‘Where will it all dovetail?’ Revisiting the criminal landscape preceding the Caruana Galizia assassination

In one of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s pithier observations, the journalist had questioned at which point would Malta’s series of gangland murders and car bombs come together to form a coherent narrative, and whether such intimate connections had a political bind

The key to the problematic hypothesis of a double-tiered conspiracy in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia - the existence of a middleman who facilitated the mastermind - lies in unravelling a complex web of financial transactions, probably originating from a foreign source of income processed by a Maltese bank.

This elusive piece of evidence would connect the mastermind to a criminal ring, or a handler already familiar with the Degiorgio brothers.

The second obstacle is to prove this lasting relationship with George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’, and Alfred Degiorgio ‘il-Fulu’, the material executors of the assassination, whom police investigators place higher up the criminal confraternity than Vince Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’.

The Caruana Galizia assassination was the last in a series of car bombs and gangland murders that had been previously portrayed as a chain of vendettas in the world of oil smuggling and drug trafficking.

“If the Degiorgios are connected to other car bombs, then there must be some form of financial relationship with this criminal ring, as recipients of hard cash or other forms of durable assets,” says one police investigator with knowledge of the Caruana Galizia investigation says.

All three accused, including Vince Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’, have claimed to be unemployed, yet they lived a far-from-penniless lifestyle, owning luxury cars and pleasure boats, although no immovable property. Property rents were paid in cash. Large transactions were wired to foreign recipients. Alfred Degiorgio played some €571,000 in Tumas-owned casinos. Now all three and George Degiorgio’s partner Adelina Pop are facing money laundering charges.

If all these assets were connected to criminal relationships – that is, pay-offs to carry out murders or bombs – what would happen when they are superimposed over the last 10 years of gangland murders and car bombs? It could certainly cast a light on the syndicates of drugs and oil smuggling.

“It is not too late for Malta to bring Daphne’s killer to justice in a credible manner,” the United States embassy said this week – imparting a tone of much-needed optimism – on the second anniversary of the assassination, while reminding the public of Malta’s long saga of unsolved car bomb murders. The US has been one of Malta’s unstinting partners in helping police investigators get to the Degiorgios. It has also been equally keen in pushing for Malta-sponsored sanctions against suspected oil smugglers Darren and Gordon Debono, the alleged members of a multi-million Libya-Italy smuggling operation. One can only wonder what insight could police investigators glean from the vaults of the shuttered Satabank, revealed to have processed millions in criminal transactions, including those for the Libya-Malta oil smuggling syndicate.

The other arrests

When the Caruana Galizia assassination suspects were arrested back in December 2017, police also arrested seven other men: one of them was Adrian Agius, son of murdered car dealer Raymond Agius ‘tal-Maskar’, shot dead in 2008 in the Butterfly Bar of Birkirkara. His killers were never apprehended.

Agius was never charged and it remains unclear why he and his brother had been apprehended, but he had already earned his dishonourable mention on Caruana Galizia’s blog. Despite wanting, in fact, the post carried a familiar ring of having been whispered by a police source, someone in the know.

She ‘wrote’ three times in one day – 12 October 2014 – about Agius. But the story of the day was news of the More Supermarkets ‘bust’ that left an alleged €40 million in debts after its prime mover ran away from the island. Agius held a directorship in companies tied to the More Supermarkets chain, whose main shareholder Ryan Schembri – cousin of bête noire Keith Schembri (he had yet to reach Panama notoriety) – had left Malta leaving millions in unpaid credit from the supermarket’s suppliers.

She first said Agius, a director of these companies, was part of a “crime gang” taking loans from businessmen wanting to avoid tax, and promised interest of 20% on alleged shipments of “meat from Brazil” – her quotation marks indicating a heightened sense of scepticism.
Minutes later, she placed Agius as a friend and close associate of drug dealer Terence Gialanze, who vanished in November 2012 at the age of 24, and is now presumed dead.

Gialanze had been a familiar theme for Caruana Galizia (he lived in Bidnija…). But it often came from tidbits of truth and rumour. Gialanze’s disappearance was noted in just terse snippets. When on 12 December, 2012, the double gangland hit saw Josef Grech ‘il-Yoyo’ shot in the head and Joseph Cutajar ‘il-Lion’ gunned down in Mosta, Caruana Galizia noted that the disappearance of Gialanze should be considered a murder investigation, given his alleged role in drugs and prostitution and proximity to the shooting.

Then, when in July 2013 the bodies of Mario Camilleri ‘l-Imniehru’ and his son Mario were found in a shallow grave in Birzebbugia, she was quick to resurrect the Gialanze disappearance and drug-related hits. Only that Mario snr’s brother-in-law was later arrested and charged with the murder, carried out over an apparent debt he was unable to pay.

