Caruana Galizia murder: Witness recalls big spark in rear of car before explosion

Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit continued to hear evidence by the prosecution days after a judge ruled that Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta should withdraw from the case

A big spark in the rear of the car driven by Daphne Caruana Galizia preceded the bomb explosion that killed the journalist on 16 October, a witness told the Court today.

Charmaine Abela told Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit that, on that day, she was going to Bidnija at around 2.55pm and that she had been around 30 metres from Caruana Galizia’s car when it exploded.

The magistrate today continued to hear witnesses in the compilation of evidence against three men accused of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

George Degiorgio, known as ic-Ciniz, his brother Alfred Degiorgio, known as il-Fulu, and Vince Muscat, il-Kohhu are accused of killing Caruana Galizia last October using a car bomb which was detonated metres away from her Bidnija home.

Abela, who was the second witness to take the stand today, said that she had noted a big spark in the rear of Caruana Galizia's car, moments before the car exploded.

Choking back tears as she recalled the day's events, Abela said that she recalled pieces flying everywhere when the car exploded.

After the blast, which left the journalist's burnt-out car in a field, Abela pulled into a drive-in.

Asked about the explosion itself, she was adamnant about seeing a spark.

"The first one had come from the rear of the car... there was a big spark. The car then blew up and rolled into a field,” she told the Court.

Today’s sitting came days after a judge ruled that Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta must recuse himself from the investigation following a request by the Caruana Galizia family.

Follow today's live coverage here:

12:58 Today's sitting is over. Kurt Sansone
12:53 The defence makes reference to the request for bail by the accused and asks the court to give a decree after the 4 July session in light of the fact that it still does not have copy of Attorney General’s reply Kurt Sansone
12:51 INFO POINT: The potato shed is situated on the seafront in the inner part of Grand Harbour. One of the metal sheds was a headquarters of sorts for the accused. Kurt Sansone
12:50 The SD card has underwater footage of the seabed just off the potato shed quay in Marsa Kurt Sansone
12:47 Arnaud says prosecution has no objection and requests the court to appoint an expert to carry out the extraction process from the SD card Kurt Sansone
12:45 Discussion ensues on a damaged SD card that belonged to the police. Defence wants the SD card to be sent abroad to determine whether data can be extracted from it Kurt Sansone
12:32 Witness 4: A police sergeant who has already testified in proceedings identifies the photographs in the court file as his. The pictures were taken as soon as the fire engulfing the blazing car was put out Kurt Sansone
12:27 FLASHBACK: On 4 December the police and the army carried out a massive raid on the potato shed in Marsa where the three accused were arrested Kurt Sansone
12:25 The officer says she had remained outside during the police search of Degiorgio’s premises Kurt Sansone
12:24 The third witness to take the stand is a police officer from the Drugs Squad. She had been detailed to observe Alfred Degiorgio's residence on 4 December 2017 Kurt Sansone
12:20 Arnaud asks about the explosion. "The first one had come from the rear of the car... there was a big spark. The car then blew up and rolled into a field,” the witness tells the court Kurt Sansone
12:18 FLASHBACK: Caruana Galizia was killed after a bomb placed inside her car exploded, shortly after she left her Bidnija house Kurt Sansone
12:17 Abela says that she was around 30 metres away from the explosion and after the blast, she pulled into a drive in Kurt Sansone
12:16 Witness chokes in tears as she recalls the events Kurt Sansone
12:16 Abela says that a car came out of a side road. “I remember there was an explosion… things were flying everywhere." Kurt Sansone
12:15 Witness 2: Charmaine Abela says that at 2.55pm on the day of the murder, she was going to Bidnija Kurt Sansone
12:13 Aquilina, a court expert, submitted a report on a number of exhibits he was given to examine Kurt Sansone
12:11 Lead prosecutor, police inspector Keith Arnaud summons the first witness - architect Richard Aquilina Kurt Sansone
12:10 Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit: "I am conducting a murder compilation of evidence, it's not going to become an investigation into the media." Kurt Sansone
12:09 The court says it can do nothing about it. A case comes under the scrutiny of the media and what they write is their responsibility Kurt Sansone
12:08 Defence lawyer Martin Fenech is complaining that there seems to be a police source telling the media that the bomb was not manufactured in Malta Kurt Sansone
12:06 Courtroom is filling up as the compilation of evidence against three men accused of murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia continues Kurt Sansone

What happened in the last sitting

In the last sitting the court the testimony of Richard Fennern and William Shute, two FBI experts in historical cell site analysis who have been aiding local authorities with the investigation. It also heard that of a Europol explosives expert. The defence had attempted to have their testimony blocked however Stafrace Zammit allowed them to testify.

The agents gave a run down of how they determined which numbers had been used to detonate the bomb, as well as the message that ultimately activated it.

