By Stephen Grey
VALLETTA (Reuters) – One day in the summer of 2017, Vince Muscat dropped his friend Alfred Degiorgio at the Busy Bee, a harbour-front café near Malta’s capital renowned for its pastries stuffed with ricotta cheese. Degiorgio didn’t stay long.
A few minutes later, he jumped back into the car to report to Muscat that they had a contract: To kill the island’s top journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Daphne was blown up by a car bomb on Oct. 16, 2017. The murder shocked Europe and revealed the island’s violent, criminal underbelly. For years Daphne had run a popular blog famous for its punchy political opinions and allegations of corruption. It had made her many enemies.
This is the previously untold account of the plot to kill Daphne, a contract killing that earned the killers just 150,000 euros. Muscat revealed these sensational details to the police in April 2018, in the hope of getting a pardon. Details of his confession were passed to Reuters last year but were not published until now to avoid damaging the investigation.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (no relation) has so far refused Vince Muscat’s request for a pardon, even as he granted a pardon and immunity from prosecution to another figure in the plot, a taxi driver called Melvin Theuma. Theuma has admitted police that he acted as a middleman between the killers and the person or people who ordered Daphne’s murder. He has been released under police protection, according to a police source, and is due to testify in court on Friday.
“It’s a complete injustice that Theuma should give evidence against Vince when Vince was the one that led police to him and helped solve this case. He is the one who should be pardoned, not Melvin,” said Pauline Muscat, Vince’s wife, speaking publicly for the first time.
Officials said Theuma was arrested on Nov. 14 as part of a separate investigation into illegal gambling, however. After his detention, he offered information about Daphne’s killing and provided evidence that led to the arrest six days later of Yorgen Fenech, one of Malta’s leading businessmen, they said. Fenech is being questioned by police. Fenech’s lawyer declined to comment and Theuma’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
SEEKING A PARDON
The first arrests in the investigation took place on Dec 3, 2017 when Muscat and his two alleged accomplices, brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio, were charged with Daphne’s murder. All three denied the charges. After lengthy preliminary hearings, they were indicted in July to stand trial by jury at an undetermined future date.
Muscat, who was known to police for minor misdemeanours, including importing birds, agreed to spill the beans in April 2018 after police said his statement would only be used as evidence if Muscat obtained a pardon. A person briefed in detail about Muscat’s confession relayed the contents to Reuters. Muscat told police that the killers were paid 150,000 euros to murder Daphne, with 30,000 euros delivered upfront, this person said. They used a bomb bought from Maltese gangsters and supplied by the Italian mafia.
Police have said they believe Muscat was a henchman for George Degiorgio, known by the nickname “Ic-Ciniz” (the Chinese), leader of an organised crime group. Alfred Degiorgio, known as “Il-Fulu” (the Bean), was a member of the same gang, according to police. The brothers continue to deny Daphne’s murder and have declined to answer police questions. Marc Sant, a lawyer defending Vince Muscat, declined to comment, as did lawyers for the brothers.
In interviews with police, Muscat named Theuma, the taxi driver, as the middleman who arranged Daphne’s killing, the person familiar with his confession said. Muscat drove Alfred Degiorgio to several meetings with Theuma, Muscat told police. He said he didn’t hear the two men’s discussions about killing Daphne, but Alfred Degiorgio briefed him after each meeting. Details of the meetings were also relayed by Alfred to George Degiorgio, Muscat said.
According to Muscat’s account, after getting the contract to kill Daphne, the plotters first decided to shoot her and bought a rifle with telescopic sights. Muscat told investigators the rifle was supplied from Italy, and that Alfred Degiorgio was to fire the weapon.
The gang began their work by watching Daphne’s movements, tailing her car and observing her home, according to Muscat’s confession. They identified a window where she often sat while working on her laptop. At one stage, sandbags were placed on a wall which had a view of the window to provide a stable rest for the rifle.
Muscat told investigators how, as surveillance continued, they followed Daphne on a family outing to the Phoenicia Hotel, by the gates of Malta’s capital Valletta, and to the airport when she and her husband, Peter, went on a foreign trip.
Muscat said that Theuma had helped watch the couple’s car in the airport carpark to identify when she returned home. A member of Daphne’s family confirmed she had visited the Phoenicia Hotel on Aug. 17 and 26 and had travelled abroad with Peter from Sept. 16 to Sept. 21.
After their scouting operation, the gang decided, for reasons not yet explained, that it would be too difficult to shoot Daphne, according to the account of Muscat’s confession given to Reuters.
Returning the rifle to the supplier, they were then provided with a bomb and shown how to detonate it, according to Muscat. Police say they have identified those suspected of supplying the weapons and hope to make arrests soon.
Daphne lived in the village of Bidnija where she had a house in a walled compound. She usually parked her car inside the compound. That posed an obstacle to her would-be killers, who needed access to her vehicle to place the bomb. In case they had to climb into her garden to reach the car, they devised a special leash to control the dog that ran around inside.
But on the evening, Oct. 15, 2017, Muscat and the Degiorgio brothers realised the car had been parked outside the gate to the compound. In an interview with Reuters, Daphne’s son, Matthew, previously described how he had parked the car in the road that night, something he did quite often.
In the early hours of Oct. 16, police have said in court, the two Degiorgios and Muscat went to Bidnija to plant the bomb.
The person briefed on Muscat’s confession said Muscat alleges Alfred broke into the car by levering open the rear-quarter window passenger side. With George watching out from a high vantage point, and Muscat watching the lane outside Daphne’s house, Alfred crept inside the car and put the bomb under the driver’s seat.
In court hearings, police described how telephone data revealed that George Degiorgio later boarded a yacht and was in the Grand Harbour of Valletta when Daphne left her home just before 3 p.m. on Oct. 16.
According to the prosecution case, George Degiorgio sent a text message from the yacht to a device inside Daphne’s car which detonated the bomb and killed her.
According to Muscat’s account, the balance on the cash price for her killing was handed to Alfred Degiorgio by Melvin Theuma within 10 days of the bombing at a place called Ramla Eaz in Zejtun in the south of Malta. Police sources declined to discuss details of any financial transactions. Lawyers for the brothers declined to comment.
((reporting by Stephen Grey; editing by Janet McBride) )