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Posted on Monday, January 17, 2005

 

Questions linger in Vizconde case

By Jonathan M. Hicap, Reporter 

First of two parts

Will Lauro Vizconde finally get the peace of mind he deserves? And will Hubert Webb finally get his acquittal and freedom from prison, where he has been languishing in the past 10 years?

It’s been almost 14 years since Vizconde’s wife, Estrellita, then 57, and two daughters, Carmela, 19, and Anne Marie Jennifer, 7, were brutally murdered on June 30, 1991, in their home at 80 W. Vinzons Street, BF Homes, Parañaque.

The case, tagged as the Vizconde Massacre, became sensational not only because of the way the three were murdered (Carmela was raped) but because the suspects were sons of rich and famous families, the most prominent of whom was Hubert, the son of former senator Freddie Webb.

Tolentino, saying “the trial of the petitioners is about to end and to assign a new judge to determine the guilt or innocence of petitioners will not be in the best interest of justice.”

The Court reminded Tolentino “that our ability to dispense impartial justice is an issue in every trial, and in every criminal prosecution the judiciary always stands as a silent accused. More than convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent, the business of the judiciary is to assure fulfillment of the promise that justice shall be done and is done, and that is the only way for the judiciary to get an acquittal from the bar of public opinion.”

On August 17, 1999, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals and ruled that Judge Tolentino did not commit error when she barred the depositions of Bucher, Farmer, Alston, Smalley and Pavlisin.

On February 6, 1998, the appellate court’s Fourth Division, however, allowed the five witnesses to make their testimonies before a consular officer in the US.

The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court need not get the testimony of the five witnesses regarding the documents they presented because these had already been admitted as evidence to bolster Webb’s stay in the US.

Conviction

The Vizconde trial became a celebrated case in the country because it had the elements of a soap opera.

On January 6, 2000, or nine years after the murders of the Vizconde family, Judge Tolentino rendered her decision.

Early in the morning, hundreds of people were already cramming Branch 274 of the Paranaque Regional Trial Court.

The families of the accused attended to hear the judgment. Among them were Freddie and Elizabeth Webb. Lauro Vizconde was already there.

Television and radio stations were on had to report the proceedings. The press was presented in huge number.

At 8:30 a.m. a clerk of court started reading the 186-page decision. It would take another clerk of court to finish reading the verdict, which took almost five hours.

Tolentino sentenced to life imprisonment Hubert Webb, Peter Estrada, Hospicio Fernandez, Michael Gatchalian, Antonio Lejano II and Miguel Rodriguez and ordered them to indemnify the Vizconde family P3 million for the murders of Estrellita, Carmela and Anna Marie Jennifer.

Gerardo Biong, Paranaque policeman, was found guilty of burning bedsheets and other evidence in the crime and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Joey Filart and Artemio “Dong” Ventura were not sentenced because they were not arraigned and escaped prosecution. They are fugitives.

Webb shed tears when he heard the verdict. His parents and siblings were inconsolable. It was also the same for the other suspects.

Case review: Victory for Lauro or Hubert?

Lauro Vizconde told The Manila Times that when the verdict was handed down against the Webb group, he felt he had “partially gained justice.”

Since then, Vizconde immersed himself as anti-crime crusader. He is still active in the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), an organization which helps victims of crimes and monitors cases in courts. He is also a director at the government-owned Intercontinental Broadcasting Corp. (IBC).

Hubert is now a ranking officer of the Sigue Sigue Sputnik gang inside the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City. Senator Webb said they visit Hubert every Sunday and celebrate with him all occasions, including birthdays, at his cell.

Vizconde visits the grave of his family once or twice a month. He also visits them during their birthdays or Christmas.

With the Supreme Court decision directing the Court of Appeals to review the case, he is quite apprehensive, saying times are different now.

“My greatest fear is the time element,” Vizconde said.

He said the appellate court has six months to decide the case.

And if the appellate court affirms the conviction, the case goes automatically to the Supreme Court for review. He estimates it would take another two years for the High Court to issue a decision.

Vizconde fears that he may not live longer to see the final outcome of the review.

It’s been 14 years since the gruesome killing of his family and Vizconde has learned to pardon Webb and the rest of the group.

“I was able to forgive them but it doesn’t mean that I’ve already forgotten (what they did),” he said.

Will Vizconde end up victorious as he did five years ago or will Hubert Webb walk free and reclaim his freedom?

Questions linger in Vizconde case 

The case took a turn in June 1994, when the NBI filed with the justice department a letter-complaint charging Webb, Gatchalian, Lejano, Fernandez, Rodriguez, Estrada, Joey Filart, Artemio “Dong” Ventura and Gerardo Biong, then a Parañaque policeman, with rape with homicide for the Vizconde murders. Ventura and Filart were allegedly lookouts during the crime.  

The justice department then formed a panel headed by Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Jovencio Zuno to conduct a preliminary investigation of the accused.

During the investigation, the NBI submitted the May 22, 1995, sworn statement of its star witness, Maria Jessica M. Alfaro, who said she was with Hubert’s group when they killed the Vizcondes.

The NBI also presented the sworn statements of Nerissa Rosales and Mila Gaviola, former household help of the Webb family; Lolita Birrer, former live-in partner of Biong; and Carlos Cristóbal, a plane passenger.

The Vizconde maids, Belen Dometita and Teofilo Minoza; security guard Normal White and engineer Marciano Gatmaitan also submitted their affidavits. Lauro Vizconde said Gatmaitan, his brother-in-law, was one of the first persons to find the bodies of his family when he made an early-morning visit to their home on June 30, 1991.

Hubert Webb said he could not have committed the crime, because he was in the United States from March 9, 1991, and returned to the country only on October 27, 1992.

His statement was corroborated by several persons including Honesto Aragon, Sonia Rodriguez and the singer Gary Valenciano. Aragon said he was with Hubert Webb on June 28-29, 1991, in the US. Rodriguez said she saw Hubert in the US at the house of Susan Brottman on June 30, 1991. Valenciano said he met Hubert in Florida between October and November in 1991.

Hubert said that while in the US, he bought a bicycle and a car and even got his California driver’s license.

On August 8, 1995, the justice department panel found “probable cause” against the accused through a 26-page resolution. That same day, it filed the case with the Parañaque Regional Trial Court where the case was raffled to Branch 258 under Judge Zosimo Escano.

Three days later, Escano recused himself from the case because of his previous employment with the NBI.

The case was reraffled to Judge Tolentino of Branch 274, who issued new warrants for the arrest of the Webb group.

Webb, avoiding the embarrassment of being handcuffed, surrendered to the police at Camp Ricardo Papa Sr. in Taguig.  Lejano and Gatchalian also surrendered.

Pinning Webb and coaccused

Alfaro rose to prominence when she became the prosecution’s star witness to demolish the alibis of Webb and his coaccused.

In the second affidavit she made on May 22, 1995, she said she was with Webb’s group when they entered the Vizconde house to rape Carmela.

Webb, Lejano and Gatchalian petitioned the Supreme Court to dismiss the results of the investigation of the justice department panel including Alfaro’s testimony.

In their separate pleadings filed with the High Court on August 11, 14 and 16, 1995, they said Alfaro’s two affidavits, one on April 28, 1995, and the other on May 22, 1995, contradicted each other and were full of inconsistencies.

They said, for instance, that Alfaro failed to describe Hubert’s hair color as semiblond.

They also said her two affidavits did not agree on her account of the night of the murders. They noted that Alfaro, in her first affidavit, said she had not met Carmela before June 29, 1991, but in her second affidavit, Alfaro said she met her in February 1991.

Alfaro earlier said that she failed to see the bloodied bodies of the three victims and that she just learned about the murders in the newspaper the following day. In her second affidavit she said, “I peeped through the first door on the left. I saw two bodies on top of the bed, bloodied, and on the floor. I saw Hubert on top of Carmela.”

In her first affidavit she said she didn’t see Hubert raping Carmela, but her second affidavit described how Hubert sexually abused the victim.

She said Hubert, who was “with bare buttocks,” was “on top of Carmela and pumping, her mouth gagged and she was moaning and I saw tears in her eyes.”

Alfaro also said Webb, Lejano and Ventura entered the Vizconde house “by jumping over the fence.” Later she recanted by saying the three “entered the gate, which was already open.”

Despite these contradictory statements, the Supreme Court said, “The [Department of Justice] panel ruled that these alleged misdescription and inconsistencies did not erode the credibility of Alfaro.”

Senator Webb, in an interview, said Alfaro also lied by saying that there was a Meralco lamppost outside the Vizconde house. There was none.

The Supreme Court, in a decision on August 23, 1995, affirmed Alfaro’s affidavit and dismissed the petitions filed by Webb, Gatchalian and Lejano.

It said, “Neither can we discredit Alfaro merely because of the inconsistencies in her two sworn statements.”

The Court said that even if “a part of the witness’s testimony is untrue, such circumstance is not sufficient to discredit the entire testimony of the witness.”

It dismissed the petition of the accused to declare illegal the warrants of arrest issued by the Parañaque court.

It also said that the justice department panel did not abuse its discretion in conducting the preliminary investigation.

The Court also dismissed the petition to discard Alfaro as a state witness and charge her as a co-conspirator in the crime.

Demolishing Alfaro

As the trial began, the defense lawyers tried to picture Alfaro as a liar with a dark past whose credibility was as questionable as her private life.

The defense described Alfaro as a “self-confessed drug addict” who also lied about her education.

The lawyers said Alfaro lied by claiming that she finished second-year college at the Philippine Christian University, yet her college transcript showed that she enrolled for only one year,  earning nine units.

They said Alfaro told three different versions of what she had seen on the night of the murders. In fact, they said, she didn’t know Webb until she asked the NBI special investigator, Mark Anthony So, in 1995 to identify him in a photograph.

During the trial the defense said Alfaro failed to identify Lejano in court. To test her credibility, the defense made Lejano wear a vest, pose as a news reporter complete with a two-way radio, and mingle with the crowd.

The defense said Alfaro was able to identify Lejano only when someone coached her and pointed out Lejano in the crowd.

It also said Alfaro lied about the party and number of cars on Vinzons Street beside the Vizconde house on the night of the murders and the exit points of the Pitong Daan Subdivision, BF Homes, where the Vizconde house was located.

The housemaids

Besides Alfaro, the prosecution also relied heavily on the testimony of the Webbs’ housemaids, Mila Gaviola and Nerissa Rosales, who both said Hubert was at home on the night of the murders.

The Webbs said Gaviola worked for them as a housemaid until April or May 1991. She testified otherwise.

Mila Gaviola said that at about 4 a.m. on June 30, 1991—the date of the murders—she woke up and entered the bedrooms to get the Webbs’ dirty laundry and wash it as part of her job. She said that when she entered Hubert’s room, she saw him wearing only his pants, awake and smoking in bed.

She said she picked up Hubert’s clothes and took them to the laundry room. After breakfast, she said, she started washing the clothes.

While washing Hubert’s clothes, she noticed fresh bloodstains on his shirt. After washing, she went to the servants’ quarters. She decided to go to the stockroom near Hubert’s room to spy on him. From a small opening she could take a peek to see what Hubert and his friends where doing. She said she saw that Hubert was “quite irritated, uneasy and he walked to and fro inside the room.”

On the same day at about 1 p.m. Gaviola said Hubert left the house and came back at 4 p.m. She said it was the last time she saw Hubert until she left the Webb family.

Nerissa Rosales corroborated Gaviola’s testimony, saying that she saw Hubert on June 29, 1991, inside his room together with two male friends. She said Hubert asked her and Loany, another maid, to bring a glass of juice to his room.

Another prosecution witness who belied Webb’s claim that he was in the US on March 9, 1991, was Carlos Cristóbal, who said he was on the same flight Hubert claimed having boarded. Cristóbal said he was at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 10 a.m. for his United Airlines flight 808, scheduled to leave at 2 p.m.

He said he met then-Congressman Webb and a male companion. He greeted the congressman, who replied “Mabuti naman, at ito, ihahatid ko ang anak ko papuntang Florida [I’m fine. I’m seeing off my son who’s bound for Florida].” He said Webb’s companion was as tall as the congressman.

Cristóbal alleged that while watching the program Dong Puno Live, he saw Elizabeth Webb, the congressman’s wife, describe Hubert as moreno (tan) and about 5’7” tall and that Hubert left for the US on March 9. Cristóbal said what Mrs. Webb’s description of Hubert, however, didn’t match the features of the congressman’s companion on March 9.

Lolita Birrer, who said she had an affair with Biong from February 1991 to September 1993, also testified for the prosecution. She said that at about 6 p.m. on June 29, 1991, she was playing mahjong with Biong at the back of the Parañaque municipal hall.

On the early morning of June 30, 1991, she said, the radio operator of the Parañaque police told Biong he had a phone call at the radio room. When she followed him, she said she overheard him saying, “Ano?, Saan? Mahirap’ yan. Paano, o sige, aantayin kita, O ano?, dilaw na taxi, o sige [What? Where? That’s difficult. OK, I’ll wait for you. What? Yellow cab? OK].”

Biong told her he was on call to respond to a crime scene and went out of the house. A yellow taxi, with a male passenger inside, arrived and parked near the canteen. Birrer said Biong got into the cab and sped away.

Birrer failed to get a glimpse of the male passenger. She said Biong came back in the morning and washed his hands and face. He threw a handkerchief in the trash can because it smelled of human waste.

She alleged that when she asked Biong what happened at the crime scene, he replied, “Putang inang mga batang iyon, pinahirapan nila ako [Those sons of bitches (Webb’s group) gave me a hard time].”

She said another Parañaque policeman arrived and told Biong to investigate a crime at the BF Homes. She went with Biong to the Vizconde house.

At the house she saw Biong take a watch from a jewelry box in the master bedroom. Biong asked the Vizconde housemaids for the keys and opened the main door. They entered the kitchen door.

Birrer also alleged that on the following day, July 1, Biong brought the Vizconde housemaids to her house. She saw Biong take things out of his pocket. The items included calling cards, driver’s license, ATM card, a check for P80,000, earrings, ring, bracelet, necklace and watch—all from the Vizconde household.

Biong allegedly left the jewelry at a pawnshop on Santos Avenue, Parañaque.

Birrer said she also saw Biong wearing a leather jacket, allegedly given by the person who called him up on June 30. She claimed that since then, Biong had lost interest in the investigation into the Vizconde murders.

(Next: Senator Webb presents documents and testimonies from US federal departments to prove Hubert was in the US at the time of the crime)  

Part 2 |

    
 
 
 

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Francis Andaya, Judee Perculeza, Marizhen Doctora, Shey Silayan
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