UNRAVELING SLAY PLAN Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla (left) and Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos lead a joint press conference on Monday to announce the filing of murder complaint against suspended Bureau of Corrections director general Gerald Bantag, deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta and several prisoners for their alleged involvement in the killing of journalist Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and inmate Cristito Palaña. —RICHARD A. REYES
Authorities on Monday called on suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) director general Gerald Bantag and an aide to surrender after they were accused of allegedly masterminding and giving the orders for the Oct. 3 assassination of hard-hitting broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa as well as the Oct. 18 killing of inmate Cristito Villamor Palaña (earlier identified as Jun Villamor), who died after being implicated by the confessed gunman.
Bantag and BuCor deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta were charged by the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police with two counts of murder at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
A prisoner from Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan province, who was described as a trusted aide of Bantag, three New Bilibid Prison (NBP) gang leaders, and several inmates were also charged in the complaints filed by the NBI and the PNP before the prosecutor’s office of the DOJ on Monday morning.
“I plead to Zulueta to just surrender right now just like the gunman who surrendered (after) realizing his life is in danger,” Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos said in a joint news conference on Monday called by the DOJ and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and their respective attached agencies, the NBI and the PNP.
“I’d like to ask Zulueta and Bantag to surrender and face the charges. If they are innocent, the law will uphold them. If they’re guilty, then they will have to face the consequences,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said.
According to a joint statement from the DOJ and the DILG, the assassination orders were cascaded by Zulueta to Iwahig inmate Denver Mayores, who, in turn, relayed the orders to three prison gang leaders at NBP in Muntinlupa City.
The NBP gang leaders were identified as Alvin Labra, Aldrin Galicia and Alfie Peñaredonda, who are all under NBI custody.
Six inmates were additionally charged for Palaña’s death: Joseph Georfo, Mario Alvarez, Christam Ramac, Ricky Salgado, Ronnie dela Cruz and Joel Reyes.
“It was found through the investigation that both [Bantag and Zulueta] were behind the killing of both Percy Lapid and Jun Villamor (Palaña),” read a joint statement by the DOJ and DILG.
They said the sworn statements of the inmates “show a clear and direct line of communication” from Bantag to Zulueta to Mayores, who then communicated with gang leader Labra, who then coordinated with Galicia, who eventually orchestrated Mabasa’s killing “through his gang members and his gang members’ contacts on the outside, ultimately ending with gunman Joel Escorial and his group.”
The DOJ and DILG said the same statements also showed a “similar clear and direct line of communication” from Bantag and Zulueta to Mayores, to Labra, and to Galicia, who then “orchestrated and executed the killing of Jun Villamor (Palaña) through his gang members.” (See related story in Regions, Page A8.)
Based on the statements, Palaña was “suffocated to death by a plastic bag and held by his own gang members.”
“The fact that they killed one of their own means and indicates that there were instructions from the top and the gang simply had no choice but to execute,” said the DOJ and DILG.
They added that Bantag had a “clear motive” to order Mabasa’s murder due to the latter’s “continued exposé” against the BuCor chief in his show, “Lapid Fire.”
“This is evident from the video sent by Zulueta to Mayores which was later forwarded to both Labra and Galicia,” said the DOJ and DILG.
Villamor was killed, they said, to cover up Mabasa’s murder.
The DOJ and DILG said the “money trails” described by the prisoners matched the bank activity of Escorial, who claimed the reward for the murder of Mabasa was P550,000.
They said “credible intelligence reports” showed cash deposits totaling P550,000 to Escorial from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7 this year.
Authorities did not get sworn statements from Bantag nor from Zulueta, who has reportedly gone into hiding.
“The principle that we adopted here in charging the mastermind is the totality of all the facts given to us by all the witnesses and all the circumstances attendant to the killing. So it’s a totality test,” Remulla said when asked whether there was a clear link from Bantag to the prison gang leaders regarding the order to kill Mabasa and Palaña.
“It’s not for us to point out the direct link but the totality of all the acts points out to the participation of and responsibility of those being charged,” Remulla added.
PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. said Zulueta “has been in hiding since a few days ago.”
Abalos called on the public to provide any information on Zulueta’s whereabouts, saying “he’s a very important person in this case.”
“For General Bantag, there is no arrest warrant yet so I think he is still free to roam around. We just have to find his exact location,” Azurin said.