A single mother whose lavish lifestyle far outstripped her €400 monthly social benefits cheque has been jailed and ordered to pay over €250,000 in fines after being found guilty of money laundering, together with her parents and daughter.
Muriel Micallef, 42, her parents Natalie Micallef, 67, Martin Micallef, 67 and daughter Nicole Micallef, 22 were convicted of various offences in a scathing 104 – page judgement handed down by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech earlier today.
The defendants, who make up three generations of the same family, had been charged with money laundering and related offences, as well as complicity in those offences in 2020.
Muriel Micallef was also found guilty of breaching two sets of bail conditions, while Nicole Micallef alone was additionally found guilty of insulting a police inspector.
Accused amassed thousands in luxury items despite claiming benefits
The court had been told that despite the fact that Muriel Micallef had only been employed once – for a single day – in 2006, and was supposed to be living off €400 monthly social benefits payments, had amassed a literal mountain of luxury items.
Police conducting a search at her residence at the time of her arrest in September 2020 discovered a staggering collection of designer clothes from collections by Elisabetta Franchi, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Armani and Louis Vuitton.
Representatives for the local agents for Hugo Boss, Emont, Burberry, Dolce Gabbana, Stella McCartney and Jimmy Choo, amongst others, testified that Muriel Micallef would visit their outlets once or twice every year. The court was told that she would also visit the Sliema Elisabetta Franchi outlet three or four times a year.
Almost €6,000 in transactions at designer fashion stores were recorded on her bank card from 2013 onwards.
The court had been shown a staggering ten volumes of photographs of items seized from various properties linked to Micallef. These included 260 items of designer clothing, jewellery and expensive timepieces.
Family owned expensive cars and gabled thousands at casinos
Not one for understatement, while ostensibly living on meagre social benefits, Micallef would also drive a Range Rover Evoque – registered in her mother’s name – to the police station to sign her bail book.
In fact, despite having only done a single day’s honest work in her life, Muriel Micallef was a frequent traveller who gambled thousands in Malta’s casinos. She owned two Mitsubishi Pajeros and a BMW 5 series – with a personalised number plate, while Martin Micallef owned four vehicles: two Maruti Omnis, a Toyota IST and a Toyota Liteace.
Nicole Micallef owned a Volkswagen Golf and paid for its insurance. All three had savings of less than €1,000 in their bank accounts, Martin Micallef in fact having credit card debts of nearly €1,900 in total.
Thousands in properties
In addition to the designer clothes and the expensive cars, Muriel Micallef managed to own four properties: two in Gzira, estimated as being worth €225,000 and €121,500 respectively, another property in Msida worth €240,000 and a garage in Msida worth €22,000, where the Range Rover that was used by was found.
Over €5,000 worth of electronics were seized from the defendants’ residences.
Muriel Micallef paid thousands to private hospitals for cosmetic surgeries: breast implants, lip fillers, rhinoplasty – undergoing some of these procedures after her assets had been frozen, and always paying in cash.
Muriel Micallef was also a habitual cocaine user. Data extracted from her iPhone showed photographs of drug test results, which as the court noted, were always positive.
Over the past five years, Muriel Micallef had received €38,905.66 in various social benefits.
The court had been forced to carry out its own valuation of the items, it said, pointing out that “for reasons known only to them” the Asset Recovery Bureau had imposed a four-day deadline on the expert that had been appointed to value the mountains of clothes, accessories, watches and jewellery.
The magistrate, after painstakingly tracing the family’s transactions and itemising their property, said that even had the defendants’ claim that the designer items were fakes been true – it was later disproven- their sheer number was still inconsistent with their meagre legitimate income, from which Muriel alone also had to provide for her young daughter.
“More so when taking into consideration the defendants’ trips abroad, the buying of vehicles and the gambling in casinos around Malta.”
The court said it had no doubt that the duplex maisonette in which Muriel resided was her property, discarding testimony by Carmel Grech in which he claimed to own the property and was renting it out to her, as false and intended solely to conceal the fact that the property had bought by Micallef, who was the subject of a freezing order at the time.
“Grech’s testimony doesn’t enjoy even the minimum of trustworthiness. The court notes that Grech lied under oath twice, when he testified that the duplex was his and was rented to the defendant. According to the witness, the agreement since 2012 was that the rent be deducted from the price of the property.
The fact that the notary had denied that money had changed hands in his presence did not help Grech’s credibility, said the court, “rather, in its opinion, it continues to reveal his cunning by passing on the money behind the good notary’s back.”
When called to testify a second time, Grech had realised that he made a mistake by claiming this in his original deposition and began to claim that no money had been exchanged on promise of sale, making his position worse by exhibiting a rental contract dated June 5, 2012, when the first freezing order against Micallef had been issued in March 2011.
The court said it was convinced that the duplex had been purchased by Muriel Micallef and Chris Scerri in the manner described in the latter’s testimony. “The only reason for which no contract of sale was entered into in Muriel’s name was to avoid it being subject to the freezing order issued just over a year before.”
Besides this, Muriel Micallef would have long paid off the €70,000 price declared on the promise of sale agreement in 2018 with the €580 monthly payments declared by the witness, observed the court.
