Controversial evangelist movement the River of Love has distanced itself from the lead suspect in a brutal Sliema murder. 

Abner Aquilina, 20, told police he had been possessed by the devil at the time of the attack.

Paulina Dembska was brutally beaten to death in the early hours of Sunday morning

Police are yet to confirm whether the 29-year-old victim was also raped.

A video of Aquilina taken on New Years' Eve with a member of the River of Love movement, who described him as a "brother", has been widely shared on social media. 

Times of Malta has confirmed that a few hours before the murder took place, Aquilina attended a session of the controversial evangelist group River of Love. 

Headed by Gordon Manche, the group has repeatedly been in the headlines over controversial statements and positions particularly against homosexuals and other forms of sexuality. 

Contacted on Monday, Manche told Times of Malta he did not know anything about Aquilina.

"He was not part of River of Love and never was. We have nothing to do with him in any way," Manche said.

He added that he was "truly sad and shocked" by the news of the murder.

Members of the evangelist community however confirmed that Aquilina had attended a session a few hours before the murder took place and had spoken about "voices entering his thoughts".

The group has been linked to gay conversion therapy

One former member had told Times of Malta how Manche had tried to brainwash him during a one-on-one session, urging him to reject the devil who was responsible for his homosexuality. 

The government eventually introduced legislation outlawing gay conversion therapy. 

Manche had also been in the headlines in 2014 when he claimed a bout of temporary blindness former prime minister Joseph Muscat had suffered as a result of faulty stage lighting had actually been the result of God's divine intervention. 

Aquilina is currently being assessed at Mount Carmel Hospital after he told police that on the night of the murder of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska he was “doing God’s work” and that the devil had entered his thoughts.

During his brief interrogation, which was suspended pending a thorough mental evaluation, Aquilina referred to himself as “a soldier of God”, a phrase used by the fire-and-brimstone evangelist movement.   

Aquilina, a 20-year-old from Żejtun, has a history of juvenile police cases that date back to when he was 14 years old.  

Sources said he is still on probation for one petty crime committed two years ago.  

He also has a history of problem drug use and has in the past received sporadic help, sources said.  

Earlier on Monday Times of Malta reported how police believe he had no connection to the victim. 

“We are still trying to establish whether there could have been some link between the victim and the suspect but at present, we have not identified anything and we believe this was a random act,” a source said.   

According to a government notice, he had applied for a license to be a private guard and bouncer in 2019.    

Meanwhile, police are still waiting on the full results of an autopsy on Dembska, a polish national.

Her lifeless body was found at Sliema's Independence Garden, just below the popular promenade by a passer-by at around 6.30 am.

She had signs of violence around her head and on her chest.

Aquilina was arrested shortly after the body was found.

He was picked up by police outside nearby Balluta parish church after he raised a commotion inside the church, going up to the altar, overturning chairs and allegedly making threats before some men pulled him out and called the police. 

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