STRIKING SIMILARITIES in the killing of two teenage women who were victims of sensational crimes, committed in Cebu island four years apart, in 2023 and 2019:
 Each was a crime of passion, where the woman victim, under 20, was tortured, the brutality expressing hate and scorn.
In the March 11, 2019 discovery of her body on a vacant lot in Lapu-Lapu City, Christine Silawan, who would’ve turned 17 in a few days after her death, half her face was sliced off, bruises in many parts of her body, which was naked from the waist down.
When the body of Rhea Mae Tocmo, 19, was found on a roadside in Mohon, Barangay Tisa, Cebu City on July 17, 2023, stuffed in a cardboard box secured by packaging tape, arms and legs tied with aluminum cable, the face smashed and looked burned, and bruises all over.
 The intensity of hate, by the killer towards the victim, stemmed from an obsession with the woman, with whom each assailant believed he was related and who owed him loyalty, even though the liaison was started and sustained only by Facebook and other social media platforms. The time of the killing was also their first time for the presumptive lovers to meet face-to-face.
Renato Payupan Llenes, 43, claimed he and Christine struck a relationship in social media (as CJ Diaz, “nagka-uyab mi sa Facebook”). It was their first in-person meeting. “Renren,” with a live-in partner and five children, got angry when Christine told him he was too old for her, she had a boyfriend, and was no longer a virgin. When he asked to have sex with him, she refused. That, plus his being high on drugs at the time, made him lose self-control. With a pair of scissors, he stabbed her and then sliced off, in admitted “Momo challenge’ style, the skin off half of her face.
Simeon Gabutero Jr., 22, a construction worker, said he strangled Rhea Mae in a moment of fury. Rhea Mae was a Panabo, Davao del Norte student whom he met for the first time here in Cebu on July 16. Their relationship, begun in December 2022, was kept up by phone calls and messages. They finally saw each other in his Guadalupe boarding house where Simeon berated Rhea Mae for many Facebook accounts and messages from other men. Simeon, who said he had been sending “hard-earned money “ to Rhea Mae, grew angrier when she just laughed off his rant over her offenses, including use of illegal drugs -- which Simeon said he found in her bag and suspected was bought with his money -- and her coming to Cebu without his prior knowledge. Rhea Mae, it turned out, had left the family home also without informing her mother.
DIGITAL HOOK-UP. Both Christine Silawan, in the 2019 stabbing to death, and Rhea Mae Tocmo, in the 2023 strangling to death, knew and hooked up with their would-be killer on Facebook or some social media platform.
They hadn’t met with and fully known their partner before the first in-person meeting. Christine didn’t know Renato Llenes alias CJ Diaz was living in with a woman and sired five kids. Renato didn’t know Christine had another boyfriend and already had sexual experience. Simeon Gabutero didn’t know Rhea Mae, allegedly on drugs, was probably using his earnings for the vice.
As scams are perpetrated in social media, so is deception in digital acquaintance and relationship pulled. And the latter could end up in violence and death.
STARK DIFFERENCE IN PROBES. The investigation into the Rhea Mae killing was conducted by the police alone and, from the results so far, done quickly and efficiently, collecting not just affidavits of witnesses but also DNA tests and CCTV images, given much-improved tools and resources in solving crimes.
Compare that with the investigation into the 2019 Christine Silawan murder, which became messy when findings of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) contradicted those of the Philippine National Police (PNP): The NBI was sure about their suspect: a minor who was an ex-boyfriend of Christine, saying he confessed to the murder and forensic tests on blood in his shirt showed his and Christine’s DNA. The police in contrast suspected another person and ultimately came up with Llenes who confessed to the crime. Confusion was added with the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) announcing autopsy results that differed from the PNP findings. PAO said Christine was raped while the police said she was not.
The Department of Justice secretary had ordered the NBI’s entry into the probe of the Lapu-Lapu City murder. Then President Rodrigo Duterte also ordered the rearrest of Christine’s ex-boyfriend, whom the police had released, yielding to the argument of Atty. Vincent Isles, the youth’s lawyer, and prosecutors’ finding of no probable cause. Obviously, the high officials were responding to public demand “for justice to Christine”; they wanted to be seen as doing something good for the victim.
It was troubling that the different agencies seemed to have been competing with one another, although when asked about it each agency vigorously denied they weren’t all cooperating.
That has not been so in this year’s case of Rhea May Tocmo. The police investigators, led by Police Major Angelito Valleser, Tisa police station chief, appeared to be thorough and comprehensive in digging out the facts and building the case for prosecutors. And helping them is that no other law-enforcement agency is seen to be muddying the waters.
WILL CONFESSION STAND? In the Silawan case, accused Renren Llenes pleaded not guilty in court when earlier he had promised publicly not to retract his extrajudicial confession. What was not adequately explained in media was that, upon advise of his lawyer, Llenes stuck to his admission of guilt to homicide but not to murder.
Gabutero had also made an extrajudicial confession in the killing of Rhea Mae Tocmo. Police prepared for the possibility that he’d retract by adopting safeguards such as the presence of independent lawyers and witnesses attesting that he gave it freely and understood what it meant.
RELATIVES’ DISAPPOINTMENT WITH SYSTEM. The family of Christine Silawan wanted her ex-boyfriend included in the charge sheet and didn’t sign the complaint when police didn’t do so. The relatives’ distress increased when the body of the lone accused Renato Llenes was found on May 24, 2020 hanging in the Lapu-Lapu City jail, an apparent suicide. An investigation was announced but not its result. Technically, Llenes died an innocent man as he died before he could be convicted or acquitted. His criminal liability was extinguished.
Relatives of Rhea Mae Tocmo were also reported dissatisfied with the result of the work of the police, who filed charges against Gabutero with the Cebu City prosecutor’s office. “We cannot accept their investigation because instead of helping us get justice, they have added to our sorrows. They’re adding insult to injury.” News reports didn’t specify their grievance.
‘WOMAN IN A BOX’ LABEL. An interesting bit of trivia from the two cases is that while the Christine Silawan killing gained national and international attention, drew top national officials to meddle in the investigation, and had twists and turns that kept it running for months, the Rhea Mae Tocmo murder had one label that kept popping up in the story headlines: “the woman in a box.”