Ecleo found guilty of killing wife 10 years ago

Inquirer, Philippines/April 13, 2012

Cebu City -- Representative Ruben Ecleo Jr. of Dinagat Island was found guilty of killing his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo inside their home in Cebu City 10 years ago.

Ecleo, "supreme master" of the cult group Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), was sentenced to reclusion perpetua or at least 30 years imprisonment.

Judge Soliver Peras of regional trial court Branch 10 also ordered Ecleo to pay the heirs of his wife, P25 million in compensatory damages, which would be what Alona would have earned had she been able to finish and practice medicine.

Alona was a fourth year medical student when she was strangled by Ecleo inside their residence in Sitio (sub-village) Banawa, Barangay (village) Guadalupe, Cebu City on Jan. 5, 2002. Her remains were found inside a black garbage bag dumped in a ravine in Dalaguete town, south Cebu, three days later on January 8.

Aside from the compensatory damages, Ecleo was also told to pay Alona's family P200,000 in moral damages, P200,000 in exemplary damages, P200,000 attorney's fees and P50,000 temperate damages.

Ecleo was a no-show during the reading of the verdict, which was delayed by more than two hours, and was represented by his lawyer, Orlando Salandre.

He said he didn't know where his client was as they only communicated through phone.

Ecleo also faces a 31-year jail term after the Sandiganbayan found him guilty of three counts of graft for overpaying the construction of two municipal buildings and for spending public funds for a women's center owned by his group, PBMA, during his stint as mayor of San Jose, Dinagat Island.

Salatandre said they would appeal the decision of Peras before a higher court because there were issues raised by the defense that were not appreciated by the lower court, one of which was the question on the identification of the body. The defense contended that the woman found dead in Dalaguete was not Alona.

Alona's family members, who were all in black, cried after the verdict was handed down. "Finally, my sister can rest in peace," said Alona's younger Josebil, one of the prosecution witnesses.

He had testified that he heard his sister scream on the night that she was killed. He later saw Ecleo's bodyguards carry a garbage bag, which was placed inside a vehicle.

Josebil appealed to the authorities to arrest Ecleo so that Alona's s family could attain complete justice.

But for Virgie Novicio, PBMA member, the court decision only reaffirmed their master's mission: to sacrifice himself so their organization would be known worldwide.

"Our organization would not have been known if this [Alona killing] didn't happen," she said.

The promulgation capped the trial that took 10 years and marked by the inhibition of six judges from handling the case.

Judge Peras was the seventh judge to handle the Ecleo parricide case.

Security was tight at the Palace of Justice as only 20 representatives from the camps of Ecleo and Bacolod families were allowed inside the courtroom.

More than 50 policemen were inside and outside the Palace of Justice building at the Capitol compound in Cebu City as early as 6 a.m. Friday.

PBMA members clad in white shirts were seen gathering outside the courtroom, apparently to lend moral support to their "supreme masters." They could be recognized by the PBMA ring on their finger.

The promulgation was scheduled at 3 p.m. but Judge Peras came out of his chambers at 5:17 p.m.

"I'm sorry our computer is not of standard so we have to wait for a long time to finish the printing," he told the courtroom.

The decision was over 100 pages long but only the depositive portion was read during the promulgation.

In his decision, Judge Peras described as weak the defense and alibi of Ecleo that he was at the PBMA chapter in Talisay at that time that Alona was killed on Jan. 2, 2002.

He also claimed that the body found in Dalaguete was not Alona who he said didn't come home after she went out with her friends.

But Judge Peras noticed that Ecleo didn't make an effort to look for his wife or reported her missing to the police when she failed to come home.

Instead, he went to Lapu-Lapu City and then later to Bogo City where he had a sing-along session with his friends.

Peras pointed out that the accused claimed his organization had millions of members nationwide and had 20,000 members in Cebu – enough manpower to help him look for his wife.

Peras said that after he arrived from Bogo, the accused went to the police homicide section but only because he was invited after Alona's siblings reported her missing.

The court also noticed that before the body of Alona was found in Dalaguete on Jan. 8, 2002, Ecleo left Cebu and went home to Dinagat Island purportedly to look for Alona.

"One word from him would galvanize his members into action to look for Alona Bacolod," the court said but Ecleo didn't exert any effort to search for her.

But when members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Central Visayas (CIDG-7) on June 18, 2002, went to Dinagat to serve his arrest warrant, Ecleo didn't surrender to authorities. Instead, his supporters fought back to prevent his arrest, which resulted in a bloodbath.

The court said Ecleo's flight to Dinagat was an indication of guilt.

Sixteen cult members and a policemen were killed during the three-hour gunbattle after at least 2,000 PBMA members barricaded the mansion and fired at the policemen to prevent them from taking their "supreme master."

During the siege in Dinagat, a lone gunman killed Alona's parents, Elpidio and Rosalia, her brother Ben and sister Evelyn at the family residence in Barangay Subangdaku, Mandaue City. The attack came minutes after Ben, a vital witness in the parricide case against Ecleo, was interviewed during an evening radio program.

Also killed was the victims' neighbor Paterno Lactawan who was hit in a crossfire.

The gunman was shot dead by responding policemen. He was identified as Rico Gumonong, a security guard and a PBMA member.

Ecleo was brought to Cebu City and was detained at Cebu City jail.

But in March 2004, Ecleo was released after being allowed to post a P1 milllion bail to seek medical treatment for his heart ailment. His cardiologist had described him a "walking time bomb" who may drop dead anytime due to probable cardiac complications.

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