Source of wealth: cocaine trafficking
The magistrate said that there was no doubt that the underlying economic activity in this case was cocaine trafficking carried out by Muriel Micallef, which had been testified to by her ex-partner and three police officers. The woman was the subject of two ongoing criminal cases relating to drug-related offences.
Likewise, there was no doubt that Martin, Natalie and Nicole Micallef not only suspected the true provenance of the money and property that they had “acquired, converted, concealed, or which ended up in their possession,” but were fully aware of the source for the “front of unlimited cash that they lived off, a life that their legitimate state could never allow them to live.”
This led the court to dismiss their defence of not having the required criminal intent to be found guilty of money laundering, which only requires them to have suspected illicit origin for the intent requisite to be satisfied.
The court heard Muriel’s daughter’s teacher testify that when the girl was just six or seven years old, she had told her that her mother wouldn’t help her with her homework because she was very busy and would “make rocks.”
Thinking the child was talking about her mother painting pebbles and selling them, the teacher asked whether this was the case. “Then she told me, ‘no,’” the teacher told the court. “She said ‘she cuts them and puts them in bags and puts them on weighing scales,’ she told me ‘they look like sweets but are not sweets.’”
Muriel’s ex-partner had told the court that her cousin, Dolores Cauchi, would import the drugs, 100g at a time, amongst shipments of souvenirs, while her father, Martin Micallef, would store the drugs for her in his garage, where he used to do woodwork.
He told the court that Muriel’s drug business operated “24/7” from her flat in Msida and was still ongoing. She would send jailbird Glen Debattista to sell drugs – a later girlfriend of his would buy her supply from one of them, whom she would meet right outside the Sliema police station.
Glenn Debattista, who was serving a jail sentence for another offence, had also testified, telling the court that he had known Muriel for many years, describing her as “like a sister” to him.
The court said it was perplexed by Debattista’s answer when asked whether he would buy clothes or gifts for Muriel. He replied that he would send her part of the money that he would earn from working in prison.
As Muriel’s accounts had been struck with a garnishee order, he would send her the money through third parties, Donatella Falzon and Marita Camilleri, because, in his own words, “Muriel would want to buy some things for herself.” Debattista denied using or ever buying drugs from Muriel.
But Magistrate Frendo Dimech was far from convinced, describing his account as a “fairy tale,” not least because the amounts he mentioned were far in excess of the maximum €5,000 that a prison inmate is allowed to have in his prison account.
Account statements that Debattista had exhibited himself showed his claims to be false.
The court noted that unlike Debattista’s testimony, the account given by Micallef’s ex-partner, Scerri, was corroborated by the evidence tendered by Inspector Mark Mercieca from the Drugs Squad.
JobsPlus records showed that the only job that Muriel Micallef ever worked was as a sales assistant at a detergent shop in 2006, where her employment lasted for just one day.
Martin Micallef had stopped working in 2011, resigning on health grounds. Nicole Micallef had been employed at a grocery store since 2020 and no employment records pertaining to Natalie Micallef were found.
A representative from the Social Security department testified that in the past five years, Muriel Micallef had received a total of €38,905.66 in various social benefits and Martin Micallef, €31,601.05 in the same period. Natalie and Nicole Micallef never had received any benefit payments.
Her parents Natalie and Martin had no savings to live on and neither had they inherited or won a large sum in the lottery that would allow them to enjoy such a comfortable lifestyle, owning so many expensive goods, while living in government housing.
Over a span of nine years between 2011 and 2020, Natalie Micallef had made 197 visits to local casinos and Martin Micallef 182, gambling a total of €27,801 and €17,119 respectively.
Finding her guilty as charged, the court sentenced Muriel Micallef to imprisonment for five years.
Her parents, Martin and Natalie Micallef, were sentenced to imprisonment for two years, suspended for four and fined €23,000 each.
Nicole Micallef was handed a 22-month prison sentence, suspended for three years.
The court was careful not to allow them to keep any of their illicitly obtained cash. It ordered the confiscation of €235,450.00 from Muriel Micallef, €19,740.23 from Martin Micallef and €30,422 from Natalie Micallef. Muriel Micallef’s bail deposits, amounting to €10,000 in total, were also confiscated.
Utilising a legal provision under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, the court also ordered that if the money and property cannot be confiscated because it had already been spent, or for other reasons, those amounts were to be converted into a civil debt.
All of their moveable and immovable property was also confiscated under the Dangerous Drugs Act.
Court orders further investigations
The court ordered the Commissioner of Police to investigate Carmel Grech for perjury, laundering the proceeds of crime, making false tax declarations and breaching a freezing order.
Copies of the judgement were ordered to be delivered to the Tax Commissioner, for him to decide whether to investigate Grech’s and his company, CG Props Ltd’s, incomes with respect to the income evidently made from the sale of one of the properties in Pieta; and to the Department of Social Security with respect to the undue payment of benefits.
The Commissioner of Police was also ordered to immediately investigate Glenn Debattista, Marion Schembri and Dolores Cauchi.
The defendants were also ordered to pay a total of €15,677 to cover the costs of engaging court experts. In view of her drug problems, Muriel Micallef was placed under a three-year treatment order.