“Were they killed because they knew too much?”
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Wednesday asked one of several unanswered questions about the killing of two robbery gang leaders in police custody on Monday night.
Fifteen policemen from Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon), including the regional commander, were sacked Wednesday for the suspicious shooting deaths of the two gang leaders.
Also on Wednesday, agents from the National Bureau of Investigation found a witness in San Pedro, Laguna, who contradicted the Calabarzon cops’ claim of motorcycle-riding attackers who tried to rescue their two prisoners.
Senior Agent Zaldy Rivera, of the NBI-Death Investigation Division, said the witness was on the crime scene minutes before the alleged ambush.
In separate news conferences Wednesday morning and afternoon, Director General Alan Purisima, chief of the Philippine National Police, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas announced the relief of the policemen after an outburst from De Lima on Tuesday over the killing of Ozamiz robbery gang leaders Ricky Cadavero and Wilfredo Panogalinga Jr.
First to talk to reporters Wednesday morning, Purisima said he had relieved Supt. Danilo Mendoza, commander of the Calabarzon Regional Special Operations Group (RSOG).
In the afternoon, Roxas told reporters that he had relieved Chief Supt. Benito Estipona, regional police commander of Calabarzon.
“He will be recalled to NHQ (national headquarters) pending this investigation,” Roxas said. “The moves of the RSOG were being reported to him directly. He should have known what happened.”
Roxas said he found the incident reports from the Calabarzon police and the PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) “suspicious.”
“Instead of [clarifying what happened], the reports left a number of questions unanswered,” Roxas said.
Cadavero and Panogalinga escaped from prison last year. They were recaptured in a safe house in Dasmariñas, Cavite, last Friday and illegal weapons and explosives charges were filed against them.
Long route to destination
The RSOG was supposed to turn over the two to the Bureau of Corrections for incarceration at New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City after a news conference at PNP headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City.
But the RSOG officers did not turn over the two men to the prisons bureau. In front of the bureau’s offices, they changed vehicles and drove to their camp in Dasmariñas, supposedly to put the two men through a police inquest.
The RSOG vehicle carrying Cadavero and Panogalinga took a long route via Laguna province, where, in San Pedro town, motorcycling gunmen allegedly ambushed the police vehicle in an attempt to spring the two men.
While the cops were busy fighting off the attackers, the Calabarzon police said, the two men tried to grab their police escorts’ sidearms and were shot dead by the officers.
Agent Rivera said the witness claimed that he saw two cars, a black Montero and a yellow Lancer, that blocked the road in the secluded area near the gate to the KC Golf Country Club.
In an interview with the Inquirer, the witness said he went up to the two cars, thinking that there had been an accident.
“But before I could get near, a man wearing jeans and camouflage jacket got off from the Montero, walked to the side of the road and stood there with a drawn gun,” the witness said.
The man ordered him to leave, as there would be shooting shortly, he said in Filipino.
“Get out of here, there will be shooting here,” the witness quoted the armed man as saying to him.
The witness said he saw two other cars in the middle of the road 300 meters from where he was.
“I also saw the flash of headlights, which told me vehicles stopped in the middle of the road,” the witness said.
He said he was about to leave when a van arrived.
“I heard gunfire after the van arrived and I ran away and hid in my home,” he said.
The van was the RSOG vehicle carrying Cadavero, Panogalinga, and their police escorts.
Rivera explained that the vehicles in the middle of the road could have been a blocking force to turn away motorists.
Security guards at the golf club declined to comment on the witness’ account, saying it was dark and they saw nothing.
A fact-finding team from the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) went to the scene of the crime on Wednesday to reenact the alleged ambush, but a downpour did not make a restaging of the incident possible.
“We only conducted an ocular inspection of the site and the vehicles,” said Chief Supt. Henry Rañola, CIDG deputy director for administration.
Rañola said investigators had yet to get statements from the policemen involved.
De Lima demanded an explanation from the police and Roxas had ordered an investigation.
The sackings came as the investigation began Wednesday.
Roxas named Director Catalino Cuy, currently PNP head for personnel and records management, to head the investigation and fact-finding, taking over from the IAS and the CIDG.
Roxas also named Chief Supt. Jesus Gatchalian as Calabarzon police officer in charge.
The cops who were relieved were Senior Insp. Manuel Magat, Senior Insp. Fernando Cardona, Insp. Efren Oco; SPO1 Joseph Ortega, SPO1 Jayson Semacas, PO3 Ramil Gonzales, PO3 Marvin Mejia, PO3 Eduardo Cruz and PO3 Sherwin Bulan from the RSOG; PO2 Conrado Bautista, PO2 Exiel Reyes, PO2 Kristofferson Reyes and PO1 Ryan Rey Gado from the Regional Public Safety Battalion (RPSB).
Not whole PNP
Purisima hedged when asked to comment on De Lima’s angry demand for an explanation from the police.
“I think she is not mad at the PNP. She is mad at the group involved,” Purisima said.
“We are cooperating with every investigating agency if we have to file the case. If we find out they are at fault we will not hesitate (to bring charges) and we will not even hesitate to dismiss them all from the service,” Purisima said.
He did not respond to De Lima’s accusation that the Monday morning press conference where the recaptured Ozamiz gang leaders were presented in Camp Crame was a mere show to set up their murders.
“That was her statement,” Purisima said.
Asked if he felt offended by it, Purisima did not reply.
He said the PNP called the press conference on Monday to show that law enforcers had finally caught up with Cadavero and Panogalinga, whom he described as notorious criminals.
“We are just making a statement that all criminals will eventually be caught by the long arm of the law. That incident was not predicted,” he said.
Purisima said the police team in charge clearly disobeyed orders to bring the two men to the Bureau of Corrections after Monday’s press conference.
“The order was for them to bring (the suspects) to the NBP and they brought them to Laguna. Is there a difference? I think there is, because Laguna is not the NBP,” Purisima said.
“The crime scene will tell the story, along with the medical examination of the personnel involved and the examination of the firearms used. These will tell the story. They can’t hide the truth,” he said.—With a report from Maricar Cinco, Inquirer Southern Luzon