Every now and then we read about somebody’s exploits and we think: isn’t this the stuff of a possible Netflix series? It’s usually about somebody who lives in another country, but a recent case concerned a single mother in Malta who enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in spite of the miserly social benefits she was on – just €400 monthly in social benefits.
The mother – 42-year-old Muriel Micallef – has been found guilty of money laundering and other offences, as were her parents and daughter who had conspired with her in several criminal activities. Micallef was jailed and ordered to pay over €250,000 in fines, her assets were confiscated and she was jailed. Imagine: the magistrate had to write a 104-page judgment in order to describe how the three generations of the family had lived the good life illicitly.
Micallef was said to have only been employed once in her lifetime, as a sales assistant in a detergent shop for a single day! We didn’t get to know who had employed her and what she was paid. Otherwise, she was “self-employed”, defrauding the government of social benefits and trafficking in cocaine. It was a weird combination of incomes, I would say: receiving the fruits of the State’s social welfare net reserved for the most vulnerable and topping them by that most anti-social activity of all – wrecking other people’s lives.
Hats off to Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech who reconstructed Micallef’s machinations and made up for the apparently slipshod job done by other competent authorities. We now know that the single mother had amassed a mountain of luxury designer clothes ranging from Tommy Hilfiger to Louis Vuitton, on which she spent almost €6,000. Jewellery and expensive timepieces were also a favourite of hers; she must have been an expert in co-ordinating her accessories with her outfits.
Of course, all this required her to show off by driving here and there in her Range Rover Evoque – that by itself set her back some €81,000. But, of course, driving the Evoque every day, including to go to the police station and sign her bail book, was just not on; she also had two Mitsubishi Pajeros for when she wanted to go and buy her groceries, and a BMW 5 series for when she went to shop at the fashion outlets. Micallef was not selfish: she shared her wealth with her father, buying him four cars of different makes, though her daughter probably drove one of them as well as she only had a Volkswagen Golf, the poor thing.
Like all clever Maltese, she didn’t trust the banks. In fact, she and her parents had less than €1,000 in their bank accounts while her father, Martin Micallef, being a pensioner, had credit card debts of nearly €1,900. Instead, she invested her earnings from drugs in four properties. We all know – except the Inland Revenue Department, apparently – that property is the favourite way of hiding illicitly-gained wealth. No wonder we need to have so much construction going on.
Oh, I haven’t mentioned so far that the single mother liked to travel frequently and gamble – several thousands, in fact. When she was not inhaling cocaine – as the drug test results on the mobile showed – Micallef was forking out thousands of euros for cosmetic surgeries. I doubt whether there was any part of her body that wasn’t fake, as she went from one private hospital to another for breast implants, lip fillers and rhinoplasty – all paid in cash, by the way, as some of her assets had already been frozen by bank order.
The single mother at least once had an innocent child. 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 ingenuous teacher asked whether this was the case. “No,” replied the child, adding that her mother cut them, put them in bags, and weighed them. “They look like sweets but are not sweets,” the child told her teacher.
Now, to put all this into context. We know very well that women are demanding to be taken seriously and are fighting for equal pay for equal work. So, one might reasonably ask what makes drug dealing by women any different from that done by men. Maybe it’s because men stereotype women as petite, polite, and harmless. It’s hard enough being a female boss in a corporate environment. Imagine doing so in the rough and tumble world of drug dealing.
The notorious female drug dealers of the world — like Sandra Avia Beltrán, Julia Diaco, or Griselda Blanco (of Narcos fame) – stepped into shoes traditionally filled by men. They made names for themselves in the underground drug world – for better or worse. Now, not to be outdone, Malta has its own Muriel Micallef who, even if she did not kill other dealers, could be the subject of a good TV series, if there are just a good scriptwriter and an able film director out there somewhere.
