Hitmen who killed Daphne Caruana Galizia had started working on a plan to gun her down using an AK47 rifle two years before they eventually assassinated her as part of a separate murder plot, one of her killers testified on Tuesday.
Vince Muscat said that he and George Degiorgio had spent days scoping the Caruana Galizia family house in Bidnija in 2014 or 2015 in anticipation of that murder, which fell through when a €50,000 deposit was never paid.
He said that the plan was to cut Caruana Galizia off as she drove away from her house and for Jamie Vella to gun her down using an AK47.
Muscat linked the plot to lawyer David Gatt and former minister Chris Cardona, saying Gatt had visited a shed in Marsa where he and the Degiorgios would gather and told them that he was going to meet Cardona “because of Daphne”.
Asked by parte civile lawyer Jason Azzopardi whether they were worried that Cardona, who at the time was Economy Minister, would expose their plot, Muscat said that was not a concern.
“We knew each other already so we were sure he would help out,” he said.
Following further questioning by Azzopardi, Muscat confirmed that they were not worried about Cardona exposing them because the minister was involved in another big crime they had carried out some years previously, which another, sitting minister was also implicated in.
He did not provide any details. Times of Malta reported last November that Muscat had linked a former Labour politician to a failed 2010 HSBC bank heist. Muscat is facing trial over that botched hold-up.
Muscat has admitted to being one of the men who killed Caruana Galizia in 2017 and says Vella and Robert Agius, known as Tal-Maksar, supplied him and Degiorgio brothers Alfred and George with the bomb they used to do so.
He told the court that he was not involved in any other plot to kill the journalist.
But defence lawyer William Cuschieri, representing the Degiorgios, claimed that recordings made by murder middleman Melvin Theuma implicated Muscat in a third plot to have her assassinated.
Cuschieri alleged that in one of Theuma’s recordings, mention is made of a plan by lawyer Arthur Azzopardi and a man named Darren Debono to pay Muscat €300,000 to have Caruana Galizia killed.
Muscat dismissed that claim out of hand, saying he did not know who Darren Debono was and had never discussed the matter with Azzopardi.
In three hours of testimony, Muscat also said that:
• Around the time of the cancelled 2015 murder plan, George Degiorgio would send Daphne Caruana Galizia text messages “about this minister or that”. She told him she wanted to meet him, but that never happened. Degiorgio got her number from Gatt.
• At one point, the Degiorgios were receiving €20,000 a month from Tal-Maksar (Robert and Adrian Agius) for "work".
• He was told that Jamie Vella brought the bomb to Malta using the Malta-Sicily catamaran.
• The hitmen also had plans to murder someone "working with the police" at the time of the Caruana Galizia assassination. The plan was linked to Jamie Vella and Robert Agius.
• Murder middleman Melvin Theuma wanted to celebrate the assassination with a meal at the Waterfront. The suggestion was dismissed by Alfred Degiorgio.
• Before he became a minister, Cardona had confided in him that Gatt (who he shared a legal office with) had hidden 300g of cocaine in their office soffit.
• Cardona organised a celebratory meal for Muscat when he was granted bail in a case concerning a botched HSBC bank branch holdup.
• He had long meetings with the Degiorgios and their lawyer, William Cuschieri, while in jail following his 2017 arrest. His lawyer was not present for those meetings.
As it happened
Live blog ends
12.35pm That's all from court for today - we'll have a summary of the day's key points of testimony available at the top of the article shortly. Thank you for having joined us. This live blog will end here.
No further questions for today
12.24pm There will not be any further questions for today. Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit notes that the court is due to hear from Melvin Theuma tomorrow.
But there’s a hitch: the Degiorgio brothers do not want to have Theuma cross-examined until all of his recordings are presented in court.
Deputy attorney general Philip Galea Farrugia says the prosecution will not object if Cuschieri would like to play relevant snippets from the recordings to help him throughout his questioning. But they are objecting to having entire recordings played for hours.
