In the now-viral story of the 80-year-old clapped in jail for “stealing” mangoes, who’s the victim and who’s the villain?
Robert Hong, a truck driver and quarry worker in Asingan, Pangasinan province, who has received threats to his safety for bringing theft charges against his neighbor, Leonardo “Lolo Narding” Flores, is plagued by the question.
Flores’ detention since Jan. 13 for supposedly picking the fruit off a mango tree on Hong’s property stirred outrage on social media, turning him from a petty crime suspect into a victim of social injustice and double standard.
His case quickly drew comparison with that of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ widow Imelda Marcos—who has never seen the inside of a jail cell despite being convicted of graft on seven counts—and elicited financial aid to cover bail and more.
Flores, a resident of Barangay Bantog in Asingan, was released from the town’s detention facility on Thursday morning with at least P60,000 in cash donations. Pangasinan policemen were among the donors.
He is to be arraigned on Feb. 8 and will plead not guilty and file a motion to dismiss the case, according to his counsel, James Fernandez of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO).
‘He’s at fault’
But Hong, 52, lamented that the public misunderstood the case.
“He’s the one at fault, yet he became the hero,” Hong said of Flores in a videotaped conversation with two members of Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s staff.
Hong had made himself scarce after receiving threatening messages over the case. He declined to speak with the media but permitted the Inquirer to publish portions of the conversation.
“I feel so destroyed,” he said at one point in Filipino, adding that he had been unable to return to work in fear of his life.
Prompted by his interviewers, Hong sought to belie the perception that he was a wealthy landowner persecuting his poor neighbor.
He and Flores are actually in the same station in life, he said, explaining that he worked at a quarry site driving a truck or moving hollow blocks. “I ride my bike to go work; sometimes I borrow the truck to go home,” he said.
All Hong wants is for Flores to publicly admit wrongdoing and promise not to repeat the offense: “I will drop the case if they make a public apology. Just admit they stole from us … Admit his fault and ask for our forgiveness, and that they won’t do it again.”
In a sworn statement dated May 12, 2021, Hong said he discovered the mango tree shorn of all fruit on April 25. He quoted eyewitnesses as saying that those who picked the fruit did so on Flores’ orders.
He estimated that he lost 10 crates of mangoes with a market price of P1,200 a crate.
Hong said that after filing a complaint at the barangay office, he and Flores attended mediation meetings thrice—on April 26, April 29 and May 6.
“[Despite our] desire to settle our problem, [Flores] stood firm and told me to file a case against him and have him jailed,” Hong said.
Flores was arrested by Asingan police on Jan. 13 on the strength of a warrant issued on Dec. 20 by Judge Sarah Marcos-Martin of the 7th Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Asingan-San Manuel.
In a statement to the Inquirer, Lacson said the two men had “agreed to amicably settle their case in court” at Flores’ arraignment on Feb. 8.
“Robert’s only request is for us to help him rectify the disinformation no matter how unintentional, but unfortunately has put him in a very bad light,” said the senator and presidential candidate.
“He said that he only did what is right under the circumstances and does not deserve the treatment he is getting, mostly from the misinformed netizens and the public. We believed him,” Lacson said.
In a phone interview on Friday, Fernandez quoted Flores as saying that he did not steal the mangoes.
“Lolo Narding was duped by a wholesale buyer who approached him in April last year and offered to buy the fruits,” the lawyer said.
This was how Fernandez narrated the sequence of events to the Inquirer:
Flores was paid P1,000, supposedly for 10 kilos, by the buyer who harvested all the fruits from the tree located in a yard behind Hong’s concrete wall.
Flores did not know that the buyer took all the fruits, which should cost more than P1,000. But he insisted that his parents had planted the tree, and thought he still had the right to sell its fruits.
At the barangay hall to which the two men were called to settle the dispute, Hong wanted Flores to pay P10,000 for the mangoes—an amount that Flores said he could not provide because he had received only P1,000 from the buyer.
This prompted Hong to file the theft complaint against Flores, which was elevated to the court, Fernandez said.
The story of Flores and the mangoes came to light on Tuesday, when it was posted online by Asingan information officer Rommel Aguilar.
Netizens expressed sympathy for Flores and criticized the Philippine justice system, pointing out that certain politicians and prominent people accused of stealing had evaded capture and punishment.
“[The] justice system in the Philippines is so cruel. This is a no-brainer case! Make you want to vomit! Disgusting what they did to the elderly man,” said one netizen.
Fernandez said that while the Asingan police had pitched in for his client’s bail bond, he was wondering why no one among them thought to contact the PAO to assist the old man.
He said the courts could still accept payment of a bail bond even if these were closed due to the pandemic. “The police only had to coordinate with the courts if someone needs to pay the bail,” he said.
In his statement, Lacson said he traveled to Asingan on Thursday to “make sure I had all the facts first before offering” help to Flores.
He said his two staff members spoke with Hong and also with Flores.
“Here’s the twist: Narding Flores … did steal three sacks of mangoes worth P12,000, not 10 kilograms as earlier claimed. He sold the mangoes in the local [market] and had already spent the proceeds,” Lacson said.
The senator said Hong was “in hiding due to incessant cyberbullying.”
“Robert’s family also cries for justice. They are worried about [his] security,’’ Lacson said. “Robert continues to contact my office to ask for help, which we promised [to extend] in whatever means we can. For fairness and justice’s sake, I hope and pray that this ends well for Lolo Narding and Robert.”