2 cops nabbed in Edsa kidnap; 7 more hunted
MANILA, Philippines–What began as an uploaded photograph that went viral on social media last week turned out to be a police-orchestrated highway robbery to the tune of P2 million.
Nine policemen, including seven assigned to the La Loma police station of the Quezon City Police District (QCPD), have been tagged in a daring abduction and robbery on Edsa on Sept. 1.
The crime may not have been brought to public attention if not for a netizen who posted the photo on Twitter.
Of the nine lawmen, two were officials and batchmates at the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) Class of 2001, according to documents obtained by the Inquirer.
The highest-ranking among them, Chief Insp. Joseph de Vera, La Loma station deputy commander, was subjected to inquest proceedings for brigandage or highway robbery and kidnapping with serious illegal detention in the Mandaluyong City Prosecutors’ Office on Monday.
The Eastern Police District (EPD) director, Chief Supt. Abelardo Villacorta, said De Vera, 39, was tagged after it was learned that his silver gray Toyota Hiace Commuter van with conduction sticker YF 9767 was one of four vehicles that blocked a white Toyota Fortuner bearing the two victims.
The blue Honda Civic with license plate No. ZJB 149, another vehicle in the viral photo, is owned by former Insp. Marco Polo Estrera, who was dismissed in 2006.
Aside from De Vera, also tagged were Senior Insp. Oliver Villanueva, SPO1 Ramil Hachero, PO2 Weavin Masa, PO2 Mark de Paz, PO2 Jerome Datinguinoo, PO2 Ebonn Decatoria—all of the La Loma police station; and PO2 Jonathan Rodriguez of the QCPD’s public safety battalion.
All the suspects save for Rodriguez were assigned to the La Loma police station’s follow-up section as detectives.
De Vera was arrested before dawn on Sunday right at the La Loma police station when the National Capital Region Police Office chief, Director Carmelo Valmoria, went to the police station to conduct a regular inspection.
It so happened that Villacorta and his team were also at the police station, close on the heels of the policemen who were identified by the two victims, employees of a contractor in Lanao del Sur province.
“We informed the regional director that we were there to follow up the Sept. 1 incident and we talked to De Vera,” Villacorta said.
Villacorta had formed a special investigation unit, Task Group Wack-Wack, after the photograph of the incident went viral on social media.
At first, De Vera played dumb about the incident but eventually admitted that he and the others carried out an antidrug operation along Edsa, based on a tip from a female informant.
However, the police official could not present any coordination papers or even a blotter entry of the supposed arrest, since the victims were set free after losing their money.
“He maintained that it was an antinarcotics operation and it was not a robbery,” Villacorta said.
Previous Fortuner owner
The EPD managed to track down the victims through the previous owner of the white Toyota Fortuner, whose license plate was captured in a surveillance camera footage on Edsa.
The previous owner, a businessman in Mindanao, had sold it to a former councilor in Lanao del Sur, who was the victims’ boss.
The victims’ boss, engineer Cariong Malik, was convinced to persuade his employees to report the incident, which happened at a gas station on Edsa’s southbound lane, a few hundred meters away from the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame.
“We also asked around near the area where it happened. Fortunately, we got some information and it helped a lot in our investigation,” Villacorta said.
After much prodding, victims Ustadz Samanodin Abdul Gafur and Camal Mama surfaced at the EPD headquarters on Sept. 6.
According to the victims, they were in Manila to buy heavy equipment worth P2 million for their boss.
A former girlfriend of one of the victims apparently knew about their trip and that they were carrying a huge amount of money.
“They were at SM Mall of Asia to meet their contact when the woman called them, asking them to meet them at SM North Edsa. They arrived at the mall and then they got a call from the representative, saying he was already at SM MOA,” Villacorta said.
While cruising along the southbound lane of Edsa in Mandaluyong City around 2:45 p.m. on Sept. 1, they were waylaid by three vehicles and a motorcycle, after which around 10 armed men were seen pointing their guns at them.
One of the policemen, who turned out to be De Vera, was seen smashing the rear windshield of the white Toyota Fortuner. A motorist photographed the incident and uploaded it on Twitter.