Arnaud backs that, and says Theuma would also need to clarify who is speaking in the various recordings, to make questions easier to understand.
The magistrate says tomorrow's hearing will move ahead in line with whatever the judge decides (the Degiorgios have filed a court application concerning their request).
Prison meetings with Cuschieri
12.20pm Muscat says that Cuschieri had once obtained a permit to visit him in prison. After that, there were several meetings involving himself, the Degiorgio brothers and their lawyer Cuschieri.
Muscat says his own lawyer was not present for those meetings. His attorney at the time, legal aid lawyer Martin Fenech, visited him twice or so.
Which Darren Debono?
12.19pm Superintendent Keith Arnaud steps in to clarify something for the court: the Darren Debono referred to is not it-Topo, but "another one".
Muscat says he does not know him.
Cuschieri claims recording refers to separate €300k murder plot
12.15pm Muscat says he received no other money to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Cuschieri: What if I tell you that in Theuma’s recordings, Arthur and Darren Debono agreed to give you €300,000 for the murder?
Muscat: It’s absolutely not true. I never spoke to Arthur about this.
Azzopardi's request for money
12.12pm Cuschieri mentions fellow lawyer Arthur Azzopardi (who represented Muscat briefly before renouncing the brief).
Muscat says Azzopardi had spoken to him about €6,000 that he (Muscat) owed him for an upcoming trial and told him "I will continue to represent you but today I'm not here to speak about the Daphne case."
This happened after he was arraigned in the Caruana Galizia case.
Cuschieri: Wasn’t it strange that Azzopardi should ask for the money at this time?
Muscat: It was a very bad moment.
12.11pm Muscat says he was told to say that his lawyer was David Gatt and to cooperate by giving DNA and fingerprints.
But Muscat had refused to provide DNA. Why?
Muscat: I just thought of it at that time.
Theuma's information about arrests
12.08pm Muscat says they had been told that following the police raid, George would be arraigned while he and Alfred Degiorgio would be released.
“Alfred told me,” he says.
Cuschieri: Didn’t Melvin Theuma tell you anything?
Muscat: Tell me? It was Alfred who told me, after speaking to Melvin. According to what Alfred told me, he was getting information from Chris Cardona.
Car hire visit
12.04pm Cuschieri refers to the car they hired. He tells Muscat that the garage owner had said under oath that he did not recall seeing him there (Muscat said he visited with Alfred Degiorgio).
Muscat reiterates that he went there.
'I heard from the Degiorgios'
12.01pm William Cuschieri asks about the 2015 murder plot. Had he spoken (about it) directly to Chris Cardona or David Gatt?
“I used to speak to nobody,” Muscat says.
Cuschieri: So your testimony was based on what George Degiorgio allegedly told you. You said you had help. Was this your impression, or a statement of fact.
Muscat: It’s a fact.
Cuschieri: Had material help from Chris Cardona and another person who is
currently a minister.
Muscat: I heard about that from the Degiorgios.
Defence cross-examines Muscat
11.59am That’s all from Jason Azzopardi. Defence lawyer William Cuschieri will take over questioning now.
'Hold your head up high'
11.57am Muscat confirms that had they known the murder would have sparked such a reaction, they would have charged a much higher price for it.
“We once spoke of millions (of euro),” he says.
He recalls one of the Degiorgios advising them to “hold their head up high” when entering court.
Fenech had Koħħu's details on his phone
11.55am Azzopardi asks Muscat if he is aware that his name and details were saved on Yorgen Fenech’s mobile.
“No, I had no clue,” Muscat replies. “It’s the first time I’m hearing this.”
Azzopardi says Fenech also had details of tal-Maksar saved on his phone.
Information ahead of time
11.52am Muscat confirms that Alfred Degiorgio had information about the upcoming police raid around three weeks before it happened.
He reiterates what he said last week – they had moved Halloween costumes and a labrador out of the shed, in anticipation of the police operation.
“One day, I saw Melvin (Theuma) at the sheds. He spoke to Alfred. Melvin had told Alfred that their sources were saying the same thing.
“We knew that the arrests would happen at the potato sheds, (with police) moving in from the sea.”
Muscat says he thought Alfred was getting the leaks from Chris Cardona.
Azzopardi asks why they had gone to the sheds, if they knew the arrests would happen there.
Muscat says Alfred Degiorgio had argued that it would spare their families panic at home. “Better be all together at the sheds,” he had told him.
Run-up to police raid
11.47am Questions turn to the run-up to the police raid that led to their arrest, on December 4 2017.
Muscat confirms that George Degiorgio had planned to go abroad.
He says he had gone to the sheds and met Alfred Degiorgio. “They’re going to arrest George,” Alfred had told him.
Muscat asked if he had slipped up somehow.
“No, but they have to pin it on someone,” Alfred had replied. Alfred wanted him (Muscat) to break the news to George, but Muscat told him “you tell him, he’s your brother.”
Nevertheless, Muscat called George Degiorgio, who told him “I’ve been expecting this”.
Muscat says that all along, he did not know about George’s mistake, of sending a text requesting a €5 top-up before the detonation. He only learnt of it during proceedings in court.
€120,000 in an envelope
11.42am Muscat recounts how they got paid for the murder.
He says he drove Alfred Degiorgio to Marsascala. Then he waited for him to fetch it and had a coffee and hobża biż-zejt while he waited.
Alfred returned with a brown envelope with €120,000 in it. Muscat drove them back, and the three men split the money.
Theuma wanted to celebrate one week after murder
11.37am Theuma used to visit the Marsa sheds. He had invited the hitmen to a meal around one or two weeks after Caruana Galizia’s murder, Muscat says.
The meal was to be held at the Waterfront, as a celebration.
But Alfred Degiorgio told him it was too early for them to be seen together.
Picking the lock
11.35am Did Melvin Theuma know that they had a car to use to practice picking its lock?
Muscat: No. We had told him the opposite, actually. We told him we were going to use a bomb when the plan was to shoot her.
Tal-Maksar had brought them the car, he says.
'Cardona was tight with the Degiorgios'
11.32am Azzopardi circles back to Chris Cardona.
Muscat: Chris Cardona was tight (kien biċċa waħda) with the Degiorgios.
He recalls Alfred Degiorgio telling him that he was going to meet Chris Cardona, and asking him what he thought of the idea.
Azzopardi: Were you comfortable with Cardona because of a previous big job which you had done with him some years back?
Azzopardi: Did the job involve a current minister?
11.28am The accused are brought back to the courtroom and the court hearing continues.
What has Muscat said so far?
So far, Muscat has said that:
• He and George Degiorgio had spent days scoping the Caruana Galizia house in 2014 or 2015, as part of a previous plot to have her killed.
• At that time, Gatt had visited them at the Marsa shed and told them he was meeting Chris Cardona “because of Daphne”.
• The plan was for Jamie Vella to gun her down using an AK47. That plot went nowhere as the deposit was never paid.
• George Degiorgio used to send Daphne text messages “about this minister or that”. She told him she wanted to meet him, but that never happened. Degiorgio got her number from Gatt.
• Before he became a minister (in 2013), Chris Cardona had confided in him that his legal firm partner David Gatt had hidden 300g of cocaine in their office soffit. "X'għamilli, Cens!" he recalled Cardona telling him.
• Cardona organised a celebratory meal for Muscat when he was granted bail in a case concerning a botched HSBC bank branch holdup.
• The hitmen also had plans for another murder - of someone "working with the police" - at the time of the Caruana Galizia assassination.
11.06am Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit calls a short recess.
Learning about the bomb
11.05am Jamie Vella and Robert Agius met them at the Naxxar garage to explain how the bomb worked.
“It looked serious. You could tell it came from abroad,” he says.
