalty, calling him “our big man with a warm heart”.

What are the lessons learnt?
Both inquiries make no recommendations whatsoever, even though Judge Manché had the specific brief to come up with any proposals from his conclusions. The judge sticks to saying that there was no form of wrongdoing from the police side, hence he had nothing to add in their regard.

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