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Gozo’s most mysterious and sensational trial 80 years ago

The anvil on which Marianu Sarè alleged that Wenzu Grech hammered the revolver.

The anvil on which Marianu Sarè alleged that Wenzu Grech hammered the revolver.

Without any doubt, the most mysterious and sensational murder in Gozo was that of Ċikku Caruana. On July 15, 1938, at about 8am, Caruana, a 38-year-old cabman, drove his horse to the blacksmith Michael Angelo Grech and asked him to examine his cab, which needed repair. The horse was taken to a nearby yard while Grech carried out the necessary repairs in his workshop in Għajn Qatet Street, Victoria. Meanwhile, the cab was left opposite the workshop.

When Grech finished the repairs he asked Caruana to fix the wheel on to his cab and, as Caruana was doing this, two shots rang out. Caruana was hit in the back of his head and died some hours later at Victoria hospital.

The police began the usual investigations but both the Gozo police and the Criminal Investigation Department could not make any headway. So Police Commissioner Salvatore Galea called for Inspector Carol Saliba.

Grech’s workshop at Għajn Qatet Street, Victoria.Grech’s workshop at Għajn Qatet Street, Victoria.

Saliba had joined the Police department in 1917 as a clerical assistant and was appointed sub-inspector two years later. Between 1922 and 1929 he outclassed all his senior colleagues in crime detection and his record of success was outstanding. He succeeded where his seniors had failed, and his brilliant investigation of serious crimes, many of which had remained unsolved for many years, became legendary. For his zeal and skill, Saliba had been highly commended by Commissioner Saliba and by the judges of the criminal court.

But notwithstanding this unique record, Saliba was never posted to the Criminal Investigation Branch, nor promoted to superintendent. In fact, he was passed over for this promotion no fewer than 13 times. When in July 1938 he was sent to Gozo to investigate Caruana’s atrocious murder, it is said that the Police Commissioner promised Saliba that, if he were to solve this case, he would secure the elusive promotion. The inspector must have realised that this chance was too good to miss, and he set about his task with evident relish.

The first murder suspect was Marianu Sarè, who was seen in the vicinity of the crime scene. Sarè was arrested, but after being interrogated he was released without charge. Six days later he made a statement to the police to the effect that on the day of the crime he had seen 37-year-old Wenzu Grech (Michael Angelo’s brother) take out a red-hot revolver from the forge and hammering it on the anvil.

This information led to the arrest of Grech. During the investigations, Grech was subjected to endless hours of interrogations and was dragged out of bed at night for further questioning. Moreover, the cell where Grech was kept under arrest was near the station lavatory that smelt horribly. It was also said that a dead cat had been placed in the lavatory so that the smell would be overwhelming. Meanwhile, a search was also carried out in Grech’s workshop and the police seized two pairs of pincers and a sledgehammer. A piece of coke found in the forge was also seized because it seemed heavier than the others.

Dr Carmelo Mifsud BonniciDr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici

Saliba also found what he believed was the motive for the crime as, according to Sarè, Grech had resented the victim’s advances to his (Grech’s) wife and had threatened to avenge the insult.

Grech was charged with wilful murder and the case came up for trial at the end of November 1938. The Criminal Court was presided over by Sir Arturo Mercieca, assisted by Mr Justice Edgar Ganado and Mr Justice William D. Harding. The prosecution was led by Dr G. Reynaud and the accused who was defended by Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, assisted by Dr John Formosa and Dr Giovanni Refalo. The long and sensational trial attracted more attention than others, and the publication of the trial reports generated great interest among readers.

In his evidence, Inspector Saliba said that the wife of the accused had told him that Ċikku Caruana used to call her “Oj Ċikkulata” but she always ignored him. Saliba also said that when he showed Sarè the two pincers seized by the police the latter said that neither of them was used to take the revolver from the forge. This led to another search in the workshop from where, according to the witness, the pincers indicated by Sarè were seized. According to Saliba, the accused admitted that he had been jealous of Frenċ.

