Four charged with trafficking 15kg of cocaine

Police acting on a tip off discovered 15kg of cocaine with an estimated street value of €2 million

Police said on Wednesday they arrested six people after the discovery of 15kgs cocaine hidden in a St Paul’s Bay Garage
Police said on Wednesday they arrested six people after the discovery of 15kgs cocaine hidden in a St Paul’s Bay Garage

Four men have been charged in connection with recent raids by the Drugs Squad which netted 15kg of cocaine, estimated to be worth €2 million.

Mark-Andrew Muscat, 43, from San Gwann and Gordon Schembri, 37, from Floriana were arraigned together with Alfio Rosario Cosimo Aiello, 31, and Santo Benito Reina, 33, both from Catania, accused of conspiracy to traffic cocaine, as well as the supply and aggravated possession of the drug.

Police inspectors Mark Anthony Mercieca and Jonathan Pace told magistrate Rachel Montebello that on 12 September this year, the police had been observing a property in Buġibba after receiving a tip off that a drug deal would take place. Muscat’s motorcycle was spotted, stopping next to a Fiat car with Italian number plates and saw a bag being passed into the car. Police moved in and arrested the men, finding 5kg cocaine in the bag. More cocaine was discovered in a garage connected to one of the men.

The rest of the cocaine had been discovered on Tuesday, inside a garage in St Paul’s Bay, which was searched after being cordoned off by police officers.

A subsequent, related, search conducted at a residence in Gżira had resulted in the arrests of two Maltese and four Italians, according to a police statement issued at the time, which did not specify the suspects’ gender or age.

Three Maltese men were later arrested after another operation in Ħamrun and Qormi, in which the police discovered more cocaine and heroin.

Muscat, who told the court that he worked for a pharmaceutical company, entered a plea of not guilty. His lawyer Edmund Cuschieri, requested bail.

Inspector Mercieca objected to his release, telling the court that although Muscat had released a sworn statement about the facts of the case, the large amount of drugs involved and the fact that the police investigations are still ongoing militated against bail.

The risk of tampering with evidence is real because a number of civilians, homeowners and vehicle owners, are yet to testify. Other individuals suspected of involvement had been released on police bail.

Cuschieri argued that withholding bail should be the exception not the rule and that it would be unjust to keep him under arrest because of witnesses. There were also humanitarian reasons for bail, he said. Muscat’s son had just undergone major surgery and needed his father’s care at this time, he added.

Muscat was denied bail, the court stating that it was not satisfied that the defendant would not attempt to interfere with the investigation or witnesses. “It also observes that the fact of his possible cooperation with the police and release of a sworn statement do not exclude the possibility of subornation of witnesses.”

A request that he be held at the Forensic Unit could not be upheld as it was beyond the court’s powers, but instructions were given to the prison authorities to assess him and detain him in the appropriate facility.

Aiello, who told the court he worked as a baker, was arraigned next. Inspector Mercieca explained that police had been conducting surveillance in Bugibba, acting on confidential information.

At one time a motorcycle identified by the tip off was seen making contact with an Italian registered vehicle, handing over a yellow bag, he said. The motorcycle drove off when police moved in, but was stopped not far from the scene, being found to be carrying blocks of cocaine.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri, appearing for Aiello, informed the court that he would be pleading not guilty. Bail was not being requested at this stage, Debono said.

Reina, who had been arrested in the same vehicle as Aiello, was next to be arraigned. He is also being accused of conspiracy to traffic drugs, procuring them and importing them into Malta. He told the court that he was currently unemployed.

Reina’s lawyer, Stefano Filletti, said the Sicilian wished to plead not guilty. Bail was not requested at this stage.

Last to be charged was Gordon Schembri, who besides the drug trafficking charges, was also accused of dangerous driving, breaching a suspended sentence and bail conditions.

The court was told that Schembri had been driving a Honda SH350i and had collided with the pursuing police vehicle, before escaping on foot. He was subsequently arrested at his girlfriend’s house, said the inspector.

Lawyer Kathleen Calleja Grima assisted Schembri. She informed the court that he would be exercising his right to silence. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf.

In every case, the court upheld the prosecution’s requests for freezing orders to be issued over all of the defendants’ property