Malta’s mystery: gangland wars and no justice

A litany of bomb attacks and gangland murders have peppered the last 10 years: yet they remain unsolved, and with them, the thread that connects them to the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination

Death of Raymond Caruana in March 2015: the theft of some 20kg cocaine from his Zebbug garage ignited a gang war that left many dead
Death of Raymond Caruana in March 2015: the theft of some 20kg cocaine from his Zebbug garage ignited a gang war that left many dead

Report by Matthew Vella, MaltaToday, Jacob Borg and Ivan Martin for Times of Malta as part of a joint collaboration coinciding with the three-year anniversary of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

In late 2011, three masked and heavily-armed men walked into a Żebbuġ warehouse owned by a major narcotics smuggler.

With no shots fired, they walked out with a 20-kilogram shipment of cocaine that police investigators say had an estimated street value of €1.4 million.

But this drug heist, which for the past nine years went unreported, is believed to have been the last straw in brewing gangland tensions which triggered a series of violent killings that shocked the country.

Nearly a decade of unsolved car bombings and shootings later, one of Malta’s most senior police investigators says the “vendetta war” saw a major criminal network dismantled.

Enter what police sources describe as two “untouchable” siblings – Adrian and Robert Agius – known as Tal-Maksar. Believed to be linked to Malta’s underworld, Robert Agius has been named as one of the suppliers of the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, by Vincent Muscat ‘il-Koħħu’, one of the men accused of carrying out the assassination.     

But are the police connecting the dots between these violent gangland killings? This joint report by Times of Malta and MaltaToday pieces together the rise of Tal-Maksar.

In his court testimony, Melvin Theuma had said that it was Tumas magnate Yorgen Fenech who informed him that Vincent Muscat had told police about his involvement. “Kohhu is talking... listen, go tell Mario (Degiorgio, brother of George and Alfred) that he is talking...” Theuma then said that Fenech told him: “‘Make sure you send a message to Maksar because that’s where the bomb was made.’ I did not even give it any weight because I don’t know who Maksar is.” His claim not to know the Maksar brothers was given short shrift in court by Marc Sant, the lawyer of Vince Muscat. “You did not ask Fenech who the Maksar brothers were? You say Yorgen knew them, yet you the middleman did not know about them?” Theuma denied knowing who they were. “I just hear they are called ‘Maksar’, but I’ve never spoken to them, nor do I know of them or the way they look.”
In his court testimony, Melvin Theuma had said that it was Tumas magnate Yorgen Fenech who informed him that Vincent Muscat had told police about his involvement. “Kohhu is talking... listen, go tell Mario (Degiorgio, brother of George and Alfred) that he is talking...” Theuma then said that Fenech told him: “‘Make sure you send a message to Maksar because that’s where the bomb was made.’ I did not even give it any weight because I don’t know who Maksar is.” His claim not to know the Maksar brothers was given short shrift in court by Marc Sant, the lawyer of Vince Muscat. “You did not ask Fenech who the Maksar brothers were? You say Yorgen knew them, yet you the middleman did not know about them?” Theuma denied knowing who they were. “I just hear they are called ‘Maksar’, but I’ve never spoken to them, nor do I know of them or the way they look.”

Who are the Agius brothers?

They are the sons of Raymond Agius ‘tal-Maksar’, a suspected contraband cigarette smuggler with interests in construction and a car dealership, who was shot dead in 2008 in what is believed to have been a hit ordered by a rival smuggler.

Police investigators think Agius senior’s rivals believed he was tipping off police about his competitors’ smuggling activities in exchange for protection. He was shot twice in the head by an assassin in a motorcycle helmet while at Butterfly Bar in Birkirkara. The murder remains unsolved.

The gangland war

It was in the last week of November 2011, that a heist was carried out on suspected trafficker Raymond Caruana’s warehouse along the Żebbug bypass.

The thieves, three masked men, stole around 20 kilos of cocaine destined to be shipped out of Malta again.

At the time, Caruana was considered a major player in the underworld, according to police sources. Caruana had suspected three known criminals and close associates of his of carrying out the heist: Paul Degabriele, a former soldier known as ‘is-Suldat’, Joseph Cutajar known as ‘il-Lion’, and Alfred Degiorgio known as ‘il-Fulu’ – the latter charged with carrying out the car bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Police believe Caruana, furious over the betrayal and theft of the drugs, had hired two hitmen, a 32-year-old from Għaxaq, and another 32-year-old of Fgura to murder il-Lion, whom he suspected of organising the cocaine robbery. Towards the end of 2012, the hitmen planned to shoot him in an underground complex of Marsascala garages, but the hit went awry and il-Lion, known to carry a concealed weapon, shot his way out and killed the two men.

A bomb was also found under a car belonging to is-Suldat. The device, however, did not detonate. Investigators believed that, just like the assassins sent to kill il-Lion, the bomb had been placed there as payback for the stolen cocaine.

Scene of the crime in Mosta where Joseph Cutajar was shot dead in his car.
Scene of the crime in Mosta where Joseph Cutajar was shot dead in his car.

Meanwhile, il-Lion posted bail for shooting the would-be assassins sent to kill him. But he was shot dead soon in December 2012, as he emerged from his car in Mosta. He was shot 12 times with a Kalashnikov assault rifle in what was described by police sources as a professional hired hit.

Sources said is-Suldat had approached the police with information saying the explosive had originated from a “Żejtun man”. In May 2013, is-Suldat, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Marsa.

Not long after, the Żejtun man, alleged bomb-maker Peter Cassar, or ‘Pietru l-Ħaqqu’, was shot dead outside his home in February 2014.