A cutting from the Times of Malta reporting the court case proceedings.A cutting from the Times of Malta reporting the court case proceedings.

Grech was subjected to endless hours of interrogations and was dragged out of bed at night for further questioning

The youngest witness in this trial was 10-year-old Joseph Grech, who stated that a few moments before he heard the shots, he was playing with firecrackers. When asked by the president of the court what kind of firecrackers he was playing with the boy replied: “Shall I make you one?”

After the prosecutor closed his case, Dr Mifsud Bonnici rose to deliver one of the most masterly orations of a criminal lawyer. He began by apologising to the court for the many angry scenes that had occurred during the questioning of the witnesses for the prosecution. The defence said that the prosecution had completely failed to substantiate the alleged motive for the crime and to produce evidence to support the charge. The defence also said that the prosecution had failed to produce one single witness who had seen the accused shooting the victim.

Wenzu GrechWenzu Grech

The defence also made reference to the piece of coke seized by the police. According to the defence there was no similarity whatsoever to a revolver. Earlier in the trial, reference was made to what two court experts had declared about the coke. Although it was confirmed that it was steel, it did not have the weight of a melted down revolver.

Chief Justice Sir Arturo Mercieca, who presided over the criminal court, in his summing up condemned the methods used by the police during the investigations of this crime. He also dealt about the right of the police to ask for statements but, according to court, such statements should not be procured at any cost and by illegal means. Sir Arturo made reference to a court case where it was said that if the police crossed the line in obtaining a confession of guilt it would be nearing the third-degree system that dishonoured those nations that they were using it.

Mifsud Bonnici’s spirited defence persuaded almost all in the court of Grech’s innocence and it took only 13 minutes of deliberation for the jury to reach a verdict. With a unanimous vote, Grech was found not guilty and he walked out of court a free man. A wave of pent-up emotion swept the packed hall and a huge crowd had gathered outside the court building to cheer Grech and members of his family.

In his autobiography – The Making and Unmaking of a Maltese Chief Justice – Sir Arturo makes reference to this trial and explains the reasons why, in his summing-up of the trial, he had denounced the way Inspector Saliba had conducted the interrogations. Mercieca also wrote that “the remarks made in the course of summing-up were reproduced in all newspapers, and were editorially commented upon by the Malta and the Leħen is-Sewwa. When Sir Philip Pullicino, public prosecutor, met me a few days afterwards at a dance, he offered me his congratulations.”

Grech’s acquittal was a terrible blow for Saliba and he remained an inspector till he retired on pension on Christmas Day 1948 at the age of 58.

Grech’s trial was also mentioned in Mill-Album ta’ Ħajti, an autobiography published in 1980 by Dr Anton Buttigieg when he was still the President of the Republic. In 1938, Buttigieg was a law student, and during Grech’s trial, he was one of the spectators in the courtroom. In his memoirs, Buttigieg wrote that Sir Arturo was not impartial in his address to the jury, and that was the reason why the they reached a not guilty verdict.

This statement was rebutted five years later when Rev. Karm Grech, Wenzu’s son, published a book about his father’s trial. In the book Anton Buttigieg u l-Ġuri tal-Ħaddied, Rev. Grech mentioned all the facts that led to his father’s acquittal. The reverend also quoted what The Sunday Times of Malta reported about the summing up by the president of the Court: “Yesterday morning His Honour Sir Arturo Mercieca delivered a long and learned address which lasted for one hour, 55 minutes. He then enumerated, one by one, each circumstantial item of evidence produced against the accused, and analysed it carefully, leaving it in each case, for the gentlemen of the jury to decide as to its evidence.”

After Grech’s acquittal, the police did not reopen the case and Caruana’s murder remained an enduring mystery.

A sketch of the scene of the crime showing from where the shot could have been fired.A sketch of the scene of the crime showing from where the shot could have been fired.

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