A bomb silenced Daphne Caruana Galizia. But her investigation lives on
The explosion was so loud it shook the windows of the family home.
In a cold panic, Matthew Caruana Galizia ran to the front door, barefoot. “That moment, opening the door, the dogs barking, the light, I just thought I was going to collapse on to the floor.”
The neighbours were already outside. He sprinted past them, down the dirt track that leads to the village road, barely aware of the stones cutting into the soles of his feet. Halfway down he saw the column of black smoke.
In front of him were the remains of a burning car, his mother’s. She had been inside it.
The murder six months ago of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia sent shockwaves around the world.
In Malta, the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and his party stand accused of allowing corruption to go unpunished, of weakening the police and the judiciary, of allowing an environment in which her killing became possible.
But it goes deeper than that. The European Union must now decide how to deal with its smallest member state – an island that appears to have become a magnet for criminals and kleptocrats, and that some MEPs fear has become a gateway for dirty money into the rest of the continent, including the UK.
The profound questions raised by Caruana Galizia’s murder have become the focus of a new collaboration: the Daphne Project.
With the support of her family, a group of 18 international media organisations, including the Guardian, Reuters and Le Monde, has come together. Led by Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to continue the work of silenced journalists, the group has spent months piecing together Caruana Galizia’s story and pursuing the investigations she was working on when she was killed.
Today, the project launches with the story of her murder, of the men facing trial for the crime, and the enduring mystery of who ordered it, and why.
The murder: 16 October 2017
Daphne Caruana Galizia had spent her last morning working at the dining room table opposite her eldest son, Matthew, 32. The air was still and heavy with the scent of wild fennel. The densely planted garden of her hilltop home in the northern village of Bidnija muffled any noise from the road. She was absorbed in her work, and the hours passed unnoticed.
Just before 3pm Caruana Galizia hastily gathered her things – she was late for an appointment at the bank. She rushed out, came back for some forgotten cheques, then climbed into her car.
As the charcoal grey Peugeot 108 headed south out of the village, she was being watched. For her killers, the moment had come; a bomb placed under the driver’s seat was detonated by remote control.
A neighbour, Francis Sant, who was driving in the opposite direction, recalls a first explosion, which sent out white smoke and debris. Moments later, there was a second, much larger blast and the vehicle caught fire, before careering off the road into fields.
In an interview for this project, Sant said: “I am going to say something that I have never said before. Because I felt that I shouldn’t say it … I even heard her screaming … But as soon as she screamed she became a ball of fire.”
As Matthew sprinted towards the scene, he remembers seeing a crater in the road. Trees were on fire. He could see glass, and plastic, and pieces of flesh.
He couldn’t see the car but he could hear it; the horn was blaring. He followed the noise and the smoke, all the while hoping it was not his mother’s vehicle.
But then he recognised the licence plate. Circling, looking inside, there was nothing but orange fire. No sign of a body, no silhouette.
He searched the ground for a stick to prise open what was left of the doors when he heard police sirens. “I was looking on the ground for something, and then I saw a leg. And I remember thinking to myself like OK … there is a leg on the ground, there are body parts up there, obviously no one could have survived this, so it’s pointless.”
Soon, his mother’s sister arrived, and then, after some frantic phone calls, his father and two younger brothers.
The family hunkered down in Bidnija, staying indoors for two weeks, avoiding the television crews. The days passed in a blur.
But it was Matthew’s precise recollection of what his mother was doing in the minutes before she was killed that led to an apparent breakthrough in the murder inquiry.
The police investigation
On 4 December last year, in an early morning swoop on the seedy port area of Marsa which involved soldiers arriving by boat and a Swat team storming in from the road, police arrested three men widely reported in Malta as being known to the police: brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, aged 55 and 53 respectively, and their associate Vincent Muscat, 55.
The brothers were ordered at gunpoint to lie on the ground. Muscat was handcuffed to an iron railing. Footage of the raid, shot from a soldier’s head camera, was released to the press.
The focus of the operation that day was a large, rusty shed overlooking Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Known locally as the potato shed – it was once used for storing vegetables – the structure now shelters the colourful rowing boats of the Marsa Regatta Club.
