Sandiganbayan junks murder case over Pestaño death

Posted at 10/23/12 10:55 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The Sandiganbayan on Tuesday junked murder charges filed by the Office of the Ombudsman against former and active Philippine Navy personnel for the death of Ensign Philip Pestaño in 1995.

In its decision, the anti-graft court said it junked the case for lack of jurisdiction. It noted that none of the defendants held the rank of Captain of the Philippine Navy at the time of alleged commission of the crime. Cases against lower ranked Navy officers are usually filed before regional trial courts, not the Sandiganbayan.

The court said Ricardo Ordoñez, the highest ranking Navy officer among the accused, was only Lt. Commander at the time of Pestaño's death. Lt. Commander is 2 ranks lower than Captain.

The 10 accused are:

Naval Captain Ricardo Ordoñez
Cdr. Reynaldo Lopez
HM2 Welmenio Aquino
LCdr. Luidegar Casis
LCdr. Alfrederick Alba
MR2 Sandy Miranda
LCdr. Joselito Colico
LCdr. Ruben Roque
Petty Officer 1st Class Carlito Amoroso
Petty Officer 2nd Class Mil Leonor Igcasan.

Prior to his death, Pestaño was assigned to work on the BRP Bacolod City, a supply ship that was allegedly transporting weapons, illegally cut logs and even drugs.

Pestaño threatened to expose the illegal activities in the Navy but was later found dead in his cabin on board a Navy cargo ship on September 27, 1995.

The Navy declared his death a suicide but his family insisted he was killed, and filed murder charges against Navy officials. In August 2010, then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez dismissed the murder charges for lack of evidence.

The new Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales, later said there is compelling reason to reconsider its previous pronouncement that the evidence submitted by spouses Felipe and Evelyn Pestaño, parents of the slain navy officer, were insufficient to create a prima facie case.

“The totality of circumstances before, during and after the ‘discovery’ of the death of Philip (Pestaño) prima facie points that respondents conspired to kill him. And the attempt to cover it up solidifies the prima facie conclusion that respondents committed a premeditated act to and did kill him, hence, probable cause for Murder lies against them,” the Ombudsman said in its resolution.

Belying the theory that Pestaño shot himself were the following details:

    * absence of tattooing, smudging or burn mark around the gunshot wound indicative that the firearm was not in contact with the bullet entry point;
    * absence of blood spatters, bone fragments or other tissues on the wall of the victim’s cabin;
    * blood pooling on the pillow and other spots of Pestaño’s bed;
    * the autopsy report noting that the trajectory of the bullet passing through the dead man’s head and the location of the bullet mark on the cabin wall do not tally against each other as the wound was downward while the slug was fired upward;
    * the finding of Western Police District – Central Crime Laboratory that the handwriting on the supposed suicide note and the signature on it were written by different persons; and
    * the use of a gun assigned to respondent Aquino when Pestaño has his own firearm assigned to him.

 The Ombudsman also considered newly-discovered evidence embodied by the AFP investigation report, made available to the Pestaño family only in 2006, which questioned the fact that BRP Bacolod City took two hours to reach the Navy headquarters in Manila from Sangley Point, Cavite  - a trip that usually takes only 45 minutes.
“The unexplained delay of about one hour and 15 minutes raises the presumption that the prolonged trip was occasioned by the time it took respondents to create the suicide scenario,” the Ombudsman pointed out.
The same AFP report showed several pages on the gangway logbook on the ship were torn off again without any explanation while the Passenger Manifest that would have shown all crew members and other persons on board was missing.