Secrets of the Malta Journalist’s Murder Revealed

How the three men charged with murder allegedly triggered the car bomb—but not who ordered Panama Papers muckracker Daphne Caruana Galizia assassinated.

AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud

ROME—On Oct. 16, George DeGiorgio, a 55-year-old Maltese thug who goes by the nickname “ic-Ciniz” in criminal circles, was drifting off Valletta’s Grand Harbor on his luxury cabin cruiser, waiting for a phone call from his younger brother Alfred.

About 30 miles away, Alfred, known as il-Fulo, along with 55-year-old Vincent Muscat, known as il-Kohhu, were scouting the movements of muckraking journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s rental car. When the journalist’s car reached a certain point on the hill near her house, Alfred, who was reportedly waiting on the crest, was supposed to call his older brother. George would then use a separate doctored up cellphone to send a text message to detonate the bomb they had affixed to the frame below Galizia’s rental-car driver’s seat, Maltese police say.

The only problem was that just a few minutes before Galizia pulled out of her driveway, George DeGiorgio realized the detonating cellphone was out of credit, meaning he wouldn’t be able to send the deadly SMS at all, according to the arrest warrant prepared by the team of investigating prosecutors trying the case.

Taking a risk that he might miss the crucial call from his brother, he used his phone to instead call the local Maltese Telecom company and top up the deadly cellphone with $5.

After the murder, that blunder led police investigators straight to Galicia’s killers. Police were able to triangulate all calls made from cell towers along the road where Galizia died, which they could then connect to other phones, eventually converging on George DeGiorgio’s boat in the Grand Harbor.

Not long after the older DeGiorgio brother topped up the phone, he received the call from his younger brother—the bomb had gone off, and Galizia was quite literally blown to bits. A few minutes later, DeGiorgio sent another text message from his regular phone, this time to his wife, commanding her to: “Open a bottle of wine for me, baby.”  Presumably, he wanted to celebrate the successful hit, for which he and the others most assuredly expected handsome payment.

The DeGiorgio brothers, along with Muscat, who shares a last name with Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, but who is apparently not related, were brought to court Thursday for an evidence-compilation hearing, which is the Maltese judicial procedure used to determine if there is enough evidence to try a case after the suspects have been arraigned.

The three were arrested in early December along with seven other men in a sting operation that centered around the “potato shed” on the harbor of Marsa on the seedy industrial side of Valletta’s Grand Harbor, which is the main hideout for the organized crime gang that Muscat and the DeGiorgio brothers were known to part of.

The shed was built as a warehouse for Maltese potato exports, but has since become a denizen for drug dealers and other criminals, according to a report in Malta Today, which noted that locals frequently spotted BMWs, Mercedeses, and Corvettes in the area, presumably to pick up drugs. The men accused of murder described themselves as unemployed, even taking advantage of court-appointed lawyers,  but have declined to cooperate with them. A week ago, someone posted a photo of the “unemployed” George DiGiorgio’s Corvette Stingray, valued at around €70,000, parked inside the potato shed.

All three men had escaped the law more than once. Most recently, Alfred DeGiorgio was given a suspended sentence in mid-August for his role in a $2 million heist from an armored security van. In 2004, he was also arrested for robbery along with Muscat and Darren Debono, a former Maltese soccer player who was arrested in Lampedusa, Italy, shortly after Galizia was murdered. The men were eventually acquitted after the case stalled in the courts for more than a decade, according to local court records, which cite “lack of proof” as the judge’s reasoning after the main witness in the case fell victim to dementia and could not testify reliably in the trial.

The other seven men who were arrested have all been released on bail, and are thought to be involved in lesser aspects of the attack, including logistics like procuring bomb parts, hacking into car-rental records, and general assistance to the main killers quite possibly without knowing their motive, according to the wide ranging arrest warrant.

The perpetrators had been careful in planting the bomb, using an electronic device that remotely unlocks the car via satellite without triggering the alarm system, which they reportedly used to install the bomb without leaving a trace.

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The FBI has been assisting Maltese detectives to determine whether the bomb was made from Semtex, which is not produced in Malta, or from TNT, which is; those results have not yet been released to the public, in part not to tip off anyone who might have assisted the perpetrators with the procurement of materials or building of the explosive device.

Police had set up sophisticated surveillance systems inside the potato shed and were able to make their arrests when they were sure all three of the suspected killers were there.

A search of the seabed in the area turned up the cellphone used to detonate the bomb that killed Galizia along with eight other similarly doctored cellphones that investigators believe could be linked to five other car bombings carried out in Malta since 2016.

Galizia had written about all of those car bombs, linking them to a lucrative diesel-smuggling business between Islamic State terror group fighters in Libya and criminal gangs in Malta and Italy.

Prosecutors don’t believe the three men facing charges acted alone, but so far they have not been able to entice them through promises of lighter sentences, and even reported pardons, to rat out the mastermind behind the killing.

If the cellphones from the potato shed can be tied to previous bombings linked to fuel smugglers, however, investigators might not need the alleged killers’ cooperation.

It may take a long time to unravel the mystery. On Thursday morning, Donatella Frendo Dimech, the magistrate set to hear the preliminary case against the three men, recused herself from the case after defense lawyers insisted that because she went to school with the victim’s sister in the 1980s and sent her a condolence message after the journalist was killed, she might be biased against the perpetrators.

“After all due considerations, the issue at hand is the appearance of prejudice,” she said, according to local press reports in Malta. “The decision of recusal must be taken on the basis that there is an objective reason to call into question impartiality, or appearance thereof.” She then asked for the case to be reassigned to another judge. No new trial date has yet been set.

Therese Comodini Cachia, the lawyer representing Galizia’s family in the case, objected to the removal of the judge, calling it a stall tactic and warning that the alleged killers just want to drag out the case for years. The family has also made demands, asking that the chief police investigator and several other high-ranking officials step down because they were often subjects Galizia wrote about.

“If we are going to have a recusal in this case, we can easily find people who have some connection in a small country like Malta,” Cachia said. “If we do this, we are risking that justice is not done with anyone. That is why the law gives certain parameters on which a recusal can be based.” But even if they do eventually get on with the case, it’s unclear whether justice will ever be served.