One end is fenced off. It contains weightlifting benches, a barbecue and a secure room with a metal door and shutters. Suspended from the ceiling are a Spider-Man toy, fishing tackle, and the severed heads and tails of marlin fish.
This is where officers arrested the men – and where they suspect the murder was planned.
“They used to come here at the beginning or the end of the day,” said one man who knew them. “Sometimes, they had visitors at night. They were the kind of people who, even in the middle of summer, they give you a chill.”
The evidence that led police to suspect these men was compiled by Insp Keith Arnaud, a homicide detective who knew Daphne and had once tried to arrest her.
His case has been set out in meticulous detail in testimony for an examining magistrate, who is deciding whether the accused should stand trial.
Reviewed by the Guardian, the testimony shows how police zeroed in on the arrested men with help from the FBI and a team of forensic specialists from the Netherlands.
They assumed the bomb had been triggered remotely, and had probably been linked to a mobile phone, so the question was: who was making calls that day, and from where?
The evidence was provided by a major piece of FBI computer processing, undertaken in the US, and complicated by the fact that the Vodafone mast in Bidnija was “off grid” at the time of the murder.
Thousands of calls redirected to other masts had to be sifted through before investigators believed they had found what they were looking for: the numbers of two devices that appear to have been used to detonate the bomb.
Detectives believe the sim cards for the phones were bought almost a year before the murder, on 15 November 2016. The two numbers only ever communicated with each other.
Further analysis revealed one of the sim cards was used in a basic Nokia handset; the second, which Arnaud calls “the god device”, was attached to a circuit board like those used to switch on lights or central heating by remote control. Or, in this case, it seems, to detonate a bomb.
Having apparently found the method for triggering the device, Arnaud’s team was unsure who had pressed the button.
The intelligence services were already monitoring George Degiorgio’s personal phone, in connection with another investigation.
Arnaud told the magistrate he was able to match the location data from George Degiorgio’s personal number with another device, thought to have been one of three “burner” phones acquired for the job. Over a period of weeks, they found the burner phones signalling to the network from the same masts as personal numbers used by the three accused.
The data provided by the FBI showed that the night before the killing, all three burner phones were active in Bidnija. And at 1.41am, the circuit board sim was switched on.
After that, the suspects headed their separate ways, Arnaud told the court. According to his account, Alfred Degiorgio spent the night in Bidnija and the other two left the village.
By 6.15am on the day of the murder, George’s phones were allegedly signalling from the potato shed in Marsa. Shortly after that, they were said to be transmitting from the coastline around Valletta.
Police matched the locations with CCTV footage and spotted a small cabin cruiser with a distinctive green hood. The boat, called the Maya, was registered in Alfred’s name, but the phone data led police to believe it was George at the helm that afternoon.
At 2.55pm, the Maya stopped, idling along a sheltered stretch of water beneath a neoclassical whe ar memorial known as the Siege Bell. Minutes later, it is alleged, there were two phone calls to the boat, both from Bidnija. The first lasted 44sec; the next, 1min 47sec.
Arnaud’s testimony to the court explains: “If you look into why there were two calls, it matches perfectly with what Matthew Caruana Galizia said when he told us that when his mother left the house, she forgot the cheque book.
“In our opinion … the spotter saw the victim come out, he informed the person at sea to prepare himself, the victim went into the house again, the call ended, but two minutes later it took place again.”
At 2.58pm, a text message was sent to the “god device” containing a code designed to activate the circuit board in the bomb.
Within minutes of the blast, Arnaud told the court, George was messaging his girlfriend: “Buy me wine, my love.” She replied: “OK.” At 4pm, CCTV shows the Maya cruising back towards its mooring.
The police case relies upon the evidence provided by the phones, and more information may be forthcoming.
The wider investigation
A sweep of the harbour floor by army scuba divers led to the recovery of eight phones said to have been used by the accused.
The Guardian understands that all the devices were sent to Europol in the Netherlands for analysis several weeks ago.
Alongside the examining magistrate hearing police evidence against the alleged bombers, another magistrate, Anthony Vella, is investigating the murder. Europol, the FBI and a Maltese telecoms expert are reporting directly to him.
The family’s hopes of discovering who ordered the killing rest with Vella, because they fear police will not pursue evidence that might lead to politicians. A source close to the investigation said police were focused on finding the bomb maker, and tracing any possible links to organised crime.
