I BELIEVE former Palawan governor Joel Reyes is innocent of the murder of Palawan broadcaster Dr. Gerry Ortega in January 2011. My studied opinion borne of research is that he was a victim of the alliance of a political overlord with an oligarch, in connivance with officials of the past Yellow regime.
I didn’t make this conclusion only with the Court of Appeals Special Division’s January 4 decision to drop the murder case against Reyes, on grounds that there was no evidence against him, and the sole accuser’s claims were “riddled with inconsistencies.”
I had the same conclusion seven years ago, when Reyes was first accused of the crime, which was explained in my column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer published on May 4, 2011, reproduced below. I had written the piece admittedly with some trepidation because I was the only writer to take such a stand – understandably because of the frenzy over the murder of a journalist. I cannot pretend that I am not relieved that a five-man court of justice has agreed with conclusions I made seven years ago.
The powerful Philippine Daily Inquirer at that time condemned Reyes in a ruthless trial by publicity. One of its reporters who returned to his Palawan home province as the paper’s correspondent there spewed so many articles that portrayed Reyes as a cold-blooded murderer, and claimed (in a complaint to PDI’s editors) that I was a paid hack.
Joining the Yellow Cult’s delirium against Reyes at the time, now Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque volunteered as a lawyer for the Ortega family. That is foul: he is dragging the Palace to join him in his former frenzy.
I believed Reyes was innocent for one major reason. The sole accuser was one Rodolfo Edrad, who claimed to have hired Ortega’s killers.
After seven years, with Reyes being totally helpless and becoming a fugitive in Thailand, no other witness corroborated Edrad’s allegations, with one of the alleged gunmen very mysteriously killed in prison. No other testimony nor evidence turned up to link Reyes to the Ortega murder. Many of Edrad’s claims were so preposterous that he was obviously making things up.
Right after the much-publicized killing, the justice department ordered a panel to investigate the allegation against Reyes. The panel dismissed it. In an unprecedented move though, then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima—at the time smelling so good to the public as a crusader—organized a new panel, composed of different investigators, which reversed the original recommendations, without submitting any new evidence. De Lima obviously told the new panel what recommendation they should submit to her.
The media blitz led by the PDI was that Reyes killed Ortega since the broadcaster had the goods on the governor – and possibly even President Arroyo herself – on how they looted billions of pesos from the Malampaya Fund, the royalties paid to the government by the Shell operators of the offshore natural gas fields in Palawan.
The Yellow Cult in its propaganda to get Arroyo step down form office had been for several years alleging that she and her officials had been looting this fund.
Six years after Ortega’s murder though, not a single iota of evidence was found that Reyes was involved in any anomaly over the P25 billion Malampaya fund. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed only in December 2016 graft cases against 25 government officials involving the schemes by pork barrel scam queen Janet Napoles to similarly plunder the Malampaya Fund.
Neither Reyes nor Arroyo was included among those indicted by the Ombudsman.
I can think of two reasons why Reyes was framed for the Ortega murder and the Yellow Cult moved heaven and earth to convict him of this deed.
First, Reyes was a staunch supporter of Arroyo, while his political enemies Hagedorn and tycoon Jose Alvarez had become allies of the Yellow Cult. Pinning down Reyes over Ortega’s murder would, as it did, remove him and his brother out of Palawan’s political landscape, and especially out of their hometown Coron, which had become a prime tourist (read huge revenue-generating) area.
Two, the Yellow Cult had brainwashed themselves into believing that Arroyo’s alleged raiding of the Malampaya Fund was one of, or even her biggest crime. I was told that Reyes was approached and told that if he could spill the beans on Malampaya, the murder charges would be dropped. But what beans could Reyes spill?
There is a rather simple argument that would make any objective observer doubt the charges against Reyes.
There have been over 100 killings of journalists for whatever reason since 1992, according to the New York self-styled Committee to Protect Journalists. To this day, how many cases have been solved, with its mastermind identified and charged?
None—except Reyes. Whatever one thinks of Reyes, I don’t think he was so stupid as to leave evidence or testimony for the crime, to be so easily found just two weeks after the murder. The real masterminds framed Reyes so well, but it was so contrived as to be quite obvious, as my column below shows.
The big tragedy here is not uncommon: People who think they are fighting for justice unwittingly are concealing the real criminals.
Following is my May 4, 2011 column in the PDI, somewhat abbreviated, which contains more details on this issue:
Just weeks after the January 24 murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Dr. Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa, Mayor Edward Hagedorn dramatically announced to the press that the crime had been solved—swiftly as he had vowed over Ortega’s grave. Most of the media would buy Hagedorn’s claims hook, line and sinker.
Hagedorn pointed the finger at his political rival, former Palawan Gov. Joel T. Reyes. He claimed that one Rodolfo Edrad, who he alleged was Reyes close-in aide, had surrendered to him and confessed to having hired the killer upon the ex-governor’s orders. He had even been given, using Hagedorn’s words, “a blow-by-blow account” of how Reyes ordered the murder.
Hagedorn wasn’t aware that he was being ridiculous in his attempt to explain why Edrad confessed so easily: “The softness of Edrad’s heart led to the identification of the mastermind.” It turns out though that Edrad is hardly a person anyone would describe as having a soft heart.
Despite his denials, the accuser of the ex-governor was actually a fugitive from the law, with warrants of arrest issued against him for a vicious murder in 2007. He therefore would have nothing to lose and much to gain by giving false testimony, as long as he is paid for it by some patron.
To give Edrad some credibility, Hagedorn said that he was an ex-Marine who unfortunately was discharged because of his participation in the Oakwood mutiny. No such marine in their roster, past or present, the Philippine Marine Corps spokesman reported. He wasn’t at all Reyes’ “close-in aide,” but months before the murder had, quite suspiciously, bugged the ex-governor, unsuccessfully, to hire him as a gofer.
Edrad’s claims were so contrived as to be preposterous: Expecting to be asked how he could have spent in two weeks the P500,000 which the ex-governor allegedly paid him for the crime, he said he was robbed by six goons.
That powerful, rich personalities were behind Edrad became all too obvious in the April 15 affidavit the finger-pointer supposedly wrote. The 48-page affidavit was written in flawless English using sophisticated legal terms, and even contained a complicated matrix to argue that Reyes’ counter-arguments were erroneous.
It was in all likelihood written by a lawyer from the law firm representing Edrad: that of Evaristo Gana, not at all a cheap lawyer. Without any employment and hardly a tycoon, it was a mystery how Edrad could afford such an expensive law firm. The affidavit though clearly aimed for a newspaper headline:
“I have been offered no less than P25 million in exchange for recanting my previous statements against (former Governor Reyes). I have refused and will continue to refuse any bribe… The truth cannot be bought.”
With Edrad’s claims against Reyes appearing to be contrived, my attention was turned to the person to whom Edrad had “surrendered” and who backed his accusations to the hilt: Hagedorn.
It seemed to be a big blunder that another person who had some connection to the ex-governor was accused of being part of the conspiracy. Percival Lecias, the photographer of Reyes’ wife, was detained for several days by the police and National Bureau of Investigation agents, after which he issued a statement supporting Edrad’s statements. But Lecias claimed a day later that he was forced by NBI operatives to make those statements, and filed a case against them at the Commission on Human Rights.
He claimed under oath that when he was brought to the NBI office in Manila, Hagedorn and, significantly, tycoon Jose “Pepito” Alvarez met him there, with the mayor even giving him a wad of cash as he told him to “side with the truth.” Alvarez was known to have blamed his defeat in the recent gubernatorial elections on Reyes, who supported former Rep. Abraham Mitra.