You are listening to: The Evidence Locker.
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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.
Warning: This episode contains details of sexual assault and my not be suitable for all listeners.
Cebu (Suh-bóó) is one of more than 7000 islands that make up the tropical archipelago of The Philippines. Its central location makes it a popular spot to live and to vacation. Cebu City is a bustling metropolis, with just shy of one million residents. This cosmopolitan city has remnants of its Spanish colonial past and is the perfect mix of urban style and a laid-back island vibe. A short drive from the city, through a lush green, mountainous landscape, one can have your pick of white-sand beaches.
On Friday morning the 18th of July 1997, was hot and humid on Cebu Island. The rainy season had begun, and when the showers stopped, the heat was stifling. Rudy Lasaga was walking along a ravine in Carcar, about an hour and twenty minutes south from Cebu City, when something caught his attention. The orange fabric seemed out of place at the bottom of the ravine, and when he had a closer look, he realised that he was looking at the body of a young woman.
Rudy immediately informed police, who had a good idea whose body it was. Everyone in Cebu City was looking for two sisters who disappeared from a local shopping mall two nights before. Could the body belong to one of the Chiong sisters?
When police arrived, they found the body, face down in the mud. The female victim was severely injured and her body showed signs of tremendous physical trauma. A handcuff dangled from one of her wrists, her orange T-shirt was pulled up, and her bra pulled down, exposing a breast. Masking tape covered her face, all the way down her neck.
What the investigators at the scene did not realise, was that this case would make waves in the international legal community. A case that, even though seven people were eventually convicted of the most heinous of crimes, has more questions than answers. And ultimately leaves one question lingering: has justice been served?
The Chiong family was a Chinese-Filipino family living in the vibrant Cebu City. Parents, Dionisio and Thelma, had five children: 23-year-old Bruce, 22-year old Jacqueline, Marijoy who was 20, Dennis 19 and 11-year-old Debbie. Theirs was a busy home with friends of the kids popping in and people from church often came over for prayer meetings.
Marijoy was a college beauty queen, and Jacqueline was described as her ‘comely’ and compassionate sister. On Wednesday the 16th of July, Marijoy took her little sister Debbie to school, then went home to help her mom prepare for an afternoon prayer group at their house. Jacqueline had some admin to take care of, so she went to the SSS office to get her social security number, before her shift at an internet café inside the Ayala Mall. The sisters agreed that Marijoy would meet Jacqueline after her shift and they had plans to go shopping and hang out at the mall.
The sisters said that they would be home around 10pm but never showed up. It was a rainy night, and their parents thought they were probably struggling to find a ride home. Their mother, Thelma, asked their brothers Bruce and Dennis to drive to the mall, to see if the girls were there. When Bruce and Dennis returned without Marijoy and Jacqueline, everybody was concerned. They waited up all night, and when there was still no sign of them by 5am, they called friends and family to help to look for them. After checking all the obvious spots and talking to all their friends, they realised it was time to call in the help of the police.
From the start, everyone believed that the sisters were abducted from the mall. It was the last place they were seen together. Missing person’s flyers were distributed, with photos of Marijoy and Jacqueline side by side. The heart-wrenching request pleaded: ‘Help Us Find Our Missing Daughters’. On the night they disappeared, Marijoy was wearing a light orange Giordano T-shirt with a collar and Guess Blue Jeans with pearled sandals. Jacqueline was wearing a floral-print shirt with light-coloured pants and black shoes.
Everyone was looking for the popular sisters who seemed to have disappeared without a trace. That is until Rudy Lasaga called police to inform them of his grim discovery. The body of a dead woman found in a ravine more than an hour’s drive south of the city was wearing the same clothing as Marijoy did when she left for the mall. When the mangled body arrived at the morgue in Cebu city, Dennis Chiong accompanied his mother Thelma to do the unthinkable: to identify the body. Just by looking at her clothing, Thelma knew it was Marijoy.
In the days that followed, details about Marijoy’s last hours alive unfolded. Semen was found on her underwear, and the pathologist concluded that she gang-raped, before she was thrown to her death, down a 150m cliff.
