Ramrod Warrior

by Juan L. Mercado

Can a ramrod-straight Ombudsman make a difference?  Look into the unresolved 17-year-old murder of Navy  Ensign Philip Pestaño. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Thursday filed murder charges against 10 Navy officers, Inquirer reported. Six are still in active service.

She sacked Captain Ricardo Ordoñez, then skipperof “RPS Bacolod”, Comdr. Reynaldo Lopez,  Lts Commanders Luidegar Casis and Joselito Colico.  Extradition will be  sought for Ruben Roque, now in the U.S.  Petty Officer Carlito Amoroso was  “dishonarably discharged.”.

Two previous Ombudsmen stonewalled probes into the death of this Philippine Military Academy 1993 graduate.  The 24-year Pestano served as “RPS Bacolod” cargomaster.

The ship lifted anchor at 7:18 morning of  Sept. 27, 1995, at Sangley, for the 45-minute trip to Manila.  It meandered, however, in an “unusual dogleg route” and docked two hours later.  Pestaño was dead by then.

Sans investigation, the Navy ruled within 24 hours: “Suicide”  Naval intelligence commander.  Tirso Danga insisted on the suicide claim, before Senate Committees on Human Rights and National Defense hearings May 5 to Sept. 3, 1997.

“Murder” concluded the committees, led by the late Senator (later Supreme Court chief justice) Marcelo Fernan. Pestano was bludgeoned, shot and his body rigged to appear he took his life, Senate Report No. 800 asserts.

Pestano refused to load 14,000 board feet of illegal logs, weapons, and shabu.  He got phone threats. “Kawawa ang bayan,” Pestaño told anxious parents Felipe and Evelyn who pleaded he resign, recalls Fr.  James Reuter SJ.

The “suicide note” handwriting was different from Pestaño’s, the Ombusdman found. Reports on bullet trajectories differ. There was no tattooing or burn marks “ It is farfetched for a person, who commits suicide, to shoot himself in the head at a distance”

Morales scoffed at testimony that Pestaño borrowed a gun to kill himself. Pestaño had his own pistol.  “It was irrational…for him to die by his own hands by borrowing a gun.”

Officers’ reaction to finding Pestaño dead was “unnatural”, the Ombudsman notes.  Skipper Ordoñez focused on docking the ship. Colico who found the body, did not check on breathing and pulse or immediately report. Casis didn’t stop Colico from wiping  the gun. ‘Tampering with evidence”, Senator, now Manila Mayor, Alfredo Lim erupted.  They  gave NBI and police gave different times when the  body was found or who were present.

These “run counter to the grain of human experience”, the Ombudsman charged. There was conspiracy to kill Pestaño and fabricate evidence to make it appear as a suicide”.

“Identify the persons who participated in the deliberate attempt to make it appear that Pestaño killed himself,”  Fernan  asked  then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto in January 1998. Archive the Pestano case as evidence is patchy, Desierto directed the Military Ombudsman.

He spurned protests and offer of evidence by seven of Pestaño’s classmates. Desierto’s record as Ombudsman was so tainted the late senator Lorenzo Tañada refused to address him directly.

Pestaño’s parents gave up on knocking at Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez’s door. “She didn’t agree to see us,” 71-year  Felipe Pestano said.  Gutierrez  pooh-poohed Senate Report No. 800. But that was prescisely the document the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva found credible.

“Close to 15 years elapsed since death of the victim, the [parents] are still ignorant of the circumstances surrounding their son’s death, and [Philippine] authorities have yet to initiate an independent  investigation.  The Ombudsman deemed it necessary to conduct further proceedings in (August 2007).

“Since that date, no suspect was prosecuted, or tried, let alone convicted. The [Philippines is in] breach of its obligation to properly investigate the death of [Philip], prosecute perpetrators, and ensure redress.”

“Well, Gutierrez finally acted on the Pestaño plea,” University of the Philippines Raul Pangalanan noted in his Inquirer column.  “She dismissed it. To add sting to the injury, she served her dismissal order on Pestaño’s parents the day after they signed the impeachment complaint against her.”

Within four months of Pestaño’s death, three of his Navy comrades “all died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances,”  the UN committee found.

Among the desaparecidos is Zosimo Villanueva of Tawi-Tawi naval station. He tipped Pestano on the hot logs and shabu. “Lost at sea while on a mission,” the UN said: “Foul play is suspected.”

Ship radio operator Fidel Tagaytay was ordered to report to Navy Headquarters, says Leonila his wife. He, too, disappeared. There’s been “no action/investigation by the Navy,” UN snapped.

Ensign Alvin Farone contacted Marissa, Pestano’s sister, saying he wanted “to tell what really happened to Phillip”. He died meanwhile.

“They were faceless, powerless enlisted men,” Viewpoint noted (PDI/13 Sept 2010) “They were like trees, felled in the forest. No one sees. No one knows. No one cares. Perhaps impeachment (of Gutierrez) may spark a glimmer of hope. Perhaps.”

Gutierrez bailed out by resigning.  Perhaps, trial will finally bring justice  – and answers to hanging  questions.

Cmdr. Ordonez didn’t disclose Petty Officer Amoroso was on the ship when Pestaño died. “Danga’s trusted aide Amoroso was fired” Viewpoint (PDI/31 January 2009) pointed out . “He never answered what he was doing aboard RPA Bacolod on the day Pestano was killed.  Was Danga there too? If so, what for? And how did he leave the ship?”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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