Joel Reyes back to reclaim top Palawan seat
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan, Philippines —Former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes, the principal suspect in the 2011 murder of environmentalist and hard-hitting broadcaster Gerry Ortega, emerged in public for the first time in years on Sunday to campaign for his bid to return to the seat of power in the provincial government.
Reyes resurfaced after obtaining a temporary restraining order (TRO) on March 23 from the Supreme Court against the warrant of arrest issued by a Palawan court in July 2021 in connection with the slaying of Ortega, who was gunned down in a thrift shop near his veterinary clinic in this city on Jan. 24, 2011.
“It was like mission impossible. I never thought or imagine[d] I would ever be able to come back here,” Reyes, the principal accused in the Ortega murder case, said in a speech before his supporters who welcomed him in his residence in the village of Sta. Monica.
Sunday’s appearance of Reyes, who filed his candidacy by proxy last year, marked the start of his campaign for the gubernatorial race in May.
Reyes, running as an independent, is vying for the seat against incumbent Vice Gov. Dennis Socrates and four other candidates—Art Ventura, Erick Abueg, Richard Lopez and Agapito Salido Jr.
Outgoing Gov. Jose Alvarez, who is serving his last term, is running for congressman in the second district of the province.
Reyes is accused of masterminding the 11-year-old Ortega murder slay, along with his brother, incumbent Coron Mayor Mario Reyes, who is seeking reelection for his third term.
Reyes explained that the Supreme Court decision to issue a TRO was in response to his camp’s motion for reconsideration seeking the “lifting of the warrant of arrest and reinstating the [petition for the] dismissal of the case filed at the Court of Appeals (CA).”
Petition for review
He flew to Puerto Princesa from Metro Manila on Sunday and immediately visited a local church to attend a service as his first appearance in public after his release from detention early last year to serve his sentence for a graft case.
Reyes’ legal counsel, lawyer Joaquin Hizon, said they filed a petition for review of the high court’s ruling rejecting the CA’s previous decision to acquit his client of Ortega’s murder.
“’Yon yong nakasampa ngayon sa Supreme Court. Habang yon ay pinag-aaralan ng Supreme Court, meron tayong TRO sa korte at sa implementing agencies ng gobyerno (That’s what we have filed in the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court is reviewing our case, we have a TRO on the court and other implementing agencies of the government),” Hizon said.
In December 2019, the CA set aside its January 2018 ruling that upheld Reyes’ petition questioning the merit of his trial. The CA then reinstated the murder case against Reyes and directed the Palawan regional trial court (RTC) to issue a warrant of arrest against the former governor.
However, by then Reyes was already in detention for a graft conviction in a mining case in 2017. He was moved to a jail at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City in Metro Manila where he remained until his release in April 2021.
Ortega was shot multiple times in the head and body by a lone assailant in Puerto Princesa City.
The alleged gunman, Marlon Recamata, was caught with the help of bystanders. His alleged accomplices, Dennis Aranas and Armando Noel Loria, were arrested in the following days.
Recamata later confessed to the killing and said his group was hired for the hit job in exchange for P150,000 by Rodolfo Edrad Jr., a former Reyes bodyguard.
Arrested in Thailand
In February 2011, Ortega’s widow, Patria Gloria, filed a murder complaint against Reyes, his brother Mario and 10 others at the Department of Justice (DOJ), saying only Reyes had the motive to order her husband killed.
In his daily radio program, Ortega had criticized Reyes for the former governor’s inability to stop the abuses and violations of environmental laws committed by mining companies in Palawan.
In March 2012, Reyes and his brother, fled to Vietnam to evade arrest after the DOJ indicted them for Ortega’s murder.
After a three-year manhunt, the Reyes brothers were arrested in Phuket, Thailand, in September 2015 and deported to Manila for violating Thai immigration laws. They were eventually detained at the Puerto Princesa City jail.
In January 2016, the Supreme Court directed the Palawan RTC to proceed with the trial of Reyes for the murder of Ortega.
The RTC denied Reyes’ petition for bail in September 2016.
In January 2018, Reyes was released from the Puerto Princesa City jail after the CA upheld his petition questioning the merit of his trial as suspect in the case.
But in November 2019, a CA decision penned by Associate Justice Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob set aside its January 2018 ruling, reinstating the case and directing the Palawan RTC to issue a warrant of arrest against Reyes.
On July 14, 2021, Judge Angelo Arizala of Branch 52 of the Palawan RTC issued the arrest warrant, nearly two years after the CA reversed its own 2018 decision to dismiss the murder case against Reyes for lack of probable cause.
—With REPORTS FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH