Guevarra vows thorough probe of artist’s death in La Union
MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Tuesday said he will issue a lookout order on art patron Julian Ongpin in connection with the investigation into the death on Saturday of visual artist Bree Jonson.
Guevarra made this assurance following an appeal by Jonson’s mother that the government issue a hold-departure order as well on Ongpin, whom the police in La Union province released from their custody on Monday on the order of the local prosecutors’ office. Possession of illegal drugs is a nonbailable offense.
Ongpin, 29, is the son of tycoon and former trade and industry minister Roberto Ongpin. Jonson, 30, was a leading figure among her generation in the visual arts scene.
The Philippine National Police chief, Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, confirmed Ongpin’s release but vowed a “thorough” investigation into Jonson’s death.
Ongpin and Jonson checked in at a hostel in the town of San Juan on Friday night. They left later that evening with some friends and returned in the wee hours of Saturday.
The hostel staff said they heard Ongpin and Jonson having an argument early that morning. This prompted the staff to call the police, who found Jonson unconscious in bed upon entering their room.
Jonson was brought to a hospital in San Fernando City, the provincial capital, where she was declared dead.
According to Maj. Gerardo Macaraeg, the police chief in San Juan, police found “plenty of cocaine [on] the bed.” The local crime laboratory said the drugs weighed 12.6 grams.
Ongpin was arrested and charged with possession of illegal drugs. He also tested positive in a drug test.
But Deputy Provincial Prosecutor Braulio Tade ordered his release on Monday, saying that “the apprehension of the respondent does not fall under any of the instances… where warrantless arrest is allowed.”
Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar said the local prosecutor opted for a preliminary investigation, instead of directly filing a criminal case against Ongpin, to allow police investigators to gather evidence against him and to determine if there was foul play in Jonson’s death.
She also said “the transfer of the case to another jurisdiction is under consideration and will be discussed with the regional prosecutor and [the justice secretary].”
Guevarra said “it’s not really a transfer of jurisdiction because in criminal cases, jurisdiction lies in the place where the offense was committed.”
He said “It may only be a case of a prosecutor in another place being designated to conduct the preliminary investigation as acting prosecutor for the place where the offense was committed.”
“[Nevertheless] I just want to assure everyone that this matter will be investigated thoroughly to find out the truth and to ensure that justice will be done,” Guevarra told reporters.
A cousin of Jonson, Jill Villanueva-Palarca, said the family was surprised about Ongpin’s release.
“There’s always that fear and we hope not, because if he will leave, that is very telling, it will raise suspicion, so, I suggest that he doesn’t leave. He was the last person seen [with my cousin], so, it’s only logical to raise some questions,” Palarca said in a phone interview.
She said the same concern “has been expressed by friends, by the community. It’s not a sentiment that’s exclusive to the family. Everyone who wants justice has that fear. But right now, we want to put our trust in the system. I hope that the system will work for us.”
In an interview with ANC, Jonson’s mother Salome claimed that strangle marks and bruises had been found on her daughter’s neck.
But Palarca said the family was still awaiting the results of the autopsy before it could make any conclusion.
Investigators began an autopsy on Jonson’s body on Monday, two days after her death.
—WITH A REPORT FROM DEXTER CABALZA
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