As many as 242 gun owners live in the neighborhood of Stephanie Nicole Ella, the 7-year-old girl who was hit and killed by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve, records of the Philippine National Police showed.
Of the number of licensed firearms owners in the Tala area, composed of four villages in Caloocan City, 45 are in possession of .45-caliber pistols, possibly including the one that killed Nicole, whose death has triggered public outrage and calls for tighter gun control.
According to the PNP’s Firearms and Explosives Office, there are 242 registered guns in Tala. Of this, 138 are registered under a security agency, which operates from the area, while 104 are owned by private individuals, including the 45 who own .45-caliber pistols.
Not yet off the hook
The hunt for the still unidentified reveler who fired the shot that killed Nicole continues, even as the ex-soldier who owned up to firing his gun that night but was apparently exonerated by a ballistics test, has yet to be fully absolved of responsibility, said Chief Supt. Raul Petrasanta, who heads the firearms and explosives office.
Nicole was watching a fireworks display outside the family home on New Year’s Eve when a .45-caliber bullet, apparently from celebratory gunfire, hit her in the head. She died at East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City on Wednesday afternoon.
Police later said the bullet that killed Nicole was fired from a gun just 50 meters from where she stood.
Juan Agus, a former intelligence officer of the Presidential Security Group who is now a barangay official, turned himself in on Thursday. He admitted to having fired his 1911 pistol during the New Year’s Eve celebrations, taking turns with three other friends.
But the Caloocan police later concluded that Agus’ 1911 pistol was not the gun from which the bullet that killed Nicole was fired.
Not so fast
However, Petrasanta and Malacañang said Agus was not yet home free.
“We will have to check because what if the pistol [that killed Nicole] is Llama-made and your gun is not Llama-made. But what if you only changed it? Or what if you also changed the firing pin? We will check carefully,” Petrasanta said.
Besides, the Caloocan police investigation has yet to be completed, he said.
The PNP official said that based on PNP records, Agus owns three pistols, the .45-caliber 1911 pistol, a .22-caliber and a 9 mm.
He stands to lose all his licenses and have his guns confiscated for violating regulations, Petrasanta said.
“The mere fact that he let other people borrow his gun and they fired it was already a violation of indiscriminate firing. That’s just one of the grounds to revoke his license,” he said.
In Malacañang, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Agus and his three friends would be charged with indiscriminate firing, an act falling under the crime of illegal discharge of firearms.
“He himself admitted that he had a gun and he fired it at the time. While it is not the same gun that fired the bullet that led to the demise of Stephanie, that is still a crime in and of itself,” Valte told a Palace briefing.
Charges dismissed, P1,000 bail
But even as Petrasanta and Valte spoke, Agus and his three friends were getting a reprieve from the Caloocan prosecutor’s office.
Nida C. Gravino, senior assistant prosecutor, on Friday dismissed charges of illegal discharge of firearms and negligence against Agus and his drinking buddies, Arcadio Gulmatico, Eddie Magtubo and Feliciano Cercano.
The four men were detained on Thursday and were subjected to inquest proceedings on Friday, where Gravino dismissed the charge of illegal discharge of firearms for lack of evidence, approving charges of alarm and scandal only.
“There was no proof to the effect that when the gun was fired, it was aimed at a person. There was no witness who declared to the effect that these people fired the gun,” Gravino said in a telephone interview.
She also dismissed the charge of negligence against Agus for letting his drinking buddies take turns in firing his .45-caliber gun.
A P1,000 bail was recommended for the temporary liberty of the four suspects, who remained in the custody of Caloocan police as of press time on Friday.
However, the four suspects will still face a preliminary investigation for the case of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide in connection with the death of Nicole.
According to Gravino, the city prosecutor, Ferdinand Valbuena, ordered the conduct of a preliminary investigation to determine if there was probable cause to file charges of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide against the four suspects.
The hearing will be conducted next week, and the police could submit additional evidence then, she said.
The Caloocan police said it had narrowed down the search for Nicole’s killer to the 45 known owners of .45-caliber guns in the Malaria district of northern Caloocan.
Supt. Jackie Candelario, assistant chief for operations and Caloocan police spokesperson, said the bullet that hit Nicole came from about 50 meters away, or about the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or about half a football pitch.
“After our reenactment on Thursday night, we found out that the bullet was fired from just 50 meters away. And based on the way the bullet hit Nicole, we can say that it was fired from her back,” he said.
Candelario said they are looking into all .45-caliber gun owners in Malaria but there is also the possibility that the gunman was just visiting Nicole’s neighborhood that night.
“The next step for us is to compare the ballistic signatures of the gun owners in this area with that of the signature left on the bullet which hit Nicole,” he said.
Parallel NBI probe
Petrasanta has urged Nicole’s neighbors to report other people they might have seen firing guns during the New Year revelry.
“Of course the biggest help will come from witnesses. If they saw their neighbor fire his gun, they should also report it so we can pinpoint other suspects. Perhaps it was not only Agus but many others,” he said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Friday said she has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a parallel investigation into the death of Nicole.
De Lima said she would also be going to Nicole’s wake last night as President Aquino’s representative, “primarily to assure the family that justice will be served.” With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and Jerome Aning
First posted 6:39 pm | Friday, January 4th, 2013