George Degiorgio had asked “this isn’t like the Bone bomb, right?” Robert Agius and Jamie Vella had replied that in the Romeo Bone bombing, the bomb was placed next to the car tyre. This time, it would beneath the driver’s seat.
Receiving the bomb
10.58am Muscat says there were told that Jamie would be getting three bombs “on the catamaran”.
They received the bomb around Santa Marija (August 15), at the potato shed. George Degiorgio had told him that they were to receive it.
The bomb was left beneath an overturned boat. Muscat says he and Alfred Degiorgio then moved it to the Naxxar garage, where they had parked the stolen Vitz to be used for the murder.
Robert Agius and Jamie Vella had moved a Mitsubishi Pajero out of the garage, to make way for the car, he says.
10.53am He is asked about one time they saw Daphne enter the Phoenicia Hotel (he has said they considered placing the bomb in her car that day).
He says he saw her enter the hotel with her husband, towards the end of September. It was probably Independence Day, he says.
Azzopardi asks about the time they saw Daphne and her husband leave home with several suitcases and head to the airport.
Alfred had called him, Muscat says, worried they were leaving the country for good.
They had followed them to the airport and watched them from his (Muscat’s) car. Alfred Degiorgio had followed them inside to confirm that they were flying out.
Tossing burner phones
10.51am Muscat is asked about their phones.
He says the Degiorgios and himself would regularly toss them into the sea close to the Marsa sheds.
Another murder in the works
10.48am Muscat is asked if there was also another plan to kill someone else at the time.
“Yes, of course,” he says.
“This person worked with the police. As far as I know this was linked to Robert (Agius) and Jamie Vella.”
Maksar paying Degiorgios €20,000 monthly
10.48am Muscat says that at the time, the Degiorgio brothers were receiving €20,000 a month from tal-Maksar for "work".
Taking Theuma to Bidnija
10.47am Alfred Degiorgio once took Theuma to one of their vantage points, Muscat says.
Muscat says he was at another vantage point at the time. Alfred had taken his car to take Theuma to Bidnija. (This corroborates Theuma’s testimony).
10.44am Muscat says it was proving difficult to settle on a way of killing Daphne.
They had seen a red car visiting the house regularly, and assumed it belonged to a maid. There was also a gardener around.
Then Theuma started pressuring Alfred Degiorgio to get it done.
“We had already been given the deposit, so we had to go ahead. But we couldn’t find a way. George always preferred the bomb (method). Shooting caused greater panic; a bomb could be activated from Gozo.”
Theuma continued to pressure them and told them unless they hurried, they risked having the hit called off.
Rusty rifles and Żebbuġ target practice
10.40am The men were given three rifles. Two were rusty and not much use. The other worked and was to be used to shoot Daphne. There was no mention of money to be paid for them.
They left the guns in a Naxxar garage provided by Robert Agius and Jamie Vella.
The plan was to park the stolen getaway car – a Toyota Vitz – in the garage.
They tested the rifle in a Żebbuġ field, Muscat recalls. He confirms that someone else was present but says they are unrelated to the case.
Election delays plans
10.36am When the election date was announced (on May 1), Muscat accompanied Alfred Degiorgio to Busy Bee.
Theuma told him that there was no issue with the price, but that they would speak after the election.
“Let it happen, and then we’ll play afterwards,” he said. (Nagħtu ċans li ssir u mbagħad ndoqqu wara).
Muscat says that at that point, they started thinking the hit was going to be called off. But then Theuma came through with the €30,000 deposit.
Muscat says Theuma had paid around €1,500 before the election, already.
Why was she to be murdered?
10.30am Azzopardi resumes. Did he ask why she was to be murdered?
“Alfred told me it was because of some details she was going to publish.”
This was before the 2017 general election date was announced, he says.
Muscat says that he and the Degiorgios then began to discuss the price tag for the murder. They agreed on €150,000 (as before) only this time the deposit would be €30,000, forfeitable even if the plot did not go ahead. They did not want to be left empty-handed like last time, he says.