Villacorta said the victims were brought to the La Loma police station where they were held for seven hours in two offices on the first and second floors.
ATM cards seized
“They were told to pretend to be policemen so as not to arouse suspicion. The whole while, they were held without being told if they were being charged and what the offense was,” the EPD director said.
Aside from the P2 million, the victims’ ATM cards were seized by the suspects, who withdrew a total of P119,000.
They were eventually released at 9 p.m. that day after the policemen had the broken windshield of their white Toyota Fortuner repaired on Banawe Street, Quezon City.
“They were even threatened by the policemen not to report the incident, or else they will be killed. They were initially hesitant to come to us,” Villacorta said.
Video images enhanced
The vehicles of Estrera and De Vera were identified in the incident after images from surveillance cameras on Edsa were enhanced to show the license plate numbers.
The EPD went to the La Loma police station before dawn on Sunday to confront the policemen, but only chanced upon De Vera, who was the officer in charge at that time.
Valmoria was also at the station to conduct an inspection when the arresting team arrived.
During the interrogation, De Vera initially denied any knowledge of the incident but eventually admitted that his group had carried out an antinarcotics operation.
Not in blotter
However, Villacorta said the supposed operation was not coordinated with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). There was no spot report or record in the police blotter.
It was De Vera who listed on a piece of paper the names of his eight other cohorts, maintaining all the while that it was a legitimate operation brought on by a female tipster.
“We believe that this female tipster is the woman the victims were talking to prior to the incident. We are considering this woman as a possible suspect,” Villacorta said.
In the press conference, the EPD detailed the participation of those involved:
— Villanueva was purportedly the owner and driver of the Fortuner also photographed in the incident.
— Hachero was the man in green who seemed to be pointing a gun at the victims’ car.
— Rodriguez was aboard Villanueva’s car.
— Masa, De Paz, Datinguinoo and Decatoria participated in the detention of the victims in the La Loma police station.
Rodriguez was arrested on Monday afternoon by tracker teams, said the QCPD director, Chief Supt. Richard Albano.
“We do not condone this kind of brazen acts. We are looking into the administrative and criminal records of these policemen and they will not go unpunished,” he said.
Albano said the QCPD Station 1-La Loma commander, Supt. Osmundo de Guzman, had been sacked from his post.
Albano said he relieved De Guzman on Thursday last week for command responsibility in the case which implicated his men.
“Whether he knew about it or not, it is still his responsibility being the station commander,” Albano said.
Valmoria, for his part, said it was trying for them to arrest their fellow policemen but the job had to be done.
“It pains us. But we cannot let them go just because we are colleagues. We cannot choose who not to arrest and who to arrest,” he added.
The seven policemen led by Villanueva are still at large and have failed to report for duty despite orders from the higher command.
“Ever since I took office, I enjoined them … ‘if you’re going to do something like this, get out of Quezon City because you have no place here. You will have nowhere else to go but jail,’” an exasperated Albano said, as he assured that he had sent a tracker team after the police officers still at large.
2 others relieved
Albano also said he had ordered the relief of the station commanders of the Novaliches-based QCPD Station 4 and the Cubao-based Station 7, respectively, Supt. Norberto Babagay and Supt. Ramon Pranada, for high crime rates in their areas.
“We have a weekly [analysis] on crime trends, occurrences, patrol plans. And weekly, the assessment [on their stations] have not been favorable,” Albano said in Filipino.
Last week, the Novaliches police operations head, Chief Insp. Roderick Medrano, was gunned down in front of his family. The QCPD solved the case in two days with the arrest of four alleged hired guns.
De Guzman will be replaced by Supt. Dionisio Bartolome, former head of the QCPD special operations group; Pranada will be replaced by Supt. Wilson de los Santos; and Babagay will be replaced by Supt. Eleazar Matta, formerly the commander of the QCPD-Station 6 based in Batasan.
Supt. Segundo Lagundi Jr., former head of Task Force Commonwealth, will take over as Batasan station commander.
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