It's a case that refuses to die.
It's been 18 years since the puzzling death of Navy ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño inside his cabin on supply ship BRP Bacolod City. The investigation stirred back to life with the recent Court of Appeals ruling upholding the dismissal of 10 Navy officers implicated in his death.
It's a welcome news that Felipe Pestaño, 73, and wife Evelyn, 70, brought to their son's grave at the Libingan ng mga Bayani on Thursday, October 31. Philip was 23 when he died. He should have been 41 now.
"We're just happy to see that justice is moving. It's been a long time, but there's hope," Philip's sister Marissa Pestaño told Rappler.
The Philippine Navy said Philip committed suicide. The Pestaños said it was murder. The family's cry for justice prompted a Senate hearing in 1997 because of allegations that the death had something to do with illegal activities inside the ship. Philip was supposedly about to expose them.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales last year recommended murder charges and ordered the dismissal of the Navy officers. This reversed a ruling by her predecessor Merceditas Gutierez that upheld the suicide theory. (READ: Murder charges vs 10 for Pestaño death).
The Navy officers immediately questioned before the CA the Ombudsman's new ruling. They said the case should not be revived because Gutierrez's ruling was final. But the CA said Gutierrez did not make a ruling on their innocence but merely concluded that the evidence was insufficient.
The CA ruling only covers the ruling that orders their dismissal. The court cannot act on the murder charges because a motion for reconsideratino is pending before the Ombudsman.
Marissa said his father received the news on October 28, a day after his birthday. It was Felipe who never gave up on the case in spite of the roadblocks through the years.
Marissa is quite certain the Navy officers will elevate the case to the Supreme Court, but it's a huge development, she said.
While the family has accepted Philip's death, she said they want to continue his battle. "These are the principles he died for. He wanted to expose illegal logging and and gun running," she said.
Navy civil military operations chief Colonel Edgard Arevalo told Rappler they have received the CA decision. The officers involved will meet with the lawyers after the Halloween break. At least two of the 10 Navy officers implicated are still active.
The respondents are:
- Naval Captain Ricardo Ordoñez
- Cdr. Reynaldo Lopez
- HM2 Welmenio Aquino
- LCdr. Luidegar Casis
- LCdr. Alfrederick Alba
- MR2 Sandy Miranda
- LCdr. Joselito Colico
- LCdr. Ruben Roque
- Petty Officer 1st Class Carlito Amoroso
- Petty Officer 2nd Class Mil Leonor Igcasan
Arevalo said they are confident that independent investigation will show what truly happened to Philip.
Various bodies have investigated the case. The findings are conflicting.
The Senate investigation concluded he was shot. The National Bureau of Investigation declared it was suicide. Forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel del Rosario-Fortun, whom the Pestaños themselves hired to investigate, declared it was suicide. Former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez also dismissed the case. (READ: Expert insists Pestaño death was suicide)
The Pestaño family cannot be convinced, accusing the government of a coverup.
Under the Aquino administration, the Pestaños found allies among the people behind the impeachment complaint against Gutierrez. Her alleged inaction on motion for reconsideration filed by the Pestaños was included as grounds in the impeachment complaint. It resulted in revived media interest in the case.
Ombudsman Morales re-opened the case and ruled out suicide. She said there's prima facie case of conspiracy to commit murder. She recommended the filing of murder charges before the Sandiganbayan and the dismissal of the officers involved. (READ: Pestaño case not suicide but murder)
The Ombudsman cited the "series of circumstances – the unusual actions and reactions of respondents on the alleged discovery of Philip’s death, the inconsistencies in their testimonies, the physical and object evidence, and the additional evidence unearthed in the AFP investigation which were made available to the complainants ten years after Philip’s death."
Key officer has left PH
While the CA ruling is a welcome development, Marissa is concerned because one of the officers who could shed light to the case has left the country since his retirement.
"Ruben Roque is already in the
The separate murder case against the Navy officers was dismissed by the Sandiganbayan for lack of jurisdiction. The court argued that none of the respondents had the rank of Navy captain when the incident happened. The court only hears cases of military officers with the rank of colonel and higher. (READ: Court junks Pestaño murder case vs Navy officers)
The case has since been moved to the
Eighteen long years has passed since Philip's death. Closure – both for the family and the officers implicated – is long overdue.