A displaced panel in the false ceiling of a hotel bathroom led to the discovery of a drug cache which landed the room’s occupant in criminal proceedings before a Magistrates’ Court.

Frenchman Abiaka Gerson, 33, on a short holiday in Malta, seeking some respite from matrimonial problems back home, was on his last night at a Sliema hotel where he had checked in two days earlier, when the arrest took place.

Details of the episode emerged on Friday as the compilation of evidence kicked off, three days after the man’s arraignment when he pleaded not guilty and was remanded in custody.

Inspector Kevin Pulis, from the Drugs Squad, recalled how, on Easter Monday, members of his team had reported at a Sliema hotel acting upon “confidential and reliable information” that Mr Gerson, a hotel guest, was in possession of drugs.

It was around 8.30pm that the hotel receptionist indicated to the police officers the number of Mr Gerson’s room.

It was the man himself who let the officers in. After informing the occupant of the search warrant issued regarding the suspected presence of illicit substances, the party proceeded to search the room.

Upon entering the bathroom, the police noticed a “slightly displaced” panel in the box soffit of the ceiling. A closer inspection revealed a black plastic bag containing capsules filled with whitish powder, which they suspected to be cocaine.

Within minutes, Inspector Pulis had joined his men and arrested the hotel guest after informing him of his rights.

The cache consisted of 87 small capsules and a larger capsule, all filled with the suspected drug, the court was told. Some €125 in cash were also found upon the suspect’s person.

Under cross-examination, Inspector Pulis explained that the suspect had not been monitored upon his arrival in Malta and that the police operation had only kicked off upon receipt of the tip-off.

Moreover, the inspector confirmed that the hotel room had not been checked beforehand and that the search had not yielded other drug paraphernalia.

Another member of the search party, when pressed under cross-examination, explained that the search had immediately focused upon the bathroom ceiling since the soffit box, displaced by “a few millimetres”, had given away the fact that “there was something wrong”.

The same witness explained that the search had lasted some eight minutes and that the displaced panel had not been photographed before being opened to reveal the hidden drugs.

Court-appointed scientist Godwin Sammut confirmed that the drug was some 967.75 grams of cocaine, packed in four types of capsules which presented varying degrees of purity, ranging between 34% and 51%.

The expert explained how, according to international guidelines, less than a gram of powder was taken from some 10 capsules - each having nine grams - and was mixed to serve as a sample to determine the average purity of the drug.

Minimal amounts were taken so as to preserve the evidence as much as possible, the expert concluded.

The case continues.

Magistrate Neville Camilleri is presiding. Lawyers Franco Debono, Amadeus Cachia and Yanika Vidal were defence counsel.