Ramrod warrior | Inquirer Opinion

Ramrod warrior

/ 11:10 PM January 13, 2012

Can a ramrod-straight ombudsman make a difference?

Look at the unresolved 16-year-old murder of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on Thursday filed murder charges against 10 Navy officers. Six are still in active service.

She sacked Capt. Ricardo Ordoñez, then skipper of BRP Bacolod City, Cmdr. Reynaldo Lopez, Lt. Cmdr. Luidegar Casis and Lt. Cmdr. Joselito Colico. Extradition will be sought for Ruben Roque, now in the United States. Petty Officer 1st Class Carlito Amoroso was “dishonorably discharged.”


Two previous ombudsmen stonewalled probes into the death of Pestaño, a Philippine Military Academy 1989 graduate. The 24-year-old Pestaño served as BRP Bacolod City’s cargo master.


The ship lifted anchor at 7:18 in the 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 that it was suicide. Naval intelligence commander Tirso Danga insisted on  the suicide claim, before the Senate committees on human rights and national defense hearings on May 5 to Sept. 3, 1997.

Murder, concluded the committees led by Sen. Marcelo Fernan. Pestaño was bludgeoned, shot and his body  rigged to appear he took his life, Senate Report No. 800 asserts.

Pestaño 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 ombudsman 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 said. She 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,” Morales said.

The Navy officers’ reaction to finding Pestaño dead was “unnatural,” the ombudsman noted. Skipper Ordoñez focused on docking the ship. Colico, who found the body, did not check on breathing and  pulse or immediately report the incident. Casis didn’t stop Colico from wiping the gun. “Tampering with evidence,” Sen. Alfredo Lim observed. They gave the National Bureau of Investigation and the police different times when the body was found and 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 Pestaño case since 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 that former Sen. 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-old Felipe Pestaño said. Gutierrez  pooh-poohed Senate Report No. 800. But that was precisely 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,” Raul Pangalangan 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 was Zosimo Villanueva of the Tawi-Tawi naval station. He tipped Pestaño 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 his wife Leonila. He, too, disappeared. There has been “no action/investigation by the Navy,” the UN snapped.

Ensign Alvin Farone contacted Marissa, Pestaño’s sister, saying he wanted “to tell what really happened to Philip.” He died before he could do so.

“They were faceless, powerless enlisted men,” Viewpoint noted on Sept. 13, 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.

Ordoñez didn’t disclose that Amoroso was on board the ship when Pestaño died. “Danga’s trusted aide Amoroso was fired,” Viewpoint pointed out in 2009. “He never answered what he was doing aboard BRP Bacolod City on the day Pestaño was killed. Was Danga there too? If so, what for? And how did he leave the ship?”

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TAGS: crimes, featured columns, foul play, justice, murder, opinion, Philip Pestaño, Philippine navy

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