By Jeanne Michael Penaranda and Beting Laygo Dolor
MANILA — The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed two murder charges against suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director General Gerald Bantag and another prisons official tagged as the mastermind in the ambush-slay of broadcast commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and the killing of a prisoner at the national penitentariary in Muntinlupa.
At press time, November 17 in Manila, authorities have subpoenaed Bantag requiring him to answer the charges filed against him.
Bantag, who appeared to be not in his last known address in Caloocan City where the subpoena was delivered, claimed he was innocent and vowed he will answer the charges if Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla resign from his post and dared him to undergo drug test.
Bantag’s lawyer said he will answer the charges at the proper time and venue even as the Mabasa family dared him to come out of his hiding to prove his innocence.
Justice Secretary Remulla and Secretary Benjamin Benhur Abalos Jr. of the Department of the Interior and Local Government announced the filing of several charges against Bantag and others in the presence of the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation officials.
Remulla and Abalos assured due process for Bantag and others who were charged with him in connection with the killings as they urged Bantag to answer the charges.
Roy Mabasa, former National Press Club president and younger brother of Percy Lapid, lauded the filing of the charges, but hinted that there could be “higher masterminds” in the conspiracy to kill his broadcaster-brother other than Bantag.
Meanwhile, retired Armed Forces chief Gregorio Catapang Jr., who took over the helm of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) following the suspension of Bantag, has ordered a cleanup in the National Bilibid Prisons and reportedly has been receiving death threats.
Aside from Bantag, also charged were BuCor Directorate for Security and Operations SJ02 Ricardo Zulueta who reportedly had gone into hiding, and persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) linked to the death of Lapid and the supposed middleman in the case earlier identified as Jun or Crisanto Villamor.
Along with Bantag and Zulueta, four inmates who are gang commanders were also named as respondents for the killing of Lapid — Denver Mayores, Alvin Labra, Aldrin Galicia and Alfie Peñaredonda — who supposedly participated in the killing by “indispensible cooperation.
OtherPDLs facing murder complaints were identified as Mario Alvarez, Joseph Georfo, Christam Ramac, Ricky Salgado, Ronnie Dela Cruz, and Joel Reyes.
Bantag, who has not surfaced since the filing of the charges, has denied he was behind Lapid’s killing.
But informants reportedly revealed that Bantag was furious after Lapid had put out a video of his house in Laguna with several vehicles infront of the house. Lapid had reportedly accused Bantag of making money while he headed the Bureau of Corrections which has supervision over the national penitentiary or National Bilibid Prisons and other penal colonies in Palawan, Mindoro and other areas and had asked him in his “Lapid Fire” radio-tv program to explain the deaths of several high profile prisons.
Secretary Remulla disclosed a key bit of information previously not revealed to the public that shows that Bantag may indeed be the mastermind of the Oct. 3 killing of broadcaster Percy Lapid.
Remulla said on Wednesday, Nov. 9, that Lapid had gone to the Laguna property of Bucor director general Gerald Bantag on September 9 to take pictures of what the broadcast journalist said was a mansion, along with 11 vehicles reportedly owned by him.
Remulla said Bantag was “livid” at the visit of the newsman to the point that he even missed what was considered an important event, the graduation ceremonies of inmates who had earned their degrees while inside the New Bilibid Prison.
Speaking to media in a mix of English and Pilipino, Remulla said Bantag “went back to Laguna and then he did not attend the graduation.”
The BuCor chief’s absence was “very significant,” according to Remulla, “because graduation of the University of Perpetual Help” had the board of trustees present.
It was a sign that “he was very mad, he was very, very livid about it,” said Remulla.
Photos of the house and the vehicles would be shown as proof that Bantag was living beyond his means, which Lapid had stated earlier in his show “Lapid Fire.”
“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 in a media briefing.
He added that “the totality of all the acts points out to the participation of and responsibility of those being charged.”
Remulla urged Bantag and Zulueta to give themselves up and face the charges.
“I’d like to ask Zulueta and DG Bantag to surrender and face the charges. If they are innocent, the law will uphold them and if they are guilty then they have to face the consequence,” the justice official said. Secretary Abalos made the same call.
Remulla ssaid he has already ordered a lookout bulletin against the two officials of BuCor.
Bantag was one of the 160 “persons of interest” in the Lapid case earlier identified by the PNP.
In a briefing to media announcing the filing of the charges, NBI lawyer Eugene Javier said that witnesses’ statements showed there was a “clear and direct line of communication” from Bantag and Zulueta to gang leaders who then communicated with Labra and later coordinated with Galicia.
It was Galicia who orchestrated and executed the killing of Lapid through his gang members and the latter’s contacts outside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
It was BCJ gang commander Labra and Sputnik Gang commander Galicia who talked to Villamor. Villamor then talked to BJMP inmate Christopher Bacoto who found Escorial.
Escorial had earlier confessed to the killing and claimed he received the order from Bilibid inmate Villamor, who offered P550,000 in exchange for the killing.
That money was later confirmed to have entered Escorial’s bank account.
This, he said, led to the participation of the self-confessed gunman, Joel Escorial, and his accomplices.
It was also found out in the investigation that Bantag had a clear motive to order the killing of Lapid because of the latter’s continued exposė against the former on his show, “Lapid Fire”.
And as for Villamor, “it was an attempt to cover up the murder of Percy Lapid.”
Lapid, a hard-hitting tabloid and radio commentator was gunned down on Oct. 3 in Las Pinas City.
In the timeline that the Justice department, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine National Police had created, Bantag allegedly ordered the killing of Lapid – real name Percival Mabasa – to stop the expose.
Several gangleaders were involved in the plot, with one inmate identified as Jun Villamor acting as middleman in procuring the services of Joel Escorial, who late confessed to the killing.
To insure that the trail would not lead to Bantag, Villamor was ordered killed, allegedly also upon the orders of the BuCor chief.
His fellow gang members took care of the deed by pinning Villamor down, and wrapping his head in a plastic bag, leading to his death by suffocation.
Villamor reportedly knew he was to be killed, which is why he sent a text message to his sister saying he would soon be gone and that Bantag was behind his death.
That text message was tantamount to a death bed confession, according to the Justice secretary.
Bantag’s deputy security officer, Ricardo Zulueta, was in on the plot to silence Lapid and later Villamor. He has since gone into hiding.
Remulla dared Bantag and Zulueta to the face the murder complaint lodged against them “like a man.”
While he had not been seen in public since his suspension, Bantag had been talking to local media. Among others, he denied that the house he was building in Laguna was a mansion, and that most of the vehicles that Lapid saw outside his property belonged either to BuCor or to his security detail.
He said he had “nothing to gain” in ordering the killing of the popular broadcast journalist.
But Bantag also said that he preferred death over incarceration.
As far as Remulla is concerned, the case of the killing of Percy Lapid is closed. This despite the brother of the broadcaster, Roy Mabasa, saying that former president Rodrigo Duterte should be included in the Justice department’s list of “persons of interest” potentially involved in the killing.