Losing a loved one
In the few weeks before Christmas, people were decorating their Christmas tree, others taking out the odd crib, others yet buying all the ingredients and spirits for their Christmas dinner, and most of us rushing to buy presents. Increasingly, it’s not that people want to celebrate the birth of a child some two thousand years ago; after all, he was just a poor child, had no Ralph Lauren polo shirts, and spent his adult life saying odd things like that we should sell all our possessions – like anyone would want to deprive himself of his Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime or Le Collier’s Blue de Reve necklace.
In my case, I too engage in some of these activities. I am not about to say that I do not enjoy Christmas and getting together with the children and grandchildren. Yet, there is a void – one that I feel most, actually, when there are special holidays. When I start trawling hotels and AirBnB to book an agriturismo for our Christmas holiday, each time I click on a property I remember that there’s one less member of the family to book. It is the space for a companion that no number of guests could ever fill.
As I write this piece, I remember that therapists want bereaved persons like myself to prepare ourselves for holidays and birthdays, social occasions and weddings, to gird ourselves for going to events where intact families will be present, where everyone is celebrating landmarks.
The problem is, though, that it’s not just during holidays that we feel the great emotional depth of the absence of a loved one. Bereavement is a curious feeling: it is daily and it is constant. It is the knowledge that I must prepare dinner for one, book a single rather than a double, and go to a concert on my own. I feel off kilter, remembering that many holidays have been celebrated and my companion has been away from all of them.
It’s not just the celebrations. It’s the everyday happenings, whether it is going for a walk, stopping at a café, choosing a restaurant where to have an intimate dinner, discussing how our grandchildren are doing, arguing over whether we should buy a new Persian carpet or splash the money on something else. This is all made more complicated when I recall my companion’s long battle with chemotherapy, endless hospitalisations and all the other indignities of cancer care.
I miss doing our humdrum chores together as much as the celebrations. And, yet, on this Christmas, I was still grateful that I had the chance to spend 45 years with my companion and share the joys and pain of life. Having been the other day to a funeral of a friend of mine who had left behind his wife and two children, I acknowledge how human we all are and how, if we look closely enough, we might see that of the experience of loss binds us all in its universality.
A billionaire at McDonald’s
Warren Buffett, the world’s fifth richest man, with a net worth of $120.5 billion, once joked he would have faced a fast-food Thanksgiving had the US government not bailed out the banks during the 2008 financial crisis. The billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway CEO was underscoring the enormous threat posed by the crisis.
Few would put it past him to follow through on a fast-food Thanksgiving. Typically, Buffett grabs breakfast at McDonald’s during his morning drive to the office, opting for a pricier bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit (price: $6.74) if he’s feeling especially wealthy! He also has one of the restaurant chain’s gold cards, which entitle him to free McDonald’s meals for life in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
The joke came up again during an op-ed he wrote in the New York Times recently. “The challenge was huge, and many people thought you were not up to it,” he wrote. “Well, Uncle Sam, you delivered.” None are more qualified than Buffett to pass judgment on the response of the US Federal Reserve in that period. After all, he too did his bit, by investing billions of dollars in blue-chip companies, including GE and Goldman Sachs, and extending a cash lifeline to ailing businesses such as Harley-Davison.
You might ask what the relevance of this is to Malta. Well, many of us could have been faced with eating at McDonald’s had the government not subsidised heavily all types of businesses when the post-covid logistics disruption, the skyrocketing shopping costs, then the Ukraine war, and the spike in inflation hit in close succession. So, buffeted consumers might well say “Well, Uncles Rob and Clyde, you delivered.”
In the USA the Federal Reserve pumped billions of dollars into the economy in 2008 and again in 2021-2023. In Malta, the government did the same. Both resulted in fiscal deficits and increasing debt. Was it worth it? Anybody who replies in the negative needs his head examined. It saved thousands of jobs, kept the economy humming until it could take off again, and staved off the worst effects of high inflation.
Yet, the Opposition, which heavily criticised the Government for doing nothing or not doing anything, goes on daily about the deficit and the public debt. Not that their ratios to GDP should not be reduced, but to expect that they should be lowered instantaneously is another irresponsible demand. Such a course of action would bring economic turmoil. The only reasonable thing to do is to do this over two to four years.