Jee Ick Joo case: Tangled webs, inconsistent stories

MANILA, Philippines – At the end of a 6-hour Senate hearing on the kidnap and murder of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo, Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV made a quick announcement: Jee’s wife, Choi Gyung Jin, will not be leaving the country until his case is solved.

“I’ll be keeping an eye out until justice is completely served and until the end of this case. It is not only the Filipino citizens but also Korean citizens in the Philippines and in Korea who are keeping an eye on the situation,” Choi herself would later say, with the help of an interpreter.

The kidnap and murder of Jee – at the hands of police – is among the biggest controversies to hit the Philippine National Police (PNP) since it spearheaded a popular but bloody war on drugs. Jee was abducted from his home in Angeles City on October 18, 2016.

He was brought to Camp Crame, the PNP headquarters, the same day. There, he was strangled to death allegedly by police assigned to the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group (AIDG).

Philippine law enforcers and investigators are under pressure to solve the case, amid both an outcry both here and abroad. But in the rush to solve the grisly crime, two law enforcing and investigating agencies might just end up ruining the case, leading to its dismissal.

“Very glaring” was how National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) director Dante Gierran described the conflicting preliminary results of the investigations of the two bureaus. While the PNP is convinced that its own man, Senior Police Officer 3 (SPO3) Ricky Sta Isabel is the principal suspect in the crime, the NBI seems to be considering the possiblity that Sta Isabel is just a fall guy.

“There seems to be a clash of theories. The NBI’s theory is different from the PNP. It has to be reconciled. Otherwise, it will weaken the case,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the committee.

The case has already been filed before an Angeles court, leading to the issuance of arrest warrants against several accused, including Sta Isabel.

What issues will investigators need to resolve and what questions – despite two apparently parallel investigations – remain unanswered?

A tale of two investigations

The trouble begins with two apparent parallel investigations with differing star witnesses.

For the PNP, it’s SPO4 Roy Villegas and Police Officer 2 (PO2) Christopher Baldovino, cops who were supposedly part of the operation to abduct Jee.

Marisa Morquicho, Jee’s newly-hired house help who was abducted but later released, also has affidavits executed before the PNP Anti-Kidnapping Group (AGK). The 3 point to Sta Isabel as the prime suspect in the case. If Villegas’ affidavit is to believed, it was Sta Isabel himself who strangled Jee.

The NBI, meanwhile, was where Sta Isabel himself executed an affidavit. Another key personality in the case, retired policeman Gerardo Santiago, recently surrendered before the NBI and has supposedly promised to “tell all.”

Sta Isabel, while admitting to having seen Jee still alive inside Camp Crame, insists he was not part of his kidnap and murder.

He claims he is a mere fall guy in the sensational case and points to his former AIDG chief, Superintendent Rafael Dumlao, as the prime mover in the modus. He claims he got orders from Dumlao.

Sta Isabel says he has ways to prove that he wasn’t in Angeles City when Jee was abducted, but senators are disputing the possible timeline. Morquicho says she recognized Sta Isabel from the day of the abduction, however. But she says she did not see Dumlao that day.

The SPO3 also disputes the allegation that it was his car – registered under his wife Jinky – that was used during the kidnapping. While CCTV footage from the day of the kidnapping was flashed on screen at the Senate, Sta Isabel said during the hearing his vehicle was tinted and had a carrier installed – unlike what was seen on the footage.

Besides, why would he use a family car for illegal activities, he asked.

“It’s common sense,” he added.

Sta Isabel and his wife have accused Dumlao of supposedly convincing them to take the blame and admit to the crime. In exchange, they claimed, Sta Isabel was promised an eventual release.

The cop has a copy of (illegally) recorded phone conversations between his wife and Dumlao, but senators refused to play these, correctly citing the country’s anti-wiretapping laws.

And while Dumlao insists he had nothing to do with the case, Villegas’ testimony seems to say otherwise. Even PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa seems convinced about Dumlao’s role in the kidnap-slay case.

“He acts like he doesn’t know anything. As if he’s decent. He speaks with an accent, he smiles… but when he’s in front of me, he’s like a child who doesn’t know what to do… but when he’s in front of media [he goes] ‘well, well, I was not implicated, I was not around.’ [Expletive]. We’ll see, Dumlao you [expletive],” said Dela Rosa in a press conference earlier last week.

Dela Rosa has said Sta Isabel – and possibly even Dumlao – had long been involved in this modus. Sta Isabel’s net worth – which hit P20 million in 2014 – was a red flag for many senators. But Dela Rosa, who has cursed and threatened Sta Isabel to no end, has been more circumspect, pointing out that it’s possible the money is legitimate.

The police and the NBI have also clashed over evidence taken from the funeral parlor where Jee was cremated. The NBI says it did not find the Korean’s golf bag when they went to the funeral parlor without a warrant.

