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Eleven Years After He Was Arrested In A Police Sting Aged 16, Maltese Youth’s Life Remains On Hold

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A Maltese youth who was arrested in a police sting during an alleged drug haul in 2009 has been unable to continue living his life as the case has taken over a decade to be heard – and is still going on till this very day.

Now, Santa Lucija youth Mason Nehls is speaking out about the trauma of living his entire youth in limbo with this court case constantly hanging over his head – even though he hasn’t been proven guilty, and was only 16-years-old when he was arrested.

“It’s been 11 years now.”

For Nehls, it’s just hard to forget what the police inspector told him when he was hauled in for interrogation.

“I’ll never forget when the inspector turned to me and said: ‘it would have been better if you were brought in for murder than for drugs’,” Nehls told Lovin Malta. 

Though his mother was outside and asking to be let in, police were attempting to implicate the 16-year-old in an 1,000 ecstasy pill deal in Tarxien involving several other much older men – even though he didn’t have any lawyers or guardians present, something which was unfortunately common practice at the time.

Next thing he knew, Nehls was being accused of being an accomplice to drug trafficking, and his life would never be the same again.

“My last words to them were: ‘the pills are not mine and I don’t want to be charged’,” he said.

Suddenly, Nehls was thrown into a new world. Even though he was a minor, his name was released to the media and he suddenly found himself being talked about across Malta, spoken about as if he were a proper drug trafficker.

The court proceedings in his case are far from over – and for Nehls, living with the knowledge that he may be facing jail time for over a decade has wrought havoc on his mental health.

“Even today, whenever I meet family members or old friends, they don’t ask how I am doing: they just ask how the case is going.”

Since then, Nehls’ entire life has been defined by that night.

He had to sign a bail book in a different town from the one he lives in every day for the first six years. It’s also become increasingly difficult for him to travel or last long enough in a job due to constantly being called into court… just for the case to be deferred for the umpteenth time.

He’s also had to pay for countless legal and administration fees and feels like he’s now being bled dry by the state due to circumstances aged over a decade ago. He recently obtained new legal representation, Dr Alfred Abela from Azzopardi, Borg and Abela Advocates, just months ago – but he still remembers vividly what he was put through when he was still a teen.

“For the first six years, I was going to the Luqa police station to sign every single day, even though I live in Santa Lucija. If it was ever closed, I would call them and they would tell me to come back later, so sometimes I’d just spend the day trying to get to Luqa while it was open. Eventually, one day I missed it and I lost my bail guarantee and ended up in prison for two years,” he said.

Nehls has been left feeling like the system is doing everything it can to make him suffer, never trying to reform him, and only ever adding more pressure and weight to his life. He feels like he was entrapped into this situation – and just recently, he was informed that in nine months time, a jury may be appointed to his case.

At the end of the jury case, he could be facing a five to seven year sentence.

“I’ve never had any other issue with the government or police, and at 16, my name was printed everywhere, messing up my life – wasn’t my name supposed to be covered? From day one everything’s been against me, I try to live a normal life like everyone else, but you know how the Maltese mentality is when it comes to drugs…” he trailed off.

Nehls, who works as a chef, focused on his career and has since worked at some of Malta’s more popular eateries, including Pulcinella Restaurant, New York Best and The Italian Job. However, his case is constantly rearing its head, whether it’s to appear in court one morning or clients surreptitiously telling his boss whether he knows “what kind of chef” he’s employed.

For Nehls, finding out that the supposed buyer of the pills was working with the police made him even more livid than anything else.

The knowledge that some officers had bungled some evidence, which emerged later in court, only added insult to injury.

“It was a set-up, planned all the way from the beginning to the end, by the police.”

Severe limitations were placed on what Nehls could and couldn’t do during the formative years of his life, with one of the most painful ones being the fact that it was very difficult for him to travel, leading to him being unable to meet his father before he died in England.

“My dad battled cancer for six years and one day my sister called me saying that my dad was ‘at the end, come see him’… but he was in England. I couldn’t see him.”

He was asked to provide €5,000 in bonds, but he didn’t have that kind of money. And with no end in sight for his case, Nehls was unable to be by his father’s side when he died.

They eventually let him go abroad… after his father had died.

“If I had my things sorted out, I could have seen him,” he lamented. “Everything in my life goes back to this case, and it gets too hard sometimes.”

Nehls' father

Nehls' father

“I’ve spent 11 years living under this case, including two years in prison, and it is still going.”

Mason’s youth has been lost to this case – and it’s nowhere near over, with his case set to go to jury next year. He finds it hard to accept that he may have to spend another seven years in prison after all he’s already been put through.

“Any hopes and dreams I had have been put on hold… it’s so hard, and knowing I was just 16, at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says tearfully, “I think I deserve a second chance at life… I’m not living right now. But I resent what was done to me. I still suffer anxiety to this day due to this case.”

After 11 years of dealing with the hammer of justice coming down, his mental health and social life are in tatters.

“Some people think they know what you go through,” he continued, “but it really messes up your life. I didn’t even know what I was doing, I was just with a couple of friends when all of this happened, I was a kid… and 11 years later, I am still the kid I was because I’ve been so limited, my life expectations have been limited because of this case.”

“It’s like I am living in prison, just outside and at home, waiting to get sentenced.” 

Now, Nehls, his family and lawyers are questioning how a 16-year-old could have been interrogated without any lawyers or guardians.

“When my mum was outside the depot as they interrogated me, not letting her in, they told her: ‘you found out about this from the news and you’ll continue to hear everything from the news – you won’t find out anything else here’,” Nehls said.

Nehls has since spoken to people in similar cases, like William Agius – and he still has hope that Malta’s justice system may come through, though he feels like he’s been given a raw deal.

“The justice system has left the worst impact I could have ever experienced in my life. It’s like, why me from all these people? The frustration and anger they’ve built in me. Every single small thing I’ve ever done, they would jump on it and put a spotlight on it,” he said.

The impact this has had on my partner and my mother… it’s my case, but so much has been put on these people, they are feeling my pain.”

“Put it all together – all the problems at work, all the money I’ve given to lawyers, I still don’t have a car when my friends had a car at 18, my mum is a single parent, my dad is dead, I lost every opportunity that ever came my way, and after 11 years of playing with my mental health, you want to send me to prison?” Nehls ends disbelievingly.

What do you think of Nehls’ story?

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Johnathan is Editor-in-Chief of Lovin Malta, and an award-winning Maltese journalist interested in social justice, politics, minority issues, music and food. Follow him at @supreofficialmt on Instagram, and send him news, food and music stories at [email protected]

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