John Maddison Tower, Sydney Australia.
In another day of emotional testimonies, Lindt Cafe Siege hostage escapee Paolo Vasallo told the New South Wales Coroners Court inquest on Friday that “I made the point that if i was going to get out of this cafe I didn’t want to leave there without making a difference”. Vasallo explained this by saying as soon as he was able to escape the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place that he immediately spoke with police providing information about the situation inside the cafe that may be able to assist his fellow workmates and hostages.
Paolo had been employed at the Lindt Cafe since 2012 as a supervisor and was close to fellow workmates in store manager Tori Johnson and barista Harriette Denny. Vasallo said it wasn’t uncommon for the three to get together first thing in the morning, particularly on Mondays and discuss the weekend events. Vasallo also made a point that “Tori Johnson was not only the store manager but considered him to be a friend, He was a good guy”.
Vasallo said that his first inclination that something was wrong was when fellow Lindt Cafe employee Jarrod Morton-Hoffman came into his office and requested Tori Johnson’s keys from his bag. Vasallo had asked Morton-Hoffman why he needed the keys. Morton-Hoffman replied Tori told us we have to lock the cafe down. Vasallo noticed an Armaguard vehicle outside and thought something may have been occurring outside and noticed several people gathered in the middle of the cafe. When he walked closer to the group he noticed Man Haron Monis holding a gun. Monis demanded everyone’s wallets and ID’s be placed on a table near the cash register area.
Vasallo told Friday’s inquest that he noticed Monis was wearing a black backpack and that it didn’t look like anything was coming from it. Vasallo said he seemed Monis was more intent on concentrating on the gun he was holding.Monis did tell the hostages that he had a bomb inside the cafe and another at Circular Quay. Vasallo told the inquest that he formed the view a couple of hours later into the siege, that he believed in a case for a bomb not being in his backpack or in Circular Quay.Vasallo said Monis seemed to be making it up.
In terms of placement inside the Lindt Cafe, Vasallo was situated on the Phillip Street windows and was some distance away from Monis. Monis did pay particular attention to Vasallo when he moved out of centre of the window. Vasallo claimed he had seen police nearby and thought by moving out of the way they (the police) may be able to take a shot at Monis. According to Paolo Vasallo, Monis quickly moved in on him grabbing him by the collar and felt Monis’s gun at his neck.
When asked to read statements made to police days after the siege, Vasallo told the inquest that every time he read it, it made him cry, “It just upsets me”.
One thing very noticeable during Paolo Vasallo’s testimony at Friday’s inquest was that he was at times quite emotional, pausing for sometime, covering his face with his hands, but when asked if he wished to have a break, he stoically braced himself and continued to answer questions from the bar. Vasallo when asked about his current employment status revealed he was not working and had not worked since the siege. He was also asked if he had been back to the Lindt cafe since the siege and replied that he had, but was unable to stay for more than five minutes.
When asked about how Monis had treated the other hostages, Vasallo noticed that Monis was becoming annoyed at the 82 year old John O’Brien who refused Monis requests to lay on the floor and for some reason was annoyed at Stefan Balafoutis, whom Monis dubbed the ‘White Shirt Man” due to Balafoutis wearing of a white shirt. Vasallo also noticed Monis becoming angry at Robyn Hope. According to Vasallo. Monis described her as a “radical Aussie” and did not like her. Louisa Hope told her mother to be quiet.
Vasallo told the inquest he came to the conclusion he needed to escape and figured out a plan of exit whilst during a toilet break, which Monis had allowed by asking each hostage to raise their hand and would be accompanied by Fiona Ma to the respective gender cubicles. Vasallo on his first visit to the bathroom noticed boxes and could make out the back door. On his next toilet break again accompanied by Fiona Ma, Vasallo told her he was going to make an escape. He asked Fiona to come with him, but she declined saying to Vasallo ‘She couldn’t leave people behind”.
Vasallo and Ma returned to their places at the window. Vasall heard some noises and noticed John O’Brien and Stefan Balafoutis make a run for it through the Phillip Street entrance doors. Vasallo indicated he took this as a cue to escape. He chose not to exit the same door as O’Brien and Balafoutis for fear of being shot by Monis. Instead he chose the back door and forced his way out of the fire escape barred doors.
Vasallo told the inquest as soon as he made it it out, he immediately told police outside “You have to go in, He’s going to shoot someone. If you wait somebody is going to die” Vasallo said “My leaving was about providing police further info. I was 100% certain he was going to kill someone” Vasallo told police after his immediate escape that “What are you guys doing? You cant wait, don’t wait for this guy. There are people in there i cared about”.
Vasallo became tearful when he discussed his earlier morning coffee shared with Tori Johnson, with a long pause, Paolo said he told Tori about his kids and Tori told him about him visiting his mum, he seemed happy”. It was a normal chat which we normally did”.
Vasallo also told the inquest he was of the belief that “It was never on the cards to end happily, I wanted the police to end it on their terms and give the people a chance, half a chance. The way it ended killed me”
When asked by counsel about whether Monis did have a bomb, Vasallo responded by saying “I dont want to put money on it”
The inquest which is being presided over by State Coroner Magistrate Michael Barnes and is assisted by Counsel Jeremy Gormly SC, Sophie Callan and Jason Downing will continue on Monday.
Photo credit acknowledgment: Story header photo taken from AAP: Dan Himbrechts
For further information regarding the Lindt Cafe Siege inquest visit: Inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege