NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines – On April 20, 2010, a Tuesday, two women entered a travel agency here and inquired if they could book a round-trip flight to Malaysia for a one-day travel tour. The older of the two, now identified as Cristina Sergio, insisted they should fly the next day, Wednesday, April 21, with a return flight on April 27, a Tuesday.
Given that their date of departure was less than 24 hours away, the female staff told Sergio the airfare would be quite expensive. The staff wanted to extract more information but she stopped herself.
“We’ll pay,” a very business-like Sergio said as she proceeded to count the bills for payment. The two women paid more or less a total of P40,000 for the round-trip ticket for two. They were told to come back in the afternoon to pick up their tickets. “They picked up their tickets separately,” the staff said.
The female staff recounted this incident to an agent of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) who paid a visit to the travel agency a few days ago. The NBI is trying to build a case against Sergio for human trafficking.
On April 27, Sergio returned to Talavera but without her companion and neighbor, Mary Jane Veloso, a mother of two.
She told Veloso’s parents, who lived in another village, that their daughter found a job there as a domestic helper and that her employer was “very kind.”
Sergio also said Veloso left her with clothes and a box of milk supposedly for the latter’s youngest son, Mark Darren.
Veloso’s family thanked her profusely. At that time, there was no reason for Veloso’s family to doubt Sergio’s story. After all, Sergio just lived next door to her live-in partner’s parents, the Lacanilao couple, who are known and were close to Veloso’s parents-in-law.
But little did the Velosos know that Mary Jane’s quick fortune was only part of an elaborate scheme that Sergio had been plotting all along.
A native of Nabua, Camarines Sur, Sergio, married and a mother of 6, met Julius Lacanilao sometime in 2007 in Manila. Lacanilao was working at a cellphone repair shop in Greenhills while she was supposedly working as a real estate agent.
Around 2008, her lover Lacanilao decided to go back to Talavera. He brought Sergio along to live with his parents, Ramon and Sisa Lacanilao, in Barangay Esguerra.
At first, the Lacanilao couple disapproved of the relationship. After all, Julius was only in his late 20s and Sergio was nearing 40. Their son was single, and Cristina obviously had a way with men. But love for their son prevailed.
The Lacanilao couple had 3 children but lost their eldest son in an accident. The youngest, working abroad, has a family of her own. Only Julius was left with the parents. Now in the twilight of their lives, the Lacanilao couple wants Julius to stay put. In reality, however, what Julius wants, Julius gets.
Photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler
Sergio tried to win the affection of Julius’ parents. She would help with the household chores, cleaning the house, cooking meals and doing the laundry.
“She did not throw her weight around here. She knew her place. She was very simple and did not complain,” said the Lacanilao matriarch. It was only a matter of time before they treated Sergio as their own daughter.
It was not only the parents' affection that Sergio courted. She was also pleasant to neighbors, with a ready smile for everyone.
“She’s very friendly and very simple. She hardly wears any make-up. She’d be the first to call your attention, to make the first move. She’d greet us in a nice way, engage in small chit-chat and always had a good thing to say,” several neighbors said in Filipino. “She may be an outsider but we treated her no differently.”
Known by her nickname “Tintin”, neighbors said Sergio and Julius lived like “normal” husband and wife. She would play gracious hostess whenever there was an event in the Lacanilao household. “She’d invite us and make us feel at home.”
It was a role she played to perfection for many years.
But in a village where everyone knows everyone, and where gossip is a way of life, one has to maintain a semblance of mystery. She may be friendly and easygoing but Sergio shared only select details of her life.
Even the Lacanilao couple don’t know her birthday. When Rappler asked if she celebrated her birthday with them, they grappled for answers.
While she could be secretive, she made sure to embellish what they should know. She’d tell people she graduated with honors from college that’s why she could speak English well. She’d tell people she’s into real estate that’s why she had to leave the village from time to time to go Manila. She’d tell them she knows some people through her occupation and that if ever someone needs a job, she could be of help.
She’d casually tell female villagers that if ever they want to work as domestic helpers, she can help them find a job. “Kahit saan daw, mahahanapan ka niya ng trabaho. Ikaw ang mamimili (She can help you find work anywhere. And you can even choose where to work),” Morena Candelaria, Veloso’s sister- in-law, said.
This was corroborated later on by a number of Talavera residents who said Sergio also attempted to recruit them. Since at the time Veloso’s arrest was still being kept under wraps, Sergio even bragged that she was able to send Veloso abroad. Some of them are now among the complainants in the illegal recruitment and human trafficking charges against Sergio.
But at the time, not knowing any better, they believed her tale.
One of the first villagers to fall into her trap was Veloso. Staying in a makeshift detached room no bigger than 15 square meters, life was getting hard for Veloso. She had just given birth to her second child, and her husband, Michael Candelaria, was jobless.
Photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler
One time, Veloso and her husband went to the Lacanilao house and asked for Sergio’s help for a job abroad, the Lacanilao matriarch recalled. The Lacanilao matriarch had grown close to Veloso, having stood as godparents during her and Michael’s wedding.
A midwife, the Lacanilao matriarch also twice attended to Veloso when she gave birth. Every now and then, Veloso would drop by at the Lacanilao house to air her domestic problems.
The second time, it was only Veloso who dropped by. “She was crying. She said she wanted to get out of the village, find work abroad, and never come back,” Sisa said. Sergio promised to help her.
The question is: How could she? The Lacanilao couple had Sergio and their son, who could not even financially fend for themselves. During the lovers’ entire stay in the Lacanilao household, they were not able to contribute to the everyday expenses.
“Ultimo sabon, toothpaste, shampoo di sila makabili (They can’t even buy personal stuff like soap, toothpaste and shampoo),” the matriarch said.
But Sergio had an easy alibi.
Sergio told the Lacanilao couple that she and Julius had planned on going on a trip abroad, but that Julius could not make it since his passport was not ready. Rather than have one of the tickets go to waste, she could take Veloso along.
Unknown to the Lacanilao couple, the tickets had yet to be purchased. Later, it was revealed that Veloso paid Sergio P20,000, pawning her husband’s motorcycle in the process. (To be continued) – Rappler.com
Michael Bueza is a researcher and data curator under Rappler's Research Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.