Murder suspect George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’ was associate of 2016 car bomb victim

George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’ ate at John Camilleri’s Bugibba restaurant, bought one of his properties and a speedboat, and even stalked his estranged wife at Camilleri’s behest for €7,000

John Camilleri, 67, was killed by a car bomb in Bugibba in October 2016
John Camilleri, 67, was killed by a car bomb in Bugibba in October 2016

Acquaintances, friends, associates in business, and finally, feuding in court over monies owed.

Murder suspect George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’ had been fending off a claim in court by his former friend John Camilleri for thousands of euros owed on a property deal under threat of eviction since 2011.

But on 31 October 2016, the arc of life brought 67-year-old property dealer ‘Giovann’ Camilleri ‘tas-Sapuna’ to a violent end, blown up in his car as he was driving away from one of his Bugibba properties at 7am.

Almost 12 months to the day, Degiorgio is now facing charges of having executed the assassination by car bomb of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The similarities stop there: a pattern of unsolved car bombs targeting members of the Maltese criminal underworld and associates.

But the arrests of Degiorgio and his brother Alfred ‘il-Fulu’, and heist suspect Vincent Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’ in connection with the Caruana Galizia assassination may have broken new ground: a trove of mobile phones dumped at sea just off the Marsa dock where Degiorgio ran his business, that police hope will shed light on the car bomb murders.

Additionally, the possibility of a common link between the Caruana Galizia and Camilleri murders.

Camilleri was suing Degiorgio, demanding that he pay him back over €52,000 for a St Paul’s Bay apartment he ‘sold’ him back in 1996 – not by legitimate property transfer, but through a verbal agreement.

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The case throws up a veritable cast of players and a small window into the world of what Maltese cops tend to describe as people ‘known to the police’.

In court, Degiorgio was being represented by Nationalist MP and lawyer Mario de Marco: the Marsa man had at one point been an unofficial driver and hanger-on for De Marco’s late father and PN grandee, Guido de Marco.

Witnesses included Degiorgio’s brother and Daren Debono ‘it-Topo’ – the latter charged with participating in the failed HSBC heist of 2010 as well as several other spectacular hold-ups before that.

In his claim of 2011, Camilleri said he was owed over €52,000 with interest from a property deal and the sale of speedboat to Degiorgio, and wanted the court to force the sale

He had entered into a verbal agreement with Degiorgio in 1996, to allow him to move immediately into one of his St Paul’s Bay apartments for the price of Lm30,000 (€71,000), which had to be paid within one year so that a property deed could be signed.

“I knew Gianni Camilleri when he had his restaurant in Bugibba called ‘Hannibal’, which I used to frequent,” Degiorgio recounted in his affidavit in November 2013. “Camilleri had mentioned he had a block of flats for sale. I told him I was looking for a place and was interested. He told me to check them out and gave me the keys to go see them. I went to see them that very moment.”

Degiorgio chose the penthouse at ‘Marushka’ flats on Triq l-Ghabex. But since at the time he had his own “judicial problems” in court, no property deed was signed. “At the time I had my own problems of a judicial nature, so I was not comfortable having a promise-of-sale agreement and contract done, and Gianni knew this.”

It made sense: not having an asset in his name also reduced the risk of losing it in the case of an adverse outcome in a criminal court.

Instead, they agreed that Degiorgio would pay him Lm25,000 of the full price, which he did in 1997, and then sign a formal contract once the pending Lm5,000 balance was settled.

“He gave me the key to the house there and then… we did not fix a date for when the balance would be paid. It was irrelevant anyway because I had paid him almost the full price.”

According to Degiorgio’s former partner, who testified in court, Camilleri would often be at Degiorgio’s place. “He came to the apartment many times for a coffee, we’d frequently have a drink there, he’d come to see the place…”

She even said that Degiorgio had paid Camilleri the Lm25,000 in cash – a common denominator in other deals.

The suspects were taken to court on Thursday, charged with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia
The suspects were taken to court on Thursday, charged with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

In 1999, Degiorgio acquired from Camilleri’s company Jetglass Limited a Maxum speedboat for the price of Lm11,500. According to witness Daren Debono, he had been with Alfred Degiorgio when George called his brother up and “told him to bring up cash because he was negotiating the purchase of a boat”. The pair went to meet George Degiorgio with the cash in hand, which was handed over to Camilleri at his restaurant.

But Camilleri claims that the purchase of the speedboat and another personal loan of Lm6,200, were part of the ongoing credit he had extended to Degiorgio, that left him with a pending balance of Lm22,700 (€52,800).

Degiorgio denied this. He said he had paid for the boat separately. “I gave him Lm11,500, before Daren Debono and my brother Alfred Degiorgio, at Hannibal restaurant. Afterwards I went to get the boat registered in my name. It is also untrue he loaned me money,” Degiorgio said, revealing the extent of his relationship with Camilleri.

“He once got me to stalk his wife, who was separating from him, because he wanted to know if she had another man. I spent a number of evenings following her on his instructions. He gave me some Lm3,000 in cash altogether. This was a payment, not a loan.”

Degiorgio said Camilleri had once asked him whether he was ready to sign the property contract. “I told him I was not yet ready and he understood, which is why I am surprised that this case was filed.”

The case was still ongoing after Camilleri’s death. The last witness to testify was Alfred Degiorgio in April 2017, who told the court that George Degiorgio had got rid of the boat in the meantime.

In the news: the Hannibal restaurant where Camilleri and Degiorgio met, consumed by flames in 2009
In the news: the Hannibal restaurant where Camilleri and Degiorgio met, consumed by flames in 2009

Camilleri’s lawyer, who is no longer involved in the case, was suggesting to Alfred Degiorgio that the Lm11,500 payment “was not intended for the boat but part of a wider business deal”.

Which business deal?

Camilleri’s original claim to court stated that in 1999, Degiorgio requested that he use the Lm25,000 paid on the property for the acquisition of the speedboat from his own company Jetglass, and for another Lm6,200 to be used as a loan.

It is a bizarre constitution of debt, that ultimately would have still left Degiorgio indebted to Camilleri for Lm22,700. The deal itself is never explicitly spelt out, although ostensibly the lawyer is only referring to the 1996 property deal.

Only two years before Camilleri’s civil claim, in what is possibly an unconnected event, the sunshade outside the Hannibal restaurant caught fire. The photo published in the press in September 2009 captures a roaring blaze consuming the exterior part of the restaurant. Having served as the meeting place of Camilleri and Degiorgio, it now looks like an enduring image of that one-time friendship of theirs.

Property-rich businessman

John Camilleri, known as Giovann, was involved in a number of companies that dealt in property.

His company Dove Trading Ltd, had €800,000 worth of property for resale and cash reserves of €2.3 million. It also owned rental property worth €137,000.

The company made a profit of €2.4 million in 2015, according to the accounts filed with the Malta Financial Services Authority.

Dove Trading is, in turn, the sole shareholder of Kings Properties and owns a 55% stake in Laguna Cruises. Camilleri was also the owner of the bathroom supplies store S&S Bathrooms.

Camilleri had a legal dispute with the heirs of his brother, Edgar, over the dissolution of the shareholding in Soap & Sponge Ltd, a bathroom supplier. Edgar died in February 2005, but in a judicial protest filed two years later, Soap & Sponge called on his heirs to liquidate their shareholding.

Soap & Sponge has not yet been struck off the MFSA’s registry of companies despite failing to submit any returns since 2001, when the brothers split.

Camilleri’s other interest is in Solair Developments, which runs the Solair Holiday Complex in St Paul’s Bay, not far from where the car bomb was detonated. According to company records, Camilleri and other family members indicated last year their desire to split the business and go their separate ways.

Massive car blast

The device that killed Camilleri was one of the most powerful car bombs seen in recent years, clearly intended to kill.

The car’s top was blown off and it ended on the roof of an apartment block.

Investigators collected CCTV footage from shops in St Paul’s Bay to try and track his vehicle’s movements.

Although Camilleri lived in Naxxar, he also used a flat in Triq il-Villeġġjatura, St Paul’s Bay where he ran his businesses. He left his apartment and drove out to Triq Paderborn. The explosion was the third such incident of 2016. The first car bomb, in January, killed fisherman Martin Cachia as he was driving on the Marsascala by-pass. In September, haulier Josef Cassar lost both his legs after a bomb blew up his van on Aldo Moro Road, Marsa.