CEBU CITY—Ten years after his wife’s body was found inside a black garbage bag dumped in a ravine, Rep. Ruben Ecleo Jr. of Dinagat Island was found guilty of parricide and sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or at least 30 years’ imprisonment.
Ecleo, who was not present during the reading of the verdict, was found guilty of killing his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo inside their home in Cebu City in 2002. Aside from a life sentence, the “supreme master” of the cult group Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) was also ordered to pay the heirs of his wife P25 million in compensatory damages, to represent what Alona would have earned had she been able to finish and practice medicine.
Alona, a fourth year medical student, was strangled by Ecleo inside their home at Sitio Banawa, Barangay Guadalupe, Cebu City on Jan. 5, 2002. Her body was found three days later inside a black garbage bag dumped in a ravine in Dalaguete town, southern Cebu.
Aside from the compensatory damages, Judge Soliver Peras of Regional Trial Court Branch 10 also told Ecleo to pay Alona’s family P200,000 in moral damages, P200,000 in exemplary damages, P200,000 in attorney’s fees and P50,000 temperate damages.
Guilty of graft
Ecleo was represented by his lawyer Orlando Salatandre who said he didn’t know where his client was as they only communicated by phone. Ecleo was detained at the Cebu City jail but released on a P1-million bail in March 2004, after the court allowed him to seek medical treatment for his heart ailment. His cardiologist had described him as a “walking time bomb” who could drop dead anytime due to probable cardiac complications.
Ecleo also faces a 31-year jail term after the Sandiganbayan found him guilty of three counts of graft during his stint as mayor of San Jose, Dinagat Island, for overpaying for the construction of two municipal buildings and for spending public funds for a women’s center owned by his group, the PBMA.
Salatandre said they would appeal the verdict before a higher court because there were issues raised by the defense that were not appreciated by the court. One of them was the question of identification. The defense contended that the woman found dead in Dalaguete was not Alona.
Alona’s family members, who were all in black, cried after the verdict was handed down. “Finally, my sister can rest in peace,” said Alona’s younger brother Josebil, one of the prosecution witnesses.
Josebil had testified that he heard his sister scream on the night that she was killed, and that he later saw Ecleo’s bodyguards carrying a garbage bag that they placed inside a vehicle.
But for PBMA member Virgie Novicio, the court decision only reaffirmed their master’s mission: to sacrifice himself so their organization would be known worldwide.
“Our organization would not have been known if this (killing) didn’t happen,” she said.
The promulgation capped a 10-year trial that was marked by the inhibition of six judges handling the case. Judge Peras was the seventh judge to handle the Ecleo parricide case.
Security was tight at the Palace of Justice and only a limited number of people were allowed inside the courtroom. Even the camps of Ecleo and Bacolod were allowed only 20 representatives each.
More than 50 policemen roved around the Palace of Justice building at the Capitol compound in Cebu City since 6 a.m. on Friday, while PBMA members clad in white shirts were seen gathering outside the courtroom, apparently to lend moral support to their “supreme master.” They could be recognized by the PBMA ring on their finger.
The promulgation was scheduled at 3 p.m. but Judge Peras came out of his chambers at 5:17 p.m. “I’m sorry our computer is not of standard, so we have to wait for a long time to finish the printing,” he told the courtroom, referring to his 100-page decision.
In his decision, Judge Peras described as weak Ecleo’s defense and alibi that he was at the PBMA chapter in Talisay at the time that Alona was killed. Ecleo also claimed that the body found in Dalaguete was not Alona who, he said, didn’t come home after she went out with her friends.
But Judge Peras noted that Ecleo did not make any effort to look for his wife nor did he report her missing when she failed to come home.
Instead, he went to Lapu-Lapu City and later to Bogo City where he had a sing-along session with his friends. Peras said that after he arrived from Bogo, the accused went to the police homicide section but only because the police had invited him after Alona’s siblings had reported her missing.
Peras pointed out that the accused claimed his organization had millions of members nationwide and had 20,000 members in Cebu alone—enough manpower to help him look for his wife. “One word from him would galvanize his members into action to look for Alona Bacolod,” the court said.
Flight to Dinagat
The court also noticed that before the body of Alona was found in Dalaguete on Jan. 8, 2002, Ecleo left Cebu and went home to Dinagat Island purportedly to look for his wife. The flight to Dinagat was an indication of guilt, the court said.
The court added that when members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Central Visayas (CIDG-7) went to Dinagat on June 18, 2002, to serve his arrest warrant, Ecleo did not surrender to authorities. Instead, his supporters fought back to prevent his arrest, with the resulting three-hour gunbattle causing the death of 16 cult members and a policemen. At least 2,000 PBMA members had barricaded the Ecleo mansion and fired at the policemen to prevent them from taking their “supreme master.”
Alona’s family killed
During the siege in Dinagat, a lone gunman killed Alona’s parents, Elpidio and Rosalia, her brother Ben and sister Evelyn at the family residence in Barangay Subangdaku, Mandaue City.
The attack came minutes after Ben, a vital witness in the parricide case against Ecleo, was interviewed during an evening radio program.
Also killed was the victims’ neighbor, Paterno Lactawan, who was hit in a crossfire.
The gunman was shot dead by responding policemen. He was identified as Rico Gumonong, a security guard and a PBMA member. With a report from Adol Mayol, Inquirer Visayas
First posted 7:51 pm | Friday, April 13th, 2012