Police searchers scoured the immediate area where Marijoy’s body was found, but could not find any sign of Jacqueline. With a faint glimmer of hope that she was still alive, search efforts intensified. However, as time went by, investigators knew they were most likely looking for a body. The community put a lot of pressure on police to lock up the person responsible for such a violent crime. But investigators did not have a lot on information to work with.
Two months after the Chiong sisters were taken, their family faced their birthdays without them. Jacqueline’s birthday was on the 8th of September, and Marijoy’s on the 9th. A week later, the case catapulted forward.
It was just another day in Manilla for one of Cebu’s sons, 20-year-old Francisco Juan ‘Paco’ Larrañaga. He arrived at the Centre of Culinary Arts (or CCA) where he was a student. As he approached the building, he found himself surrounded by a group of men. In a panic, he called his sister Mimi and her husband Jaime and asked them to come to the CCA. He said that he thought he was about to be kidnapped and needed help. When Mimi and Jaimee arrived, Paco was standing in the centre of the group, all of whom had their firearms pointed at Paco.
Mimi learnt that the men were plainclothes police officers and they were arresting Paco. Yet they had no arrest warrant, and when Mimi asked if they had ID, only one officer presented an expired police ID. Despite Paco and his family’s protest, the men took Paco away. Mimi knew there had to be a mistake somewhere. She managed to get enough information about the arrest and was shocked to hear that Paco was a suspect in the murder case of the Chiong sisters in Cebu.
It didn’t take Mimi long to figure out that Paco was not even in the same city on the night of the abduction. Cebu, their hometown, is on a different island to Manila, almost five hundred miles to the south. One of Paco’s teachers at CCA, Rowena Bautista said that Paco took an exam in Quezon City, Manila on the 16th of July and attended class the following day – he was marked ‘present’ on the roll.
Paco’s friends also came forward to help Mimi. They all remembered that night, as they were not really supposed to go out: it was a Wednesday, and some of them were writing exams. Paco was leaving for Cebu the following day, for a short visit. Also, another friend from Cebu arrived in Manila that day, so it was an impromptu going-away-slash-welcome-to-Manila party. Paco had been in Manila since the beginning of June, and this was going to be his first trip back home.
The friends went to R&R Bar in Katipunan to have some beers and stayed there for about three hours. One of Paco’s friends took photos that night – happy snaps of the group having drinks. He gave the pictures to the police to prove that Paco was not in Cebu on the night the Chiong sisters were taken. A security guard at the building where Paco stayed, also logged Paco’s return after 10pm.
The whole thing looked like a case of mistaken identity, and Mimi and Jaime were confident they would be able to clear it up. Paco denied any involvement in the crime. He had no idea why police suspected him, it made no sense. Paco considered leaving the country – he had family in Spain and in America, but his mother urged him to stay in the Philippines to clear his name. Manila police released Paco, with the condition that he would make his own way to Cebu to assist police with their investigation.
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Now, back to today’s episode.
As soon as Paco arrived in Cebu, he realised he was public enemy number one. The police were convinced that Paco was the leader of a group of six other young men, who abducted, raped and then murdered the Chiong sisters. The people wanted his head on a stake for what he had done. You see, Paco came from privilege. In fact, he hailed from the powerful and influential Osmeña clan. His great grandfather on his mother’s side was none other than president Sergio Osmeña Sr.
Paco’s mother made it clear to the media that, even though her grandfather was a former president, as a family, they were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. The family-owned a farm and worked hard to make a living. Margot married Spanish-born Manuel Larrañaga, and they had three children: Mimi, Paco, and their brother, Imanol.
Paco met most of his co-accused for the first time in prison. They were all members of prominent families, and the media referred to them as the Scions of Cebu or the Chiong Seven. Paco knew Rowen Adlawan and Josman Aznar from around town, but they were not really in the same group of friends. Among the other accused were the Uy brothers, James Andrew and James Anthony – they were 17 and 16 at the time. Then there were Ariel Balansag and Alberto ‘Pahak’ Caño and a delinquent by the name of Davidson Rusia.
Growing up, Paco Larañaga had landed himself in trouble at times. He was involved in some fights, but they were teenage brawls, nothing serious or anything that would have raised a red flag that he would one day commit such a heinous crime. However, one of his punch-ups in a school parking lot was reported in 1995 and Paco’s name made it onto a list of juvenile delinquents, kept by the National Bureau of Investigation (the NBI). Information later surfaced, that the lead officer in the Chiong case used this very list to find feasible suspects for what happened to the Chiong sisters.
In the making of a documentary about this case, Give Up Tomorrow, Police Inspector Pablo Labra, the officer who ordered the arrests, is interviewed. He states that there was ample evidence to arrest all seven of the young men for the kidnap, rape and murder of the Chiong sisters. When asked what exactly the evidence was, Police Inspector Labra said that he could not remember, and the interview ended.
With the alleged perpetrators behind bars, Cebu police were praised for their swift and efficient service. The community felt safer, knowing seven monsters were locked up.
But before the trial could begin, the Prosecution needed to build their case. What everyone wanted know was: what linked Paco and the gang to the sisters? Was it a random crime, or was it planned? According to Dionisio and Thelma Chiong, Paco Larrañaga and Josman Aznar were interested in pursuing romantic relationships with their daughters. Dionisio claimed that Paco had told Marijoy if she did not leave her boyfriend, something terrible would happen to her. Thelma recalled both daughters telling her that Paco followed them around at school. When Paco’s sister heard this, she was furious: according to her Paco had never met either of the Chiong sisters, let alone followed or harassed them. To Mimi, the fact that Thelma and Dionisio implicated her brother, was evidence that they had something to hide. Something so wrong, they were willing to lie and get an innocent young man and his friends convicted.
After six months in prison, there was still not enough evidence to go to trial. The entire country held their breaths, hoping that there would be justice. The Chiong family had the support of many influential people. Thelma Chiong’s sister, Cheryl Jimenea was the appointed secretary for then-president Erap Estrada. She set up a meeting between Estrada and the Chiongs to inform him about the horrific details of their daughters’ murders. After their meeting, the president made the Chiong case a matter of urgency and appointed more agencies to assist with the investigation.
In law enforcement circles, everyone wanted to get involved with the case, as people working on it, were offered promotions or increased salaries. Thelma Chiong herself was appointed vice-president of the Crusade Against Violence, a prestigious position. She had the president in her corner, and no one questioned their crusade to convict her daughters’ abductors, rapists and killers.
Thelma led many candlelight vigils for her daughters, imploring authorities to move forward with the investigation. ‘Justice for the Chiong Sisters’ was a slogan printed on T-shirts as people took to the streets, demanding answers. And rightfully so!
Police knew that to build a stronger case, they needed to find Jacqueline’s body. A team of investigators followed up on a lead and went to the Larrañaga farm with excavation equipment. A witness had come forward and claimed that he heard screams coming from the farm on the night of the murders. Police searchers were hoping to find some evidence, and possibly even Jacqueline’s body. Paco’s sister, Mimi, was there and soon realised that the search was not very well organised. She confronted the colonel in charge and, in the rage of the moment, asked him why they were framing her brother. He didn’t deny anything, he simply said that he was following orders that came straight from the president. They did not find Jacqueline’s body on the farm, in fact, they never found her.
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And back to today’s episode…
Investigators had to push forward with the case pieced together a timeline of the evening of the 16th of July, based on witness testimony. One witness, Shiela Singson, stated that she saw Paco talking to the sisters at the west gate of the Ayala Center. Another witness, Analie Konahap, also saw them there and added that Josman Aznar was with Paco and both of them were talking to the girls. Security guard, Williard Redobles confirmed that he too saw the two young men talking to the Chiong sisters. Two other witnesses, Rolando Dacillo and Mario Minoza said on record that they witnessed Jacqueline’s two failed attempts to escape from the men at the mall.
Multiple witnesses saw the sisters being bundled into a car against their will, but no one knew where they were taken from there. It was also strange that so many people noticed that the sisters were in trouble, but no one tried to help them, nor did anyone call the police. But what happened after they left the Ayala Center, was anybody’s guess.
That is until a vital witness decided to talk to the police. Ten months after the fact, one of the Chiong Seven, Davidson Valiente Rusia was ready to tell it all. Rusia often found himself on the wrong side of the law. He grew up without parents and had to fend for himself from a young age. He figured out the best way to survive: if he was part of a gang, he would be okay. He told journalist Marit-Stinus-Cabugon:
“Do what your leader tells you to do, and he will take care of you.”
Rusia claimed that the events of that night haunted him in his dreams. So much so, that he decided to come forward and break his silence. Davidson Rusia was one of the seven young men arrested for the crime. And his story about what happened that night was chilling…
Rusia said he was introduced to Paco and the Uy brothers by Rowen Adlawan, five months before the murders. Rusia met Josman Aznar some years before, but only met Ariel Balansag and Pahak Caño on that July night. Rusia claimed that on Wednesday night the 16th of July 1997, he was told of a ‘big happening’ taking place that night. He assumed they were talking about a party. But he was wrong, the guys had made other plans…
According to Rusia, the gang had planned to kidnap the Chiong sisters from Ayala Mall. They drove in a convoy of two vehicles: a white car with himself, Josman and Rowen in the front; and the red one, with Paco and the Uy brothers following behind. At 10:30, they saw the Chiong sisters standing at the kerb, outside the mall, probably waiting for a ride home. Josman and Rowen got out and asked the girls if they wanted to join them. The sisters said no, but the guys ignored them and bundled both girls into the front vehicle, where Rusia was waiting in the passenger seat. According to Rusia, Rowen handcuffed the sisters together and covered their mouths with masking tape.
The gang then drove Fuente Osmeña, where they saw a white van next to the road. Rusia was told to ask the owner if it was for hire, and the owner said that it wasn’t. From there they drove to the Park Place Hotel, again looking to hire a van, but there weren’t any available.
At a loss, the men took the two sisters to a house in Barangay Guadalupe, about 3km from the Ayala Centre. They split the sisters up and forced them into separate rooms. They only spent about twenty minutes at the house. Rusia recalled hearing Paco, James Anthony and Rowen giggling in one of the rooms, but he was not sure what had taken place.
After leaving the house, they drove to the South Bus Terminal, where they finally found a van to hire. They left the red car behind, and everybody piled into the van, while James Andrew followed in the white car. They bought barbecue take-out and some rum on the way to Tan-Awan, a lookout point in Carcar. When they arrived, everyone smoked joints and shared a couple of drinks. Someone pulled Jacqueline out of the van, and they pushed her around while standing in a circle, commanding her to dance. As she complied, they ripped off pieces of her clothing. According to Rusia, Paco was the first to go to the van, where he proceeded to rape Marijoy who was still tied up inside. When Paco was done, the others took turns, each taking a couple of minutes and then emerging from the van with a smile.
Rusia said that Josman Aznar instructed Ariel Balansag and Rowen Adlawan to ‘get rid of’ Marijoy. The pair took her from the van. Then they marched her to the edge of the cliff and pushed her off. They watched, without emotion, as she plummeted the 150m to her death.
Fearing for her own life, Jacqueline managed to break free and started running towards the road. The men piled back into the van and drove alongside her, taunting her by shouting:
“Come on, run some more!”
The at some point the van stopped and Jacqueline was bundled back into the van. Rowen beat her until she lost consciousness. Rusia claimed that he was dropped off somewhere near Ayala Center and did not know what happened to Jacqueline after that.
Rusia admitted that he had raped Jacqueline, but not Marijoy, and he did not kill either of them.
Rusia was able to tell police the exact location where Marijoy’s body was found, how she had been handcuffed and how the others used packaging tape to restrain her. He also confirmed that the sisters were taken from the west gate of the Ayala Mall, aligning with the testimonies of other prosecution witnesses. Because of this, investigators felt his account was credible.
By any measure, Rusia’s version of events was a nauseating recount, a horror story. The Chiong Seven were ostracised for their barbaric behaviour. However, the media and members of the public praised Rusia for his bravery. His testimony shone a light of certainty on the dreadful events of that night. He was handsome, with delicate features and bright eyes – and he spoke well. Some newspaper even commented on his excellent command of the English language. This was not surprising, as Rusia had lived in the States for a while. In fact, he had had some run-ins with the law there too. In April 1996 he found himself in St Louis County Jail for 3rd-degree burglary. He was a drug addict and criminal for most of his life.
Technically, according to Filipino law, because Rusia had a criminal record, he could not be a state witness. However, in this case, where most of the rules had exceptions, he was allowed to testify for the Prosecution.
Thelma Chiong was relieved that the case could finally be brought to trial and felt indebted to Rusia for coming forward. Photos of her visit to Rusia in prison were widely publicised. She took him clothing and even a cake for his birthday. Although the masses felt that Thelma was gracious and forgiving, some people thought it was a bit strange. Rusia witnessed her daughters being kidnapped and murdered and did nothing to stop it. In fact, he openly admitted to raping Jacqueline. And yes, he came forward with information, but did he deserve a cake from the victims’ mother?
One year after their arrests, the Chiong Seven went to court. The trial started on the 12th of August 1998 in the Special Heinous Crimes Court in Cebu City. It was a media circus: everybody in the Philippines watched the ‘Trial of the Century’ as it unfolded. In Filipino court, there is no jury, and a single judge hears the case and decides on the verdict and sentencing.
The Prosecution’s case was built mainly on the testimony of Davidson Rusia. His version of events was reconstructed in a short film which was televised nationally. Everyone looked on with disgust as the two actors portraying Rowen and Ariel high-five each other after pushing Marijoy off the cliff. After seeing this confronting reconstruction, the nation decided that Paco and his friends were guilty.
In the course of the trial, the Prosecution told the court that Paco was facing separate charges for attempted kidnapping in 1996. Rochelle Virtucio’s Parents alleged that Paco tried to abduct their daughter at the University of San Carlos Girls High School, but she managed to escape. Paco denied the allegation, and this line of inquiry did not go any further.
The Defence had their work cut out for them. They raised the question of whether the body found in the ravine was Marijoy at all. Marijoy’s body was actually never formally identified. Under cross-examination, Thelma Chiong admitted that she never looked at the face of the body and could not say for sure if it was Marijoy or not. Marijoy’s own brother, Dennis, even said to local media that he wasn’t sure if it was his sister, as the victim’s hair was longer than Marijoy’s. The victim was also only 5ft tall, a fair bit shorter than Marijoy, who was 5ft4.
During the trial, Inspector Edgardo Lenizo, a fingerprint expert, testified that fingerprints from the body found in the ravine matched those of Marijoy. He also reminded the court that the victim was wearing the same clothes Marijoy’s family saw her wearing on the day she disappeared. The Chiong family identified the body and confirmed that it was Marijoy.
To get fingerprints off a decomposing body is problematic because the bulb portion of a finger shrinks. Forensic examiners cut off the top section of each finger and placed it in a Sodium Hydroxide Solution for a couple of hours until it was closer in shape to what it would have been before death. Then they inked the fingers to obtain prints. These prints were found to match Marijoy’s voter ID card. Also, no one else came forward to claim the body, so who else could it have been?
The Defence also challenged the claim that semen found on the underwear matched Paco Larrañaga’s DNA. They questioned the forensic expert, who admitted that he did not even wear gloves during testing. The question was: were they able to prove that a rape had been committed at all? A sample was taken from a stain on the victim’s underwear and studied under a microscope. Only one sperm cell was detected. Which brings the question, if only one sperm cell was found, how could they claim that gang rape occurred?
The entire post mortem examination was a shambles. None of the evidence was stored correctly: everything was stuffed into one plastic bag. The autopsy was performed after the body was embalmed, which would have destroyed vital evidence. Also, the body was cremated before fingerprint testing was complete, and no tissue samples were preserved.
Because of all the questions surrounding forensic evidence of the body and clothing, the Defence requested to have it all re-tested. The presiding judge, Martin Ocampo, ruled proof regarding the identity of the body was irrelevant. This was a massive set-back for the Defence. Forensic testing would benefit everyone involved: if the defendants were not guilty, it would prove it. But if they were, in fact, guilty, evidence would be able to prove it too. And if the body was not Marijoy – were they dealing with a murder at all?
Stating that this was no way to run a fair trial, the Defense lawyers announced their withdrawal from the case. Judge Ocampo was furious and said they were challenging his integrity. In a fit of rage, he sent the six Defence attorneys to jail for contempt of court. The judge re-assigned lawyers from the Public Offender’s office to take charge of the Defence that very same day, and the trial continued.
The youngest of the accused, the Uy brothers, James Anthony and James Andrew, pleaded not guilty. On the night of the 16th of July, they were celebrating their father’s 50th birthday at the Uy family home. All of the party guests placed them at the event until at least 11:30. The brothers only left the house again the next morning at 7am to go to school. Their mother testified that she woke up at 2am and saw both of her sons asleep in their beds.
Pahak Caño and Ariel Balansag were seen at a mechanic shop, with Pahak’s wife and another couple, at 7pm on the night of the 16th. The next morning, the group returned to collect the car. No mention was made of a ‘big happening’ or partying with the others.
Josman Aznar’s friend, Michael Dizon, testified that on the night in question, some friends had dinner at Josman’s house, drank ‘Blue Label’ and then left to go to BAI Disco. They caught up with old friends and had a couple of beers, then went to a second bar. Josman caught a lift home with one of his friends, Jonas Dy Pico who dropped Josman at home sometime after 3am.
Paco Larrañaga’s case was put forward first, seeing as he had the strongest alibi for the time of the murders. Because of this, a lot of media attention focused on Paco and in the public’s eye, he was seen as the group’s leader. The Defence hoped that, if Paco could be found innocent, so would the others. They presented the 42 affidavits, as well as the photos of Paco at the R&R Bar in Katipunan. Altogether 42 people (fellow students, lecturers and friends) wrote affidavits, supporting the fact that Paco was in Manila that Wednesday night.
Everyone remembered it was a weeknight, and they should not have been going out. Photos taken were entered into evidence. However, none of these witnesses was ever interviewed by police. The Prosecution disregarded the photo evidence, saying that they believed it had been tampered with. Paco wasn’t looking at the camera, and his chair was not the same colour to the other ones at the table.
PAL Airlines confirmed that Paco only arrived back in Cebu City the day after the murders. The flight is only an hour long. A Defence witness admitted that there were multiple flights from Manila to Cebu daily. Paco could have flown to Cebu on the 16th and returned to Manilla in the early morning hours. From there, he could have taken the afternoon flight back to Cebu, making sure people took notice of him, to establish an alibi. Class records showed that Paco was in Manila on the morning of the 17th. So, all of this would have had to happen after 10pm and the first lesson the next day.
Judge Ocampo came under fire for his unconventional behaviour during proceedings. The trial was disorganised, people shouted over each other and spoke out of turn. Sometimes the judge dozed off and clearly did not take in all of the information. On one occasion, while the Defence cross-examined Davidson Rusia, he fainted, but the judge let proceedings carry on, and he – that is the judge – answered on Rusia’s behalf.
Instead of looking at the strength of the evidence presented by the Prosecution, the trial focussed on the weakness of the evidence of the accused. Which goes in straight contradiction of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The accused were deemed guilty and had to prove their innocence.
On the 5th of May 1999, all defendants were found guilty, and chaos erupted in the courtroom. Screams wailed out on both sides: the families of the convicted were in despair, and the family and friends of the Chiongs were relieved. Thelma Chiong’s sister wailed in a fit and said she was channelling Jackie’s spirit. Everyone, except for Davidson Rusia, was given a double life sentence.
The Chiong’s appealed the conviction and pushed for the death penalty. All six of the convicted men also appealed, saying that their constitutional rights had been violated. They were not allowed to speak in their own Defence, and judge Ocampo did not facilitate a fair trial.
Five months later, on the 7th of October 1999, the body of judge Ocampo was found in a hotel room in Lapu-Lapu city. His death was ruled to be a suicide. In a note, he wrote that he had lost hope and purpose.
Another five years went by while everyone awaited news about the appeals. On February 3rd 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court sentenced Paco, Josman, Ariel, Pahak and James Andrew and to death by lethal injection. The youngest of the group, James Anthony Uy, was only 16 when the crime was committed, so he was spared a death sentence, and handed down a life sentence instead. This was the end of the line, they would not be able to appeal any further.
Supporters of the convicted men openly questioned Davidson Rusia’s evidence. Paco and Josman claimed they did not know who he was – they never met him before. Rusia later admitted that police tortured him into confessing and showed bruises all over his body. Other detainees who were in the same prison as Rusia reported that they had witnessed the torture. His back was burnt with cigarette butts, he was punched in the face, and while he made his ‘confession’, he had more than one loaded gun pointed at his head.
The Supreme Court hit back and noted reasons why they could NOT throw out Davidson Rusia’s testimony. Some witnesses corroborated parts of his story, like two men who recognised Rowen Adlawan as someone who wanted to hire a van on the evening of the 16th of July 1997. Another witness also recognised Rowan, stating that he bought the barbecue take-out from him and asked where he could buy rum. The same witness recalled seeing a van waiting for Rowen and hearing the voices of, quote a quarrelling male and female end quote. A businessman from Carcar testified that he saw Paco leaning against the hood of a white van at Tan-Awan at 3:30 that night.
On Easter Sunday of 2006, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished the death penalty in the Philippines. The six death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
Paco Larrañago had the support of his family in Spain, who contacted Fair Trials International to look into his case. After a long crusade, after serving 12 years in the Philippines, Paco was allowed to serve the rest of his life sentence in Spain. In September 2009 he left the Philippines for Spain and went straight to prison. Spanish authorities agreed to release him if he admitted guilt. He refused.
Six years after his arrival in Spain, Paco was downgraded to a third-degree prisoner, with some freedom. He can work but has to return to his cell straight after his shift. Paco found a part job, working as a chef in a restaurant in the seaside town of San Sebastian.
Back in the Philippines, in 2019, Josman Aznar, Ariel Balansag, Pahak Caño and James Andrew Uy were released for good conduct. However, after an appeal by the Chiong family, they were made to surrender themselves to authorities and to return to prison to serve out their life sentences. The government explained that it was an error and that the men were not eligible for release.
From the start, the Chiong murder investigation was disorganised. Investigational flaws, as well as contradicting media reports, makes one wonder what the actual evidence really was.
The documentary: Give Up Tomorrow sides with the men convicted of the crimes. As a retort, the film: Jacqueline Comes Home, was commissioned by Thelma Chiong. She wanted to clear the air and tell the world about the trauma they had suffered. Both films sparked controversy, each one representing the opposite side of the story. In Give up Tomorrow, it is revealed that all of the prosecution witnesses were paid to testify in court, which places a big question mark begin the Supreme Court’s ruling.
One would be inclined to side with the victims’ family, however, through the years, many rumours and speculations were floating around on social media. One story goes that the Chiong family was involved in a drug trafficking ring and that their daughters were killed as the result of a dispute. Dionisio Chiong worked for a notorious Cebuoano businessman, called Peter Lim.
Dionisio managed Lim’s trucking business that was under investigation in exposing an elaborate drug trafficking operation. Not long before the abduction of Marijoy and Jacqueline, Dionisio was fired from his job. The Congressional Committee on Dangerous Drugs asked him to testify against Peter Lim, but before he could take the stand against his former employer, Dionisio’s daughters disappeared. In the wake of the tragic loss, Dionisio decided to withdraw his testimony against Peter Lim. It was also alleged that the police officers who made the seven arrests moonlighted as bodyguards for Peter Lim.
Some people believe that the sisters were kidnapped and sent away. Peter Lim made a deal with Dionisio to withdraw his testimony to save his daughters’ lives. Corrupt police officers on Lim’s payroll arrested the six teens from their list of delinquents. People who believe this theory claim that the suspects were all from families opposing Peter Lim business interests in Cebu.
But then, what happened to Jacqueline and Marijoy? Social media warriors have found photos, suggesting that both sisters are alive and well and living in Canada. Some believe that Jacqueline poses as her youngest sister Debbie, who has a strong resemblance to her.
None of this has ever been confirmed. In January 2020, 71-year-old Dionisio Chiong passed away after suffering a heart attack. If he knew what happened to his daughters, and if their lives were spared, he took it to his grave.
The miscarriage of justice is always infuriating. The wrongfully accused lose their freedom, their reputations and often support from people who are undecided about their guilt. There will always be a stigma attached to someone involved in the case. However, the biggest tragedy is the fact that the victims never receive justice. We still don’t know what happened to Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong on that July evening in Cebu. And one has to wonder if we ever will…
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