Muscat says he always drove Alfred Degiorgio to his meetings with Melvin Theuma. He never saw Theuma, but Alfred always told him about them.
Once the price was agreed upon, preparations began immediately. They would spend hours at a time watching Daphne at her house – from 12pm to 9pm or so, shifting vantage points so as not to arouse suspicion.
Rain drowns out testimony
10.26am Azzopardi is forced to pause. Heavy rain and hail is making it difficult to make out what is being said in the courtroom.
The 2017 plot
10.25am Azzopardi guides the witness two years forward, to 2017.
Melvin Theuma entered the scene between January and April of that year.
Muscat says Alfred Degiorgio had once told him that Theuma had approached Darren Debono (it-Topo, who he mentioned previously) about some job he had for them.
Azzopardi tells the court about the February 2017 Msida junction car bomb explosion, which cost Romeo Bone his two legs.
Muscat: One day Alfred told me to drive him to Msida, next to Busy Bee. I parked and waited next to the church. Alfred came back. He said “Do you know why he wants us, Cens? It’s about Caruana Galizia.”
There was no talk about money at that stage, yet.
'George would text Daphne'
10.21am George Degiorgio would text Daphne “about this minister or the other”, Muscat says. He got her number off David Gatt.
But she never replied. Then one day, she did. She told him. ‘I don’t know who you are, meet me.’
“But he never did,” Muscat says.
After that 2015 plot went nowhere, Muscat says he considered the matter closed.
“Water under the bridge,” he says.
'Jamie would machine gun her down'
10.17am The plan at that time was to gun Daphne down.
“Once she exited her house, down the valley, George and Jamie would block her path and Jamie would machine gun her,” he says.
“We already had an AK 47, we got it from abroad. Jamie would shoot, obviously,” he says.
Muscat says he saw the machine gun with his own eyes.
Preparations for earlier plot
10.15am Muscat’s testimony shifts to a description of a vantage point they used to keep watch of Caruana Galizia for that previous murder plot.
Jamie Vella had a farmhouse right opposite the Caruana Galizia family home, overlooking the Bidnija valley.
He and George Degiorgio would spend three or four hours watching the house. They once approached the house and saw an old BMW there, with a leather roof and a notice at the gate warning people to beware of the dog.
Gatt had also told them that Daphne worked close to the St Julian's tunnels (where The Malta Independent offices are located).
“We had agreed to ask for €150,000, with €50,000 deposit,” he says.
George Degiorgio pressed Gatt for the deposit. But it was never paid and the plot did not go ahead.
A previous plot to kill Daphne
10.10am Azzopardi recalls how in previous testimony, Muscat said he already knew where Daphne Caruana Galizia lived (when they were hired to kill her).
Muscat confirms. “George (Degiorgio) and I had spent some around three days watching her.
Why, Azzopardi asks.
“Because in 2014/5 there was another murder plot.”
Muscat says Gatt had turned up at the Marsa shed and told said that he was meeting Chris Cardona because of Daphne. He says Alfred Degiorgio asked him to take him to Portomaso.
Azzopardi asks why they were not worried that their plans would be exposed if the minister got to know about them.
Muscat: "No, because we knew each other already so we were sure he would help out.
Knowing Melvin Theuma
10.07am Muscat says he’s known Melvin Theuma for a long time – “15 or 20 years” – though he was not as close to him as he was to the Degiorgios.
Theuma was involved in under-the-counter horse betting, he says. “You would go to his shop, hand over a fiver and bet on a horse.”
Theuma also had a taxi at Portomaso and the airport, Muscat says.
When Alfred Degiorgio was working with the local council in 2016, during the last stretch of his prison sentence, “he would sometimes tell me that Melvin Theuma was going with him”.
'I told Arnaud my lawyer was David Gatt'
10.04am Muscat says he got to know David Gatt when Cardona told him that he would also be his lawyer in the HSBC case.
He says, answering a question, that Gatt has never visited him in jail since his arrest in 2017.