Yet this time she used the occasion to hit out at then Labour home affairs minister Manuel Mallia, a former criminal defence lawyer who counted cocaine trafficker Mario Camilleri amongst his clients. “The last thing we need, in this horrible, escalating scenario, is a cocaine-traffickers’ lawyer as Police Minister. It doesn’t inspire public confidence at all.”

Then in 2014, once again Gialanze’s mention featured in a post related to the More Supermarkets bust, preceded by a disclaimer of sorts that a persistent rumour (delivered to her by “people from the warranted professions”, such was its apparent seriousness) needed letting out: was Manuel Mallia, one-time lawyer to the Paceville underworld, an investor in the Schembri-Agius ruse? Again there was no attempt at presenting a shred of evidence except for the suggestive headline.

“I can’t help thinking that all these stories are going to dovetail sooner or later” – she wrote, listing one by one the Maltese criminal almanac: sex and drugs in Paceville, police corruption, the More Supermarkets bust and the front it could have served for, the gangland vendettas and car bombs picking out those with connections to diesel smuggling, and again the disappearance of 23-year-old, luxury car and yacht-owner Terence Gialanze.

“Do we even realise that many of these cannot possibly be disparate and random occurrences?” she mused.

“An underworld of this nature,” she wrote later in 2016 when a car bomb dispatched fisherman and suspected smuggler Marco Cachia, “which has now moved into contract killings and the elimination of rivals, will definitely have a network in the country’s power structures, because the two go together.”
Familiar faces

There are some important connections that bring these small-island characters together.

For example, there is the murder of John Camilleri, 67, the businessman known as ‘Tas-Sapuna’, killed by a car bomb in October 2016.

The Bugibba car bomb that killed John Camilleri in 2016: he had been in a court feud with George Degiorgio over past monies owed at the time of the murder. The case remians unsolved
The Bugibba car bomb that killed John Camilleri in 2016: he had been in a court feud with George Degiorgio over past monies owed at the time of the murder. The case remians unsolved

“Everybody pretends there’s no pattern. The diesel smugglers are described as ‘fishermen’ or ‘restaurateurs’, and the drug smugglers are called long-distance lorry drivers or hauliers, or ‘unemployed family men’ or ‘businessmen’, though some of them are occasionally described as ‘known to the police’,” Caruana Galizia noted in her post of that day.

What was then unknown, but came to light only after the arrest of George Degiorgio, was a court feud between Degiorgio and Camilleri: the two men had been friends at one point, before Camilleri sued Degiorgio for thousands of euros owed on a property deal under threat of eviction since 2011. Camilleri was demanding that Degiorgio 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. Degiorgio was being represented by Nationalist MP and lawyer Mario de Marco; court witnesses included Degiorgio’s brother Alfred and Daren Debono ‘it-Topo’ – the latter charged with the failed HSBC heist of 2010, and also acquitted of a 2004 armed robbery together with Alfred Degiorgio and Vincent Muscat.

These are important connections only insofar as they help us trace the web of familiarity between businessmen, oil smugglers, drug traffickers… and perhaps those in power? It would be an eerie rejoinder to Caruana Galizia’s guarded observation on whether all these murders had to dovetail at some point.

Malta’s gangland killings are indeed inhabited by a dramatis personae of known faces: Jonathan Pace died in August 2014, mere months after being charged in April with the attempted murder of Vince Muscat; in February 2014 the bomb-maker Pietru Cassar ‘il-Haqqa’ was shot on his Zejtun doorstep, and before loan shark Joseph Galea ‘il-Gilda’ was killed outside his Marsa home. Before that there was the hit on Paul Degabriele ‘il-Suldat’ in Marsa – he himself was investigated for the 2012 murders of Joseph Cutajar ‘il-Lion’ and Josef Grech ‘il-Yoyo’, who in turn were gunned down after Cutajar had been cornered in an underground garage by two hitmen, among them Kevin Gatt, whom he shot dead; Cutajar was also among the suspects of the daring Casino di Venezia heist of 2010.

Not forgotten is the mysterious gunning-down in 2008 of Raymond Agius at 49, the father of Adrian Agius, murdered at the Butterfly Bar, Birkirkara when two men wearing crash helmets arrived on a motorcycle, one of them firing a pistol in the head.

And a quick fast-forward to February 2017, with yet another car bomb on Romeo Bone, who lost his legs in the murder attempt. Bone had been investigated in the murder of Gozo businessman Joe Baldacchino, though never charged; he had also been acquitted of an armed robbery charge, and acquitted of having stalked the discredited former police officer Mario Portelli, a witness who was supposed to have uncovered a mafia-style cabal run by former police inspector David Gatt – the latter acquitted of being the mastermind 2010 HSBC heist.

Even here, though never charged, the Degiorgio brothers were implicated in the 2010 HSBC heist because their names cropped up during the compilation of evidence against Gatt, today a lawyer, who was acquitted of the charge of being the heist’s mastermind.