The “big fish” caught earlier this year by authorities in their fight against car thieves has just gotten away.
Jovel Entote—described by the police as the “godfather of car theft syndicates” in the country—was ordered freed Thursday by a Quezon City judge who said the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The 43-year-old Entote was accused of shooting dead Rodolfo Petaliano, the driver of a white Toyota Grandia van in April 2009, and stealing the vehicle from the parking lot of a church on Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City.
Then Highway Patrol Group (HPG) director Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina—now head of the National Capital Region Police Office—described Entote following his arrest in August as their “biggest catch since the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) and HPG launched a crackdown against carjacking in February.”
“We expect [his] arrest to further bring down the incidence of car theft in the country,” Espina added.
In his ruling, Judge Eleuterio Bathan of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 92 cited the inconsistencies in the testimony of two prosecution witnesses.
The judge noted that one of the witnesses, a parking attendant, had described Petalino’s killer as dressed in a yellow shirt with a collar.
However, another parking attendant who also testified in court had said that the gunman was wearing a black jacket and a ballcap.
“There is a scintilla of doubt in the mind of the court whether … accused was the same person who shot Rodolfo Sambayon Petalino and thereafter took the Toyota Grandia … To the mind of the court, [witnesses] Joseph and Daniel failed to identify accused with moral certainty …,” Bathan said in his 35-page decision.
He added: “The identification of accused as the perpetrator of the crime could in no way be considered as positive and credible … Besides, Joseph and Daniel’s testimonies are tainted with incredibility.”
One of the “incredible” facts cited by the judge was the witnesses’ claim that the police investigator who initially took down their sworn statements on April 10, 2009, used a typewriter.
According to Bathan, this was not possible because the copies of their testimonies submitted to his office looked like these had been printed using a computer.
At this point in the proceedings, an emotional Entote started sobbing and embracing his lawyers.
The judge went on to say that when the Toyota Grandia which was believed to have been the same one stolen from Petalino was recovered by authorities in Bacolod City in October 2011, Entote was not the one behind the wheel.
The man who was caught driving the Grandia at a police checkpoint, Norman Kho of NKB Lending Corp., had testified in court that he and Entote agreed to swap vehicles in 2009. In exchange for his Lexus, Entote gave him the van and it was only after he was accosted by authorities that he learned that it was a stolen vehicle.
Bathan, meanwhile, further observed that the prosecution’s presentation of circumstantial evidence to establish Entote’s guilt was insufficient to convict him for the crime of car theft with homicide.
“While it is true that there are a series or chain of circumstances proving that there was defacing and/or tampering [with] the engine/serial and chassis numbers of [the] Toyota Super Grandia … the identity of the accused with moral certainty is doubtful,” the judge said.
According to him, moral certainty is the degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind.
“Thus, relying on these circumstances, this court cannot render a verdict of conviction against the accused,” he added.
Arsenio Evangelista, the father of Venson, a car dealer who was killed by car thieves in January 2011, expressed dismay over the judge’s decision.
Evangelista, a member of the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption’s core group Volunteers against Carnappers (Vacnappers) who attended the promulgation, told reporters: “We were hoping for a conviction but then we still have legal remedies for this.”
He added: “It does not mean that when someone is acquitted, he is innocent. It (charge) just was not proven beyond reasonable doubt. We think alibi is a very weak defense.”
Evangelista was referring to Entote’s claim that he was in Boracay with his family at the time the car theft and Petalino’s killing took place.
He said that there was nobody to blame for the acquittal because everybody involved in the prosecution pitched in. “It just so happened that [this] was how the judge appreciated the facts.”
“We lost the first round but we might be able to recover in the second round,” Evangelista added.
Senior State Prosecutor Rosanne Balauag said they would file a petition for certiorari in the Court of Appeals questioning Bathan’s decision.
PAOCC executive director Chief Supt. Reginald Villasanta, meanwhile, said in a statement that Entote’s acquittal was a big but temporary setback in the government’s fight against organized criminal groups.
He maintained that the prosecution had a solid case with 15 credible witnesses against only two for the defense.
“This will not deter us from carrying out our mandate to run after crime syndicates and bringing those criminals to the bar of justice. There will be no letup in the fight against organized crimes.”
According to the HPG, Entote used his car trading business in Cebu province to sell stolen vehicles in Visayas and Mindanao.