CEBU

Seares: The Ecleo story had Cebuanos as victims: wife killed, family massacred, a prosecutor shot dead. But he answered for only one killing.

News Sense

RUBEN Ecleo Jr. was arrested in Pampanga Thursday, July 30, nine years after an arrest warrant was issued against him in 2011. While on bail, he had skipped three scheduled trials in Cebu City on the 2002 killing of his wife. In August 2012, a national manhunt was launched against the former congressman of Dinagat Islands in Surigao del Norte.

He actually spent a lot more years as a free man when he should have been locked up.

Since January 5, 2002 when he strangled his wife, Alona Bacolod-Ecleo, he had not been placed behind bars until June 18 of that year when police laid siege on the family's island home.

On March 2, 2004, Regional Trial Court Judge Anacleto Caminade granted Ecleo bail for one million pesos and Ecleo had since disappeared. From that year, he had been out of jail until his arrest in Pampanga last July 30. He was using the alias "Manuel Riberal."

9 years but actually 16

Technically, Ecleo was a fugitive for nine years but actually, he had been free -- when arguably he should've been behind bars -- for 16 years. He even spent two years of it as congressman, after winning in the 2010 election, before he went into hiding.

As cited by local prosecutors and later the solicitor general before the Court of Appeals, it was a non-bailable offense and evidence of guilt was strong. And "humanitarian ground" was not an exemption under the rules.

Ecleo, now 60, was not the "ticking bomb" described by his doctor. Apparently no other medical expert was presented. And being such a flight risk, loss of P1 million bail wouldn't deter him from fleeing, and it did not.

Besides, at the time he was also facing before the Sandiganbayan three charges of corruption over two overpriced municipal buildings and the use of public funds for a women's center owned by his cult organization when he was San Jose mayor from 1991 to 1994. Another reason to flee.

RTC Judge Soliver Peras convicted Ecleo of parricide on April 14, 2012. Court of Appeals Associate Justice Gabriel Ingles on March 28, 2014 made final and executory Ecleo's conviction by the RTC, denying his notice of appeal. In his other criminal case, the Sandiganbayan convicted Ecleo of corruption and sentenced him to 31 years in jail.

Not just one victim

Ecleo was charged with and convicted of only one killing, the parricide of Alona, a medical student in Cebu City.

But the Ecleo story involved the violent death of at least seven more people:

[] The massacre of Alona's family, her parents Elpidio and Rosalia and her two siblings, along with a neighbor, victim of the cross-fire, who were massacred at their house in Mandaue City on the same day (June 18, 2002) that CIDG police assaulted Dinagat Islands, a province in the Caraga region, where Ecleo had holed in since he strangled his wife to death in Cebu City. The security guard whom police shot dead in the Mandaue massacre was a member of the Ecleo cult.

NCR police region chief Debold Sinas said Friday, July 31, during the presentation of Ecleo to Manila media, they will investigate the involvement of the arrested fugitive in the killing of Alona's family.

[] The shooting to death of Atty. Arbeth Sta. Ana-Yongco, 39, the Bacolod family's lawyer, by a gunman and a lookout on October 11, 2004 in her home office on Sikatuna St., Cebu City.

Sta. Ana had received death threats before the Yongco killing. Police suspected Ecleo was behind it but never solved the private prosecutor's murder. A street is named after Arbeth.

What enabled Ecleo

Ecleo didn't get away with one murder, that of his wife, but the reputed long arm of the law took at least nine years to reach him.

Despite the national manhunt, his having been ranked #1 in the "Most Wanted Criminals" list, and P2 million bounty on his arrest, he had eluded the law.

There are explanations: His religious influence as cult leader of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (with claimed membership of 20,000 in Cebu alone). His political clout: he and other members of his family control the local government units of Dinagat province. The wealth that comes with their political and religious station.

Those factors can affect the will and capability of the justice system and the law enforcement sector. The grant of bail was questionable and was questioned. Failure of police to catch Ecleo raised suspicion that bigger incentives from elsewhere were used to "neutralize" then president Nonynoy Aquino's P2 million reward.

'Culture of impunity'

The same influences must have borne on the investigation into the other killings for which Ecleo has yet to be made to answer in the courts.

Did justice triumph? Not substantially, with the non-repentant Ecleo owning up the Alona murder but only because "wala siyang magawa." "I was accused, it was proved and I could not do anything about it anymore," he told the news media.

Many people are unconvinced that Ecleo's arrest has demolished the "culture of impunity" in the country where the rich and powerful are often not held to account.


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