Milk tea mystery | Inquirer Opinion

Milk tea mystery

/ 12:12 AM April 15, 2015

The case of the lethal milk tea that killed two people and nearly felled another in Manila last week is getting curiouser and curiouser. Six days after the incident, no definitive cause for the apparent poisoning has been found, at least according to the Department of Health, which announced on Monday that “preliminary results were negative for suspected toxic substances.”

Food poisoning was the initial and immediate conjecture right after Suzanne Dagohoy and Arnold Aydalla fell ill minutes after drinking the milk tea they had bought at ErgoCha Tea House on Bustillos Street in Sampaloc, Manila. The third victim was William Abrigo, the owner of the shop, who also partook of the tea after Dagohoy and Aydalla complained about the foul taste of the drinks. But as many doctors invited to comment on the incident on TV and radio would point out, ordinary food poisoning does not happen that quickly and that fatally.


The usual symptoms of food poisoning are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, mild fever, headache and general weakness. What the CCTV footage showed of the incident at the tea house was altogether more disturbing: Three minutes after sipping her tea, Dagohoy had lost consciousness, was twitching on the ground and retching. Her boyfriend Aydalla began experiencing spasms, difficulty in breathing and weakness in his extremities seven minutes after he first sipped the drink. He survived, apparently only because he had immediately spat out the liquid, complaining about its bad taste. The complaint was what prompted Abrigo to try the tea he himself had prepared, leading to his own unconsciousness and convulsions three minutes later.

Obviously, not just some wayward germ from, say, the unhygienic preparation of the drinks or the unsanitary condition of the store, but a much more noxious substance capable of such a rapid and deadly effect on the human body had found itself into the milk tea preparation. The Manila Police District initially said it was looking at the possibility of cyanide in the drinks, which, if proven true, would take the incident from the realm of accidental poisoning to one where deliberate intent was present. But while the MPD’s autopsy on Dagohoy says that she died due to “shock secondary to ingestion of toxic substance,” a source told this paper that initial examination of Abrigo showed a different result—that the “throat did not show indications that a strong substance, such as silver nitrate or cyanide, passed through it.”


And now the DOH has itself confirmed that no such toxic substances have been found in the sample of the milk tea that killed Dagohoy and Abrigo. Is it possible for the tea samples to have been tampered with? Reports have it that Lloyd Abrigo, the son of the shop owner, had returned to the teahouse after learning that his father had died from sipping the drink, and had cleaned up the pitcher that contained the foul-tasting milk tea preparation. The MPD has CCTV footage showing Lloyd Abrigo and the helper Raymundo Santos entering the now-closed shop at around noon; Lloyd Abrigo is shown washing the pitcher himself, then directing Santos to throw out the remaining milk tea in a pail.

Santos had earlier told police that it was Lloyd Abrigo who had brought a foul-smelling substance into the shop’s kitchen about a month ago. Despite this testimony, and the CCTV footage indicating that the son of the shop owner had possibly tampered with a crime scene, the MPD says he is not yet a suspect.

What are we to make of this case, which grows more peculiar by the day? How hard is it, given modern science and technology, to ascertain within days whatever it is that was powerful enough to have killed two people in a matter of minutes? The longer this baffling case remains unsolved, the greater the anxiety among the public. Milk tea shops, after all, are among the latest fads in the metro; that some of them may not be adhering to sanitation and food and beverage standards is entirely possible, especially given the lax enforcement in these parts.

But the mystery can only be more damaging to legitimate entrepreneurs whose modest beverage businesses are now enveloped in a cloud of doubt and fear. Whatever the results, it’s not in the public interest for the health authorities to dilly-dally in explaining their findings. What exactly happened here? A clear, prompt, straightforward answer would be much appreciated.

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TAGS: Accidents, deaths, Department of Health
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