Ensign Pestaño did not commit suicide; he was murdered!

Contrary to findings made by Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez some 3 years ago, the new Ombudsman made a reversal based on new evidence. Murder charges against 10 navy officers were filed in the Sandiganbayan and at the same time ordered their immediate dismissal from service for grave misconduct.

A graduate of Ateneo de Manila University, Phillip Pestaño entered the Philippine Military Academy and was commissioned an ensign shortly after graduation. The story of his murder was written by Fr. James Reuter, SJ and was published in Philippine Tribune thereafter.

The 24-year-old Pestaño was found dead in his cabin aboard the BRP Bacolod City on Sept. 27, 1995, shortly before the ship was to dock at the Philippine Navy headquarters in Manila. He had bullet wounds in the head.

A supposed suicide note was found on his body but his parents refused to believe that their son would commit suicide. Earlier before Pestaño left home, his father asked him not to return to the ship because of death threats received. The young navy officer did not want to sign documents pertaining to an illegal shipment of logs and other contraband items. Pestaño insisted on doing what he thought was right, saying “kawawa ang bayan.” (Have pity on the nation.)

In 2009, the anti-graft body, then headed by Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, dismissed the complaint filed by his parents, saying the evidence was circumstantial.

The Pestaños filed a motion for reconsideration, which was granted in an order approved by Gutierrez’s successor, Conchita Carpio Morales, on January 10, last month. The alleged inaction on the Pestaño case was one of the grounds raised against Gutierrez during her impeachment last 2011.

Charged with the non-bailable crime of murder were Capt. Ricardo Ordoñez; Cmdr. Reynaldo Lopez, Hospital Man 2 Welmenio Aquino, Lt. Cmdr. Luidegar Casis, Lt. Cmdr. Alfrederick Alba, Machinery Repairman 2 Sandy Miranda, Lt. Cmdr. Joselito Colico, Lt. Cmdr. Ruben Roque, PO1 Carlito Amoroso and PO2 Leonor Igcasan.

Ombudsman Morales said the circumstances surrounding the young officer’s death belied the earlier finding that he had committed suicide. His own wounds did not appear self-inflicted, she said.

Morales said Pestaño had two contusions on the right temple and a cut in the left ear, which could not have been caused by the bullet fired into his head but a hard, blunt object.

The bullet’s entry wound was oval in shape and did not bear any tattooing, smudging or burn mark as what would have happened during a close-contact fire, Ombudsman Morales said.

“It is farfetched for a person who commits suicide to shoot himself in the head at a distance,” she noted.

Citing findings of forensic experts, the Ombudsman said the handwriting on the suicide note was different from that of Pestaño’s [own handwriting].

Another evidence was the ship’s “unusual dogleg route” from Sangley to the Navy headquarters in Roxas Blvd. The trip usually takes only 45 minutes, but it took two hours on the day of Pestaño’s death.

“An unexplained delay of about one hour and 15 minutes raises the presumption that the prolonged trip was occasioned by the time it took respondents to create the suicide scenario,” the Ombudsman said.

Pages were also ripped off from the gangway logbook, which would have shown the names of the crew members aboard the ship. There was also no passenger manifest that would have shown who was on board at that time. This could have been the basis as to who would have to undergo a paraffin test to see if any of them had fired a gun, the Ombudsman said.