One of the Degiorgios had advised him to get him as his lawyer before that arrest - the men had been warned by Melvin Theuma about their impending arrest , he says – and the Degiorgios told him that they would be using Gatt as their lawyer.
“In fact, when Arnaud asked me who was my lawyer, I said David Gatt,” he says. “I don’t know if police called him, but he was not there at our arraignment.”
Cardona's ties to Degiorgios
10am Muscat says that when he was granted bail in the HSBC heist court case, Cardona organised a meal for him.
What was Cardona’s relationship with Gatt?
“They shared an office,” Muscat replies.
What was Cardona’s relationship with the Degiorgios?
“He was closer to Alfred. I know he was his friend.”
Did he ever got to Cardona’s office when he was a minister?
300g cocaine in Cardona's office
9.58am Muscat says Cardona told him that Gatt was going to put 300g of cocaine in his office and get him into trouble. This was before Cardona became minister, around the time of the attempted HSBC heist.
The drugs were hidden in a ceiling soffit at Cardona’s office.
He recalls Cardona telling him at a Siġġiewi bar “x’għamilli Cens!”. ('What has he done to me, Vince!)
Meeting Chris Cardona
9.55am Azzopardi asks Muscat when he first got to know Chris Cardona.
“In 2010, he was my lawyer in a court case,” Muscat replies.
Did he have any contact with him after 2013, when Cardona became a minister?
“Yes, I spoke to him once or twice in a small shop.”
Muscat describes the shop, but his voice is inaudible up in the courtroom gallery – rain is beating down on the roof and making it hard to hear the witness.
Azzopardi tells the court that Muscat is describing Stables Bar, an old Valletta haunt of Cardona’s. He says Muscat was taken there by Cardona’s associate, David Gatt.
9.52am Azzopardi asks Muscat about the tal-Maksar brothers, Robert and Adrian Agius.
Muscat says he first got to know Robert, with Adrian coming along later. He first met them around seven years ago, he says.
He tells the court that the murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop was discussed there.
Azzopardi wants to know about others who visited the shed. Muscat confirms that “it-Topo” and Jamie Vella were among them.
Jamie Vella and Robert Agius started showing up in 2015 or 2016, he says. Alfred Degiorgio was in jail until 2016, but his brother George would be there.
The Marsa potato shed
9.46am Muscat says he first started going to the Marsa potato shed (where the men were arrested in 2017) back in 2005. The shed is next to the regatta club.
Initially, it was himself, Alfred and George Degiorgio.
They had a room built there and installed a toilet, shower, sofa and TV. The room had iron doors that could be locked. He had a set of keys, as did George Degiorgio.
“I used to go there every morning, to chat,” he says. Other people from Marsa would come round too. People of all sorts.
Muscat's relationship with Alfred Degiorgio
9.42am Muscat takes the oath as a witness.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi, representing the Caruana Galizia family, will be asking the first questions today. He asks the witness to give the court some personal details.
Muscat tells the court that he is from Marsa and previously had a carpenter’s shop in Luqa. He and Alfred Degiorgio go way back – the two went to Libya together and the Degiorgios are also from Marsa.
“It was long ago, my daughter wasn’t born yet. She’s 30 now,” he says.
Muscat recalls visiting Alfred Degiorgio in prison between 2013 and 2016, and calling him in prison.
Muscat says he trusted Degiorgio, and Degiorgio trusted him.
9.34am The Degiorgio brothers are seated in the dock, with their lawyer William Cuschieri behind them.
Parte civile lawyers are present, as is superintendent Keith Arnaud and his fellow prosecutor, inspector Kurt Zahra.
Vince Muscat is seated in front of the witness stand. His lawyer Marc Sant is present too.
9.30am Good morning and welcome to this live blog. We're at the Valletta law courts, where Vince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu, will face cross-examination.
The law courts are largely empty: most cases have been deferred due to COVID-19 restrictions, in line with a directive issued by the Chief Justice.
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