MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has ordered the suspension of Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag following the death of an alleged "middleman" who supposedly facilitated the murder of broadcaster Percival Mabasa, more popularly known as "Percy Lapid", the justice department said on Friday.
Bantag's preventive suspension is meant to give way to an impartial probe into the death of the alleged middleman, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said in a press briefing.
He is suspended for 90 days without pay, according to an order signed by Remulla.
Marcos picked former Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gregorio Pio Catapang as BuCor officer-in-charge following Bantag's suspension, the justice secretary said.
Catapang served as AFP Chief-of-Staff for less than a year under the administration of the late former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III. He faced several issues that tested his leadership, including the Mamasapano tragedy that pitted the military against the police.
Remulla said he has yet to meet with Catapang and formally give him his designation.
In the same press conference, Remulla explained the confusion surrounding the death of the alleged middleman.
Police officials had told ABS-CBN News Thursday morning that the alleged middleman was secured but Remulla that afternoon announced the death of the alleged intermediary.
Remulla recalled that at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos told him about the death of the alleged middleman involved Lapid's killing.
Police officials eventually reached Remulla and told him that the inmate's name was Crisanto Palana Villamor. BuCor officials, however, had no record of such a detainee.
They, however, had a Jun Villamor y Globa on record.
"October 18, we found out, the gunman had surrendered. October 19 the PNP, through the chief of police of Las Pinas, of Muntinlupa, went to Bilibid to inquire about the identity, about this person, about Crisanto Villamor. And the answer of Bilibid was there was no person by that name inside Bilibid. And appears that, the name in the records, is this: Jun Villamor y Globa," Remulla said.
He said the different name recorded in Bilibid's records caused BuCor officials to earlier deny that Villamor was an inmate.
"Kasi ito yung mga record niya, yung case management record niya, and there’s no name of Crisanto Villamor but he is the person. One and the same person. He was sentenced for, frustrated murder ba ‘to? Sentensyado siya for attempted murder, murder and violation of gun ban kaya, nakakulong siya," the justice chief said.
"So, on inquiry, if you inquire with Bilibid with the name given of Crisanto Villamor Jr. there’s no such person. But it appears it’s one and the same person, ito nga, Jun Villamor y Garcia and then other, in the case where he was sentenced, his name is Jun Villamor y Globa. So you have a person who is known by 3 names who was a person of interest in the Percy Lapid killing."
Remulla said they have now identified a second middleman detained at a Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) facility.
Remulla identified the other middleman as a certain Christopher Bacoto.
"He’s already in custody of the PNP. Custodial Center, so I think that he’ll be okay," the official said.
Meanwhile, the BuCor said that it has secured inmate Jose Palana Villamor, cousin of the late Villamor.
"Well, when the information came, sinecure naman natin lahat ng Villamor (all Villamors)," said BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag.
"So in coordination with the PNP, yung Jose Villamor ay secured po 'yun," he said.
Mabasa was shot dead in a Las Piñas suburb by motorcycle-riding suspects as he drove to his studio. Police said it is highly probable the killing was related to his work.
Joel Escorial, who surrendered to authorities and admitted to have gunned down Mabasa, claimed that he and 3 others took part in the ambush on orders from an unnamed person in Bilibid, and later split the P550,000 pay among themselves.
Escorial, who named his 3 co-conspirators that are still at large, did not cite the motive nor identify the mastermind behind the killing.
Mabasa was the second journalist to be killed since Marcos took office on June 30, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Remulla also ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the last broadcasts of Mabasa, including his criticism against an alleged corrupt official of the BuCor.
The justice chief said that autopsy and toxicology had been conducted on Villamor, the alleged middleman in the case.
“Marami tayong testigo sa autopsy - the autopsy was conducted for a few hours and a toxicology report is being prepared as we speak because it has to be a thorough autopsy to find out about the crime or if there a crime committed to a person. I don’t believe it is a coincidence - we just have to check every angles so we put to rest many doubts by conducting a scientific inquiry through an autopsy to the cadaver of Crisanto Villamor Jr., or Jun Villamor,” said Remulla.
— With reports from Johnson Manabat, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse