LEADERS of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) held a press conference the other day and asked the public to consider the group’s supreme master, Ruben Ecleo Jr. as innocent until the Supreme Court decides on their petition for automatic review of his conviction for parricide. The press conference revived memories of that tumultuous period when Ecleo was tried, and also reminded the public that he has remained at large.
Judge Soliver Peras of the Regional Trial Court Branch 10 sentenced Ecleo to life imprisonment five years ago for the killing of his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo in 2002. The Sandiganbayan has also sentenced Ecleo to 31 years in prison for three graft cases when he was still mayor of San Jose town in Dinagat Island.
Ecleo’s arrest and 10-year trial featured deaths and controversies.
Fighting erupted when a joint team from the Philippine National Police and 20th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army served a warrant for Ecleo’s arrest and clashed with his armed followers in Dinagat Island, resulting in the death of 16 PBMA members and a policeman. In Mandaue City, a gunman killed Alona’s brother Ben, her father Elpidio, and her mother Rosalia. Cops later killed the gunman.
Ecleo was jailed in the old Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center in Cebu City, where accusations of special treatment hounded him (the Operation Greyhound conducted in 2003 in his cell yielded big amounts of money, a cell phone, musical instruments and even a chainsaw). In 2004, the private prosecutor in his parricide case, Arbet Santa Ana-Yongco, was killed.
The trial itself underwent twists and turns, with six judges inhibiting themselves from the case before Peras took over. One judge, Generosa Labra, allowed Ecleo to post bail, describing him as a “walking time bomb” because of his supposedly serious ailments. Judge Peras later scrapped the bail but Ecleo was nowhere to be found by then. He is still out there “until and unless all legal remedies are already exhausted,” as the PBMA leaders said.
How long that time will be, we don’t know. What we know is that it is not often that one who has already been convicted would remain free for five years now.