Crime scene  – the dead body of Pietru Cassar, 'il-Haqqa', at the scene of the crime police investigation
Crime scene – the dead body of Pietru Cassar, 'il-Haqqa', at the scene of the crime police investigation

In March 2015, Caruana himself was finally killed, shot dead with a spray of machine gun fire in the San Blas neighbourhood of Żebbuġ.

Haulier Josef Cassar survived a car bomb in Marsa in 2016, losing his legs in the horrific attack. Then there is the car bomb that assassinated the 67-year-old businessman Giovann Camilleri ‘tas-Sapun’ in October 2016, followed by the “most terrifying” bomb, in February 2017, when Romeo Bone’s legs were both blown clean off when a bomb went off in his car at the Msida junction.

On 31 October 2016, Camilleri, 67, was blown up in his car as he was driving away from one of his Bugibba properties at 7am
On 31 October 2016, Camilleri, 67, was blown up in his car as he was driving away from one of his Bugibba properties at 7am

Despite the long list of men killed in bombs and shootings, police have failed to bring anyone to justice on this murderous spree.

Horrific: the car bomb aftermath that nearly killed Romeo Bone
Horrific: the car bomb aftermath that nearly killed Romeo Bone

More Supermarket connection

In the complex, inter-connected world of Maltese crime, it appears salient now that when Daphne Caruana Galizia first crowbarred the name of Adrian Agius into one of her posts on a suspicious supermarket bust – the one, single reference she ever made to him – that same name would crop up in a mysterious event that took place just one year later.

It was the death of lawyer Carmel Chircop, 51, shot four times in a Birkirkara multi-storey garage on the morning of October 8, 2015.

Ryan Schembri (left) departed from Malta in late 2014 after his supermarket business amassed millions in debt. Carmel Chircop, who was shot dead in 2015, had been one of his creditors
Ryan Schembri (left) departed from Malta in late 2014 after his supermarket business amassed millions in debt. Carmel Chircop, who was shot dead in 2015, had been one of his creditors

Since then, little has been disclosed of the ongoing investigations into the murder of a lawyer who enjoyed extensive community bonds and other business relationships.

But Chircop, it turns out, had been of the ‘investors’ in the mysterious More Supermarkets bust, having loaned a substantial sum to the men connected to the supermarket chain where millions are said to have been lost after owner Ryan Schembri fled the island.

In 2014, More Supermarkets left huge debts it owed to both traders and other associates who had loaned Schembri and his business large sums of money.

And it was in March 2014, that Chircop personally had entered into a contract with Ryan Schembri, then appearing as director of the company Erom Limited (the reverse of More) to loan him the sum of €750,000.

Appearing as debtors in the contract were Schembri’s business partner Etienne Cassar, but also Adrian Agius: now known as one of the men first arrested by police in December 2017 in connection with the assassination of Caruana Galizia, and later released on police bail.

Together, Schembri, Cassar, and Agius, owned shares in another joint company called Interaa Holdings. Both Cassar and Agius resigned their positions in October 2014.

According to their contract, Chircop agreed to loan the three businessmen, €750,000 interest-free. The contract suggests the loan had already taken place, since a €50,000 repayment had taken place on the day of the contract itself, and that a further payment was expected by the end of the month, and a further €50,000 to be paid by April 30, 2014.

A final payment of €600,000 had to be paid by not later than February 15, 2015 – less than a year later. The contract, however, bound the creditors to repay the entire sum within seven days of being notified by Chircop of any default in payment terms.

Schembri and Cassar, who together owned Cassar & Schembri Marketing – the company that supplied foodstuffs to the More Supermarket chain – issued two loan notes to Chircop, personally in their names for the debt.

But Agius was guarantor on the debt, presenting as a special hypothec his grand villa property.

Chircop exempted the notary from carrying out the usual searches on the title and the property guarantee.

Three months later, Schembri started transferring his supermarket business to a new investor, the restaurateur Darren Casha, who was then under the impression that the More Supermarkets chain was in excellent financial health. Schembri later fled the island in September 2014.

In October 2015, Carmel Chircop was murdered in cold blood.

Six months after Chircop’s murder, Adrian Agius took recourse to the law courts in a bid to cancel the notarial deed that had locked in his property as guarantee for the €750,000 debt.

Chircop’s widow, however, refused the claim, insisting that Agius himself had informed the victim “to take his villa as repayment for the loan.”

Yet, neither party ever made it to court to take a stand on the alleged claim.

In September 2017, the house Agius put up as a guarantee was sold for €1.8 million.

Soon after, following various deferments, Agius’s lawyer Arthur Azzopardi told the court in January 2018 that Agius was renouncing the case after an out-of-court settlement with the Chircop heirs.

Azzopardi was contacted for comment but insisted he did not represent Agius.

Walking away from drug charges

Robert Agius, 36, had been arraigned in May 2012, charged with heroin-trafficking conspiracy, cocaine possession and illegal keeping of live ammunition.

The charges were serious, but this summer he walked away from scot-free.

Agius had been identified as a suspect after police caught a woman who had landed in Malta from Cairo, Egypt with two plastic blocks filled with heroin.

The woman gutted Agius and told police that she had agreed to smuggle drugs in for him.

In a controlled delivery, set up by the Drug Squad, police swapped the narcotics with decoy wooden slabs, and caught Agius receiving them on tape.

However, once proceedings against Agius began, the woman – a crucial witness in the case –persistently refused to testify.

As proceedings dragged on, Agius’s lawyers filed a constitutional application, arguing that their client’s right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time had been breached. More than six years had passed since Agius was arraigned.

Then, in July, citing case law, a court declared that the prosecution had not sufficiently proved the accused’s intention to sell or traffic drugs.

As for the cocaine possession charge, the court observed that the suspect substance had never been scientifically analyzed by the police and so they had not even proven that it was an illegal drug. All that was proved was the possession of a live bullet. For that Agius made off with a €500 fine.

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