The court heard how the explosive that killed Caruana Galizia had been placed under the seat of the car because the explosion had clearly taken place inside the vehicle.

It was explained that the explosive was a high explosive that caused a “high blast shockwave and high blast overpressure in the surroundings, which had a high shattering effect. It is typical of a military explosive, such as TNT or hexogen.”

FACTS OF THE CASE

The accused

  • George Degiorgio 55, unemployed, lives in St Paul's Bay, known as Ic-Ciniz
  • Alfred Degiorgio, 53, unemployed lives in St Paul's Bay, known as il-Fulu
  • Vincent Muscat, 55, unemployed lives in Msida, known as il-Kohhu

The courtroom players

  • Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit is presiding
  • Inspectors Keith Arnaud and Kurt Zahra are prosecuting
  • Deputy attorney general Philip Galea Farrugia is assiting the prosecution
  • Martin Fenech is appearing for Vince Muscat
  • William Cuschieri and Martha Mifsud are appearing for Alfred Degiorgio
  • Josette Sultana is appearing for George Degiorgio
  • Therese Comodini Cachia and Jason Azzopardi are appearing parte civile for the Caruana Galizia family

What we know so far

Caruana Galizia’s car

  • The Peugeot car Daphne Caruana Galizia was driving at the time had been leased four months before
  • Her son Matthew Caruana Galizia had occasionally used the car in the period
  • Matthew was the last person to have parked the car outside the gate of the family’s Bidnija home
  • Investigators dismantled a similar model of the car to determine whether any debris collected from the crime scene was extraneous
  • This led the police to discover the presence of an electronic board, which was part of the SIM card dock on the explosive device

The ‘small white car’

  • A person who spoke to the police had noticed a “small white car” frequenting a particular area at Tat-Targa Battery, part of the Victoria Lines
  • On the day of the murder the white car was there but unlike previous occasions the driver was not inside
  • Police noticed that next to where the car used to be parked part of a wall had collapsed and led to a place with a birds-eye view of Bidnija
  • Forensic experts combed the area for any clues, including cigarette butts
  • After the murder, the car was never seen again
  • Given Caruana Galizia did not have a fixed pattern of movement, police believe someone was shadowing her movements

The detonator

  • Location data from the Bidnija area led the police to home in on a number that received an SMS at 2.58pm and stopped broadcasting thereafter
  • The number was linked to an electronic device normally found in appliances that can be activated remotely
  • This device acted as the detonator of the car bomb
  • The device was switched on in the Bidnija area at around 2am on 16 October
  • It remained in a static location for the day until it received an SMS and disappeared

The killer SMS

  • The SMS that triggered the bomb was sent from a Nokia 105 mobile phone connected to the cell tower near the YMCA in Valletta
  • This phone was switched on, on the day of the explosion and started broadcasting from a cell ID near the Curia
  • The signal moved to Paceville, Senglea, Rinella, Zabbar and Xghajra as it bounced from cell towers north and south of the country every hour
  • The cell towers all faced seawards that led police to suspect the mobile phone was on a boat circling the island
  • The number linked to the detonator and the number that sent the SMS had been set up in November 2016 and had only corresponded with each other on three occasions

The pleasure boats

  • The Degiorgio brothers both own pleasure boats
  • CCTV footage showed that one of them – the Maya – was spotted leaving the Grand Harbour at around 8am before turning north
  • At the time the killer SMS was sent, the Maya was spotted under the Great Siege Bell area, where it stopped for a few minutes before heading towards Marsa

The top up call

  • The Secret Service had intercepted a call from George Degiorgio’s phone, asking the recipient to top him up with €5
  • The person was unable to and Degiorgio called another person, asking the same question “Don’t take long, if you can,” Degiorgio told the person
  • The person complied and minutes later topped up the number identified by George Degiorgio
  • Police obtained call profiles relating to George Degiorgio, Alfred Degiorgio and Vince Muscat
  • All mobile numbers involved were activated within 20 minutes of each other – two were activated in Senglea and the third in Hamrun

Other facts

  • Alfred Degiorgio's DNA matched that found on a cigarette butt, which was picked up from the Victoria Lines
  • Police say Alfred Degiorgio was the spotter monitoring the Caruana Galizia household and is believed to have remained all night at the vantage point
  • Alfred called his brother George Degiorgio to inform him Caruana Galizia had left the house
  • The call lasted 107 seconds, which is the time it takes to drive from the house to where the bomb exploded
  • After detonating the bomb by SMS, George Degiorgio messaged his wife with the words: "Buy me wine, my love."
  • George Degiorgio had been telling people the day before the murder that he was going fishing
  • After the incident George was heard boasting "I've caught two big fish today"
  • Though unemployed, the Degiorgio brothers each owned a boat and luxury cars
  • Europol experts accompanied Malta police investigations and searches when the three men were arrested

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