Killing journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was urgent because of details she was about to reveal, hitman Vince Muscat told Court on Thursday in his first public testimony.
Muscat was relaying a conversation he had with another of the alleged hitmen, Alfred Degiorgio, who was informed of the urgency by self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma.
In February, Muscat pled guilty to his involvement in the Caruana Galizia case and was given a reduced sentence in exchange for information. Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb in October 2017.
In Thursday’s compilation of evidence against alleged hitmen George and Alfred Degiorgio, Muscat wore a bulletproof vest under his shirt and sat down in front of the witness stand for the duration of his testimony. He provided Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit with details of the five-month-long process to assassinate the journalist.
Replying to questions by Inspector Keith Arnaud, Muscat spoke about the sense of urgency: “Alfred Degiorgio used to tell me that Melvin (Theuma) said ‘you need to hurry because she is going to publish some details'”. He did not know what details, or who had sent Theuma.
The urgency to kill the journalist came to a point where the hitmen were told to go ahead with the assassination even if there was someone else in the car “as long as they get rid of Daphne”.
Vince Muscat said under oath that former Economy Minister Chris Cardona and former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri knew about the assassination plot prior to it being executed and that former Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta had provided information on the journalist’s whereabouts.
According to Muscat, who repeatedly reminded the Magistrate that all he knows is from conversations with Alfred Degiorgio, Cardona had provided Degiorgio with information on the journalist’s whereabouts, obtained through a high-profile lawyer, whose name was banned from publication by the Court, from Valletta.
Muscat also said that Cardona had then informed Degiorgio about their impending arrests in December 2017, three weeks in advance.
Although Muscat had never witnessed Alfred Degiorgio meeting Cardona, he said that he had given Degiorgio lifts to Castille to meet him. Degiorgio would then come back and relay the information to Muscat.
Muscat also said that former police inspector-turned-lawyer David Gatt, a former associate of Cardona, would go down to the Marsa potato shed – the alleged hitmen’s hangout. He recalled how one time, a day before the assassination, Gatt made a thumbs-up sign to Muscat. Muscat, taken aback, turned to George Degiorgio and asked him whether Gatt knew about the murder.
Degiorgio told him “Keith il-Kasco” (Schembri) had told him about it. Muscat also recalled Gatt asking him: “How long till you get rid of her? She is the witch of Bidnija”.
Such allegations clash with the assurance given by Prime Minister Robert Abela only last month that no politician, current or former, was connected to evidence provided by Muscat when given a reduced sentence.
Previously, suspected mastermind Yorgen Fenech had told the police that Schembri had hatched the plan for the journalist’s murder.
Alleged bomb suppliers knew it was ‘for Daphne Caruana Galizia’
Robert Agius (Tal-Maksar) and Jamie Vella, who have been charged with supplying the bomb that killed the journalist, knew who it was for, Vince Muscat said in Court.
The same two had also provided weapons to the Degiorgios and Muscat, as well as a garage in which to practice unlocking a car door and learning how to detonate the bomb. The bomb was the preferred choice of George Degiorgio because it’s “quieter, and causes less panic,” Muscat said.
The bomb was about six inches, “neat”, made of stainless steel with gelatine explosives. It included a place to insert a battery and another to insert a sim card. Vella and Agius explained how it worked, the hitman said. He also said that it was the idea of Vella and Agius to place the bomb under the driver’s seat.
‘Melvin has something good for us’
It was prior to the 2017 general election that Vince Muscat first heard about the plot. Alfred Degiorgio had approached his brother, George Degiorgio, and Muscat at their usual hangout – the potato shed in Marsa, where Muscat would go “almost every day”.
“Melvin came, he has something good for us,” Muscat recalled Degiorgio telling him. A few days later, following a meeting between Alfred Degiorgio and Theuma, Degiorgio went back to tell the others: “You know what Melvin wants; to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia”.
Following that, a number of meetings were held between Alfred Degiorgio and Theuma. Muscat would drop off Degiorgio at Busy Bee and wait for him next to the church nearby as the two planned details of the murder, including the sum of money they wanted for it: €150,000. They got the go-ahead from Melvin Theuma following the snap election called by Joseph Muscat in 2017.
Five months of plotting
Some two weeks after the 2017 general elections, the three started “working”, Muscat said. He explained how they followed the victim’s movements, identifying the places she would frequent. The initial plan was to shoot her.
They monitored her Bidnija home and followed her movements, including a cafe in Naxxar she frequented. “I went, and saw her on a table on her own, with an Ipad and a coffee,” Muscat told the Court.
The three hitmen, and Theuma, purchased Nokia mobile phones costing some €25 each which they used to communicate with each other. They rented a small car so as not to be conspicuous around Bidnija’s narrow roads and they found a vantage point. An attempt to shoot the journalist was called off due to a roadblock in the vicinity.
Speaking about the day of the murder, Muscat recalled how the three had gone to Bidnija at about 9 pm to place the bomb in the car. The next day, at 3pm, the plot to detonate the bomb did not go exactly as planned.
Muscat told the Court Alfred Degiorgio was supposed to call his brother out at sea and tell him “go” – the cue for George Degiorgio to send the message to detonate the bomb. But he forgot to and the bomb did not go off in the spot they intended, a bend further up the road where the explosion would be less likely to have an impact on other cars, Muscat said.