A day later, the police, after sourcing a warrant, entered the same funeral parlor and found a golf bag, which Jee’s wife later identified as his. The NBI has hinted that it’s fabricated evidence, a claim the PNP AKG denies.

That the two leading law enforcement and investigative agencies are clashing shouldn’t really come as a surprise. They’ve been known to be rivals – occasionally, the healthy kind – when it comes to pursuing sensational cases.

But this time, unless the NBI and PNP sift through and consolidate their findings, there’s a real chance of endangering the case.

“The very fact that the versions of the two are different and the findings of the NBI and the PNP AKG are different really warrants a reinvestigation because Senator Lacson is right, the case will be affected in the court. If the court believes Sta Isabel, he might get acquitted,” said Senator Leila de Lima, former justice secretary.

The lack of coordination prompted Lacson, former chief of the PNP, to quip: “Eh puro kayo batang Davao eh. Baka naman puwedeng mag-case conference kayo (You’re all from Davao. Maybe you can hold a case conference).”

PNP chief Dela Rosa was Davao City police chief while Gierran was NBI Davao Region chief.

Time to reboot the war on drugs?

While the Jee case is certainly one of the more sensational controversies to hit the police in recent history, it’s not the first they’ve had to face since the war on drugs began.

Just a few months ago, the Senate, also led by Lacson, investigated the death of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr at the hands of the police. Espinosa was inside his jail cell when Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) Region 8 police served a search warrant against him for supposedly storing illegal drugs.

Police claim Espinosa fought back, a scenario the NBI has already ruled out. It was a rubout, according to an NBI probe.

Espinosa was among the first chief executives to be publicly accused by President Rodrigo Duterte of involvement in the narcotics trade. He “surrendered” to Dela Rosa himself before finally being arrested in Albuera. He was killed roughly 4 months after he first surrendered in Camp Crame.

The Jee and Espinosa cases have prompted people – critics and supporters alike – to question the way the Philippines is running its drug war. The PNP employs at least two strategies. For “street level” drug personalities, there’s “Oplan TokHang,” a literal knock-and-plead operation by local police to make people surrender.

For high value targets, elite units such as the AIDG are involved.

“This style of war on drugs clearly suffers from human rights and legal deficiencies,” Senator Risa Hontiveros noted during the hearing. On the same day, the first petition against “Oplan TokHang” was filed before the Supreme Court.

TokHang involves cops – typically the local police unit – literally knocking on the doors of suspected users and pushers. The “drug personalities” are then rounded up, sign documents to signify their “surrender,” and later monitored at home.

But there have been several instances where people who had already surrendered – and had long stopped using illegal drugs – ended up dead, either because they “fought back” against police or were executed by unknown assailants.

A Social Weather Stations survey showed 78% of respondents were worried they would be the next victims of apparent summary executions.

Dela Rosa has insisted police-turned-drug-war-killers are “isolated incidents”, but with more and more cases of police abusing their power and using the war on drugs as cover, it’s an argument that’s become increasingly harder to believe.

The PNP chief himself has admitted that some cops are “undisciplined”, even toward other cops who outrank them.

Masakit man sabihin pero inaamin ko na marami kaming junior officers na siga, bastos, undisciplined… depende sa degree of influence (It pains me to say this but I admit there are many junior officers who throw their weight around and are rude and undisciplined. It depends on their degree of influence),” said Dela Rosa, who once cried before the Senate over scalawags in the PNP.

Hontiveros, whose late husband was also a member of the police force, added: “The kidnapping and murder of a Korean national under so-called TokHang for ransom is the terrible consequence of a human rights-deficient anti-drug campaign. The government's war on drugs opened a Pandora's box of pure evil.”

Dela Rosa, however, insists the PNP cannot stop their campaigns, citing the gains they’ve already made – an argument he had used in the past months.

Asked about the petition before the Supreme Court vs “Oplan TokHang,” Dela Rosa was on the defensive.

“Why, do all TokHang operations end with people dead? Are all operations similar to the Sta Isabel case? Kidnap for ransom? That’s not the case,” he said.

When told that the petition was based on a specific incident in Quezon City, Dela Rosa was still defiant. “They should prove before the court that this happened. As I’ve said, I will not defend the wrongdoings of policemen. We have to bring that in the open, correct it, and make sure those who do it face the consequences.”

Dela Rosa has promised to focus on cleansing the police’s ranks, but as more cases of abuse of power become public, it’s a promise that needs to be fulfilled soon.

What happens now?

The Senate is sure to call for another hearing to investigate the case, just as the war on drugs enters its 8th month. Will the NBI and PNP iron out their apparent differences?

At stake is not just much-needed justice for Jee and his family, but public assurance that the PNP does not turn a blind eye toward its errant members.

This is especially important as the drugs war death toll goes beyond 7,000. – Rappler