Vella is “a very thorough, meticulous, no-nonsense person”, says the family’s lawyer, Jason Azzopardi. “The fact that these international experts are answerable to the magistrate is the way it should be because this case has reverberations that go beyond the shores of Malta.”
The three suspects have said nothing since their arrest. George, known by the street name ic-Ciniz (the Chinese), simply pulled out his identity card and placed it on the interrogation room table during police questioning. Alfred, or il-Fulu (the Bean), would not even confirm his name.
The Guardian understands that detectives suspect the men had been tipped off before their arrest. When officers came for them in Marsa, the phones they had allegedly used were already on the seabed, and George had his partner’s mobile number written on his hand.
The Nationalist MP and former opposition leader Simon Busuttil is concerned that the raid appeared staged: “The assault was fully filmed and everything looked pre-set for maximum propaganda effect. Footage of the assault was quicky circulated on the media and looked like something out of a Marvel action film – theatrical.”
All three men entered not guilty pleas and accepted legal aid, but declined to speak to their lawyers.
They have yet to stand trial, and any suggestion they were acting on orders remains speculation.
Certainly, Caruana Galizia had many enemies and many critics. She took aim at anyone she believed needed to be held to account – mobsters, business people, even the current leader of the Nationalist party, with which she had been closely aligned.
Caruana Galizia’s second son, Andrew, lays the blame at the feet of the ruling Labour party.
“Maltese citizens are completely naked when they interact with their state,” he said. “There’s no independent institution in between the citizen and the government. Her assassination became possible for that reason.”
In the aftermath of the attack, and without the consent of the family, the government offered a €1m (£870,000) reward for information leading to the killers. Despite the arrests, it remains on the table.
In a statement emailed by his spokesman, the prime minister said: “An investigation is ongoing into those who ordered the killing. I trust the Maltese police will investigate this case with full professionalism, and without fear or favour.”
Muscat added that the murder had “shocked and outraged” him.
“No prime minister would want a journalist to be murdered under any circumstances. This was an attack on our society and such a senseless act particularly affects a country our size. This murder does not reflect on the Maltese people, who enjoy a liberal, open and democratic society. The government is clear that the police will have whatever resources they need to pursue and prosecute those responsible.”
The stakes for both Malta and the EU remain high.
And for a family torn apart by the murder, there is anger, bewilderment, and an overwhelming feeling of loss.
Matthew’s brother Paul, 29, flew in from London on the night of the murder and was confronted by a sight he will never forget.
Their peaceful valley was, he says, unrecognisable: the familiar fields were floodlit, the road choked with police and television crews.
As Andrew puts it: “It felt like the world had collapsed and no one was safe any more. Apart from my mother being taken away I also felt that my country had been taken away.”
15 November 2016: Sim cards for mobile devices allegedly used to trigger the bomb are purchased.
10 January 2017: The trigger sims are activated for the first time, in the area of Żebbuġ. One is placed inside a Nokia handset and used to send four text messages to the other, placed in a circuit board. After 20 minutes, the sims are switched off.
19 August: Three burner phones believed to have been used by the bombers are activated within 20 minutes of each other.
21 August: Trigger sims are switched on for the second time, and two text messages are sent between them. This appears to be a second test run.
End of September: White rental car seen for the first time in the vicinity of Bidnija. Over the coming weeks it is spotted many times, parked near a lookout point.
15 October: All three burner phones are located in Bidnija. Alfred Degiorgio’s personal phone and the device said to be his burner phone appear to remain there all night and most of the following day.
1.41am – Trigger sim is switched on. It signals from Bidnija, where Caruana Galizia’s car is parked outside her home.
8am – The Maya is filmed on CCTV leaving Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Phone data suggests only George Degiorgio was on board.
8.30am – The Vodafone mast in Bidnija goes off grid and is closed for maintenance until 6pm.
2.55pm – CCTV shows the Maya stopping in sheltered water beneath the Siege Bell war memorial.
2.58pm – Text message is allegedly sent from the boat to the circuit board sim, detonating a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of Caruana Galizia’s car.
3.20pm – Phone data shows the Maya heading back towards the harbour.
3.30pm – George Degiorgio sends a message from his personal phone to his partner: “Buy me wine, my love.”