MANILA – A hair-raising photograph of gun-wielding men surrounding a car on EDSA taken by a motorist and uploaded to Twitter on September 1 paved the way for officials to nab the criminals involved in what turned out to be a kidnap-robbery orchestrated by policemen.
The uploaded photograph, which quickly went viral, shows a group of armed men pointing their weapons at a car along EDSA. The men presumably alighted from their own vehicles – one car, an SUV, a van, and a motorcycle – which they had used to cut-off and corner a white Toyota Fortuner.
Authorities, initially unaware of the incident, have since identified nine policemen as the perpetrators of the P2 million highway heist; most of whom were assigned to the La Loma police station under the jurisdiction of the Quezon City Police District (QCPD).
The policemen were initially identified through the license plates of the vehicles appearing in the viral photograph.
Eastern Police District (EPD) director. Chief Supt. Abelardo Villacorta pinpointed Chief Insp. Joseph de Vera, La Loma station deputy commander, as the owner of the silver-gray Toyota Hiace Commuter van, bearing conduction sticker YF 9767. De Vera faces charges of highway robbery and kidnapping with serious illegal detention
De Vera was arrested at the La Loma police station just before dawn on Sunday, and was taken in on Monday, for questioning at the Mandaluyong City Prosecutors’ Office.
“We informed the regional director that we were there to follow up the Sept. 1 incident and we talked to De Vera,” Villacorta said.
Villacorta had earlier formed an investigative unit, Task Group Wack-Wack, to look into the incident that occurred – according to the account of the witness who took the photograph – at around “2:45 pm, near Shell San Juan going to Ortigas.”
Another vehicle in the photo, a blue Honda Civic with license plate No. ZJB 149, belongs to former Insp. Marco Polo Estrera, dismissed in 2006.
The seven other policemen who are suspects in the crime are: Senior Insp. Oliver Villanueva, SPO1 Ramil Hachero, PO2 Weavin Masa, PO2 Mark de Paz, PO2 Jerome Datinguinoo, PO2 Ebonn Decatoria (all belo0nging to the La Loma police station) and PO2 Jonathan Rodriguez of the QCPD’s public safety battalion.
The policemen were also identified by the two victims – employees of a contractor based in the province of Lanao del Sur province- who were aboard the Fortuner.
De Vera’s first instinct was to play dumb about the incident, which he later on conceded as having been an “antidrug operation” carried out by the group.
“He maintained that it was an antinarcotics operation and it was not a robbery,” Villacorta said.
But when asked for supporting documents – such as coordinating papers, or an official blotter entry – he could present none, prompting authorities to get to the bottom of the matter.
Investigation revealed that after being cornered at gunpoint on EDSA, the victims were taken to the La Loma police station, where they were instructed to act as if they were policemen, as well, so as not to arouse suspicion.
They were then divested of the P2-million they were carrying, as well as their automated teller machine cards, from which the suspects withdrew a total of P119, 000, before they were released.
The EPD said that they managed to track the victims through the license plate white Toyota Fortuner, which they secured from footage from a surveillance camera footage along EDSA.
They managed to trace the vehicle its previous owner, a Mindanao-based businessman, who informed them that he had since sold the Fortuner to Cariong Malik, a former councilor – and the employer of the victims – in Lanao del Sur.
“We also asked around near the area where it happened. Fortunately, we got some information and it helped a lot in our investigation,” Villacorta said.
Malik, an engineer by profession, convinced his victimized employees, Ustadz Samanodin Abdul Gafur and Camal Mama, to report the incident.
Fearing reprisal, it took much persuasion for the two victims to come forth and EPD bare the details of the crime, which they eventually did on September 6 at the EPD headquarters.
The victims said their employer had entrusted them with the money to purchase heavy equipment in Manila.
“They were at SM Mall of Asia to meet their contact when the woman called them, asking them to meet them at SM North Edsa. They arrived at the mall and then they got a call from the representative, saying he was already at SM MOA,” Villacorta said.
As they made their way back to MOA on the southbound lane of EDSA at approximately 2:45 pm, their vehicle was cornered by three other vehicles and a motorcycle, from which the armed men alighted and surrounded them at gunpoint.
It was also disclosed by one of the victims that a former girlfriend knew of the trip, and that they were carrying a large sum of cash.
The woman is also the subject of an ongoing police search.
The victims were released by their abductors from the La Loma police station at 9pm, before which they were told to stay silent about the incident.
“They were even threatened by the policemen not to report the incident, or else they will be killed. They were initially hesitant to come to us,” Villacorta said.
De Vera identified the eight other policemen involved in the crime. Of the eight, only PO2 Rodriguez has been captured.
The seven others remain at large.
QCPD director, Chief Supt. Richard Albano said that those involved will be meted the full extent of the law for the crime.
“We do not condone this kind of brazen acts. We are looking into the administrative and criminal records of these policemen and they will not go unpunished,” he said.
He likewise ordered that QCPD Station 1-La Loma commander, Supt. Osmundo de Guzman, be relieved from duty.
“Whether he knew about it or not, it is still his responsibility being the station commander,” Albano said.
“Ever since I took office, I enjoined them … ‘if you’re going to do something like this, get out of Quezon City because you have no place here. You will have nowhere else to go but jail,’” Albano added, even as he gave assurance that a tracker team had already been sent after the police officers who remain at large.