The 2010 HSBC heist: the bizarre story of the lawyer police called ‘mafia don’

The botched HSBC heist pushed Malta’s police to charge a former inspector with 14 charges, among them masterminding three robberies. He was later acquitted, but the 10-year case mapped out links between the Maltese criminal fraternity

A state visit by the Italian president and the Isle of MTV concert of June 2010 proved to the ideal night for a daring heist on the HSBC headquarters in Qormi at around 7:45pm. 

The three criminals emerging form the bank included known types: Vincent Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’, and Fabio Psaila, who engaged in a shoot-out with police as they arrived on the scene, managing to escape before being arrested soon after. It was the most spectacular, albeit botched heist, since the December 2007 armed robbery on the Balzan branch of HSBC, where €1 million was stolen. 

But the most sensational of events was the arrest of David Gatt, a lawyer in the firm of Labour MP Chris Cardona, who had been sacked from the police force. 

Gatt was removed from the police force over Commissioner John Rizzo’s belief that the police inspector consorted with criminal types; a similar accusation was levelled against Ivan Portelli, a police inspector who had boarded a yacht to Gozo belonging to car dealer and police informant Raymond Agius ‘il-Maksar’ together with Jack Farrugia and judge Godwin Muscat Azzopardi. Both police officers had successfully challenged Rizzo’s dismissal in a constitutional court. 

But Gatt’s arrest in the HSBC heist was the first mapping out of the criminal network that, 10 years later, is still being mentioned in connection with the Caruana Galizia assassination. 

David Gatt, former police turned criminal defence lawyer
David Gatt, former police turned criminal defence lawyer

The arrest and ‘mafia don’ claims 

When he was arrested at his legal office, prosecuting inspector Joe Mercieca told the court he had found a Godfather movie poster hanging above his desk. A star witness, police constable Mario Portelli, claimed Gatt was obsessed with the structure of mafia organisations. 

Gatt was being charged not just with complicity in the HSBC heist, but also the €1 million haul from the HSBC branch in Balzan in 2007, and a hold-up on an Attard jewellery

Also mentioned in that initial court sitting was George Degiorgio ic-Ciniz: witness PC Jonathan Agius claimed he was feeling threatened by Gatt for having conducted a search on Degiorgio, who had been a person of interest in the Group 4 heist of 2000. 

Gatt was also charged with aiding criminal fugitives, specifically for seeking medical help for criminal Darren Debono ‘it-Topo’ who had been shot at by the Attard jewellery’s owner’s son in that robbery. Gatt was then the lawyer for Vince Muscat, accused together with Debono in the jewellery robbery. 

Gatt’s prosecution rested on the claims of one witness, a police constable, but also the zeal of Commissioner John Rizzo, who wanted Gatt sacked on the basis of previous accusations by his predecessor George Grech. 

John Rizzo
John Rizzo

According to Rizzo, Gatt had been intercepted in phone calls the Security Services were tapping from the G4S heist suspects. “Not only did he communicate more than once, but he communicated in such a way so as to give certain information as to how the suspect should act to police suspicion,” Rizzo said about Gatt’s conversations with George Briffa, known as ‘il-Piccoli’, one of the suspects in that heist. 

Rizzo said police had monitored Carmel Camilleri ‘il-Pissipellu’ and George Degiorgio, together with Briffa and Degiorgio’s brother Alfred ‘il-Fulu’ in connection with the G4S heist. Rizzo told a court that his “reliable information” – because the Security Service transcripts were not deposited in court at first – was that Gatt had called Briffa to tell him that they found a piece of “the Cadbury chocolate”, ostensibly a code to indicate the police had put together part of the puzzle. 

Brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio
Brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio

On his part, Gatt said he was being targeted by George Grech, because the former Commissioner had taken a fancy to a policewoman with whom Gatt had had a relationship with. When the transcripts of the MSS taps were removed from the court record, because the warrant for the telephone interceptions was never presented in court, the procedural bungle cost the prosecution its case. 

Mario Portelli 

The criminal case suddenly risked being jeopardised over the credibility of Mario Portelli, PC 99, when Gatt’s defence drilled holes into uncorroborated allegations by Portelli that the accused had been in contact with prison inmate Romeo Bone (Bone lost his legs in a car bomb explosion years later). Portelli claimed he had witnessed Gatt kissing a Bugibba restaurateur’s hand in mafia fashion, ostensibly to bolster the impression of Gatt’s mafia fixation. Portelli even alleged that Gatt and the restaurateur, Raymond Abela, were implicated in the murder of Renzo Borg, over a drug deal gone wrong. 

Mario Portelli livestream his detention by police officers from his father's home
Mario Portelli livestream his detention by police officers from his father's home

But Portelli was then already suffering from mental health problems, with Gatt’s defence alleging that he had been a Mount Carmel psychiatric patient, a fact that would reveal itself years later in his livestreamed rants on Joseph Muscat. His allegations however read like a Hollywood blockbuster: he claimed Gatt had made threats against the life of then President of the Republic Eddie Fenech Adami, that he had confided in him details of the Attard hold-up, and that he enjoyed calling himself ‘Zu’ Toto’, just as Sicilian mafia boss Toto Riina was called. Portelli claimed Gatt performed a mafia-style initiation rite for him: “he placed the holy picture in my hand, set it alight and then cut the palm of my hand with a knife to draw blood to the picture. He then spoke in Italian warning me that betrayal would cost me my life,” Portelli told the court. 

The court lashed out at the decision to charge Gatt on the strength of the testimony of a former police constable who had since been boarded out due to mental health issues. “Those who are entrusted with respecting and implementing justice don’t even possess a sense of justice,” Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona at the close of submissions in the criminal proceedings against Gatt. 

Gatt’s lawyers, Joe Giglio and Edward Gatt, mocked Portelli’s fantastical claims made by the witness. “This man has been involved in God-only-knows how many murders, how many arson attacks… he said he burned Saviour Balzan’s car, he said he was going to burn down the Attorney General’s house, burn down Eddie Fenech Adami’s house. You get the impression that the accused is not so much a capo dei capi, but a Dio degli Dei!” 

Acquittal and Kohhu request 

In January 2017, Gatt was cleared of involvement in the string of armed robberies: a total of 14 serious offences. Portelli’s credibility had been savaged, even though he appeared months later by the side of Democratic Party leader Marlene Farrugia when she clinched an electoral pact with PN leader Simon Busuttil. The court had noted that Portelli’s medical file “doesn’t speak well of his mental health.” 

Indeed, Portelli livestreamed his committal to Mount Carmel when he started broadcasting cryptic messages in which he asserts that Joseph Muscat owned the Egrant company – months after a magisterial inquiry decreed that previous claims made by the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia could not be proven and were not evidence-based – but also that the minister Chris Cardona was responsible for the murder of the journalist. 

All his claims hark back to previous newspaper reports, including a more recent, and stranger request: to Romeo Bone, a victim of a car bombing in which he survived but lost both his legs. Strange, because Portelli was convinced that Bone had been commissioned to carry out a hit on him. In fact, Bone had been arrested outside Portelli’s house by police surveillance. Bone, then aged 34, was charged with intent to murder Portelli in 2011, ostensibly over Portelli’s claims of Bone’s involvement in a criminal gang. Bone was freed of the charges a year later. “Tell police what you know,” Portelli said in one of his livestreams, addressing Romeo Bone. “I called the CID and told them to speak to you. But it seems my request has fallen on deaf ears... my advice to you, is not to fear to say the truth. The State will protect you. I will support you... nobody more than you can say what the truth is.” 

In 2018, Vincent Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’ filed a request, arguing that the negative pre-trial publicity regarding his alleged involvement in the Caruana Galizia murder would prejudice potential jurors against his case in the HSBC heist. He recently repeated his request in a new court application. 

Gatt and Caruana Galizia 

However, David Gatt was never too far off from notorious press headlines. In 2020 the criminal lawyer denied any involvement in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, saying the contents of a letter implicating him were “disgusting and sickening”. 

Gatt was mentioned in a note allegedly penned by former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri as a ‘script’ for what murder accused Yorgen Fenech should tell police under investigation. The letter described a scenario that pinned the car bomb on former economy minister Chris Cardona and reportedly described Dr Gatt as the “person who would coordinate everything" with the alleged killers. 

Gatt said he had absolutely no involvement in the killing. “I don’t even want to think about these things. I completely deny all the allegations contained in that letter and the people who are behind it know the truth. I am prepared to appear in front of the highest court in Malta to say that I never had any involvement in this horrible crime.”