Did Police Get Right Couple?

While his office is still “ironing out” a formal complaint, the Cebu Provincial Police Office (CPPO) director said yesterday he is “morally convinced” the police caught the right couple for the death of a six-year-old girl, according to SunStar, Cebu reporting on the case.

But Minglanilla officials and a group of professionals who raised a bounty for the suspects’ arrest think it’s premature to release the rewards.

The Provincial Board (PB), in its session yesterday, condemned the “heartbreaking” crime and asked all barangays to assign at least two tanods near each school, from the pre-school to high school levels.

The Provincial Task Force on Anti-Criminality will finalize today what complaints to file against Norwegian national Sven Erik Berger and Cebuana nurse Karen Esdrelon.

Provincial Attorney Marino Martinquilla, whom Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia tasked to help in the prosecution, said yesterday the suspects’ defense, an alibi, seems weak.

But some doubts remained
“There is no scientific evidence pointing to the couple as the perpetrators. Basin namay-ongan lang siguro (maybe they just looked alike), so we will just wait for further developments,” Minglanilla Councilor Concordio Mejias said.

Certainty
He said the Minglanilla officials will only release the P100,000 bounty once it’s proven that the police arrested the right suspects in the abduction and murder of Ellah Joy Pique.

Lawyer Frank Malilong, speaking on behalf of another group that pledged P200,000, said he trusts the police, but that the reward will only be granted after “reasonable certainty” is reached—possibly, if a prosecutor finds probable cause to bring the case to court.

Berger and Esdrelon had a roundtrip ticket to Hong Kong. At one point last Saturday night, before an immigration officer “off-loaded” them, Esdrelon joked that Berger resembled the sketch of a man at the immigration counter.

Their lawyer, Salvador Solima, said in a phone interview that he already has a certification that the couple was in a Norwegian school, where Esdrelon enrolled, at the time Ellah Joy was kidnapped in Minglanilla.

They stayed in the school from 3:30 p.m. until 4:20 p.m., he said. Solima is also getting another certification from the Waterfront Hotel, that the couple stayed there last Feb. 8.

‘Drastic’
They never left Cebu City on that day, when the child was abducted, Solima said.

He described his clients’ arrest as “drastic and arbitrary.”

Interviewed separately, Councilor Mejias of Minglanilla said: “It is premature to release the cash reward because of some doubts that they could just be fall guys.”

In the meantime, the Minglanilla police will continue investigating the case.

Minglanilla Police Chief Laurel Almirante said they will not discard any information related to the case, despite the arrest of the couple last Saturday night at the Mactan airport.

But for Senior Supt. Erson Digal, head of the CPPO, the case is solved.

He said the witnesses, all children from Calajoan, Minglanilla, are certain that Berger, 49, and Esdrelon, 24, were the ones who asked Ellah to board a black SUV exactly a week ago, outside a Minglanilla public school.

Witnesses
Digal, lawyer Kit Enriquez and Provincial Attorney Martinquila faced the witnesses at the CPPO conference room yesterday.

Digal showed the passports and sketches to them, and then the lawyers asked if they were the couple who abducted Ellah last Tuesday. The children confirmed.

Enriquez said positive identification “cannot be overcome” by alibis.

The lawyers, who were later joined by Atty. Malilong, were preparing the witnesses’ affidavits for the possible filing of cases today, Digal said.

Police were also fielded yesterday to check the Waterfront Hotel in Lahug, Cebu City and other establishments Berger and Esdrelon said they visited.

In a forum yesterday, Director Digal admitted his office is not pursuing any other leads not related to the Norwegian and his girlfriend, even though the Norwegian community in Cebu may have another suspect in mind.

Atty. Malilong said the police aren’t likely to manufacture charges just to claim a reward.

“I have so much trust in the police. My father was a policeman. He did his job ma naa ba’y kwarta or wala (whether there’s any reward or not). The reward, perhaps, is an added premium that will probably not even go to them because the information came from someone else,” he said.

NBI probe
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) 7 is conducting its own investigation, as ordered by Regional Director Edward Villarta yesterday.

Agents, however, said theirs will be more of a fact-finding inquiry as the family has not formally requested the NBI for help.

Digal said their case rests on the testimony of the three child-witnesses who saw Ellah Joy being taken and the statement of the immigration official who stopped the couple at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport last Saturday night.

He stressed that the testimony of a self-admitted pimp is not among the evidences they will use.

The pimp has claimed that the Norwegian approached him on Colon St. at 5 p.m. last Feb. 7 and commissioned him to look for a girl he could bring with him to Moalboal.

The pimp’s testimony subsequently sent Digal and his men fruitlessly scouring resorts in Moalboal, with one of the witnesses in tow, last Saturday.

Reward
The pimp’s claim was later proven false. Berger arrived in Cebu a full hour and 40 minutes after he was supposedly in Colon.

“Wala siya gi apil sa witness. Basin nangambisyon ra to siya sa reward (He wasn’t included as a witness. Maybe he was just after the reward),” Digal said. He added that it was the pimp who approached them with information.

He stressed that their case against the two suspects is strong, adding that the Cebu Provincial Anti-Crime Task Force interviewed the witnesses and helped review the affidavits.

“The identification was very clear, down to earth,” said Enriquez. “And in their hearts, they know that these are the people who took away their schoolmate.”

Also yesterday, at least 500 high school students from the Tulay National High School in Minglanilla conducted a prayer rally at the Calajoan Elementary School.

Carrying placards and signs, they condemned the abduction and murder of Pique.

Attempt
The Franciscan Friars of Charity, led by Bro. Peter Simon Jardinico, organized the rally. Students then proceeded to Ellah Joy’s house and held a vigil there with the girl’s family and friends.

Jardinico said that after Ellah Joy’s body was found in Barili, two more children from Barangays Tulay and Calajoan were nearly abducted by unidentified men last weekend.

In a separate interview, Rena (not her real name) said yesterday that a man riding a red car attempted to abduct her last Saturday.

Rena, a second-year student of the Tulay National High School, said that while she was waiting for her mother, a red car suddenly stopped in front of her at 10 a.m.

A white-haired man, who appeared to be in his 40s, suddenly talked to her and asked her where she was going. The car’s windows were closed, so Rena said she couldn’t tell if the man was alone.

Rena told the man she was waiting for her mother, but refused his offer of a ride.

Protection
He followed her in his car, until she approached the barangay hall. The teenager reported the incident to the police.

Jardinico said one of their order’s scholars studying in Calajoan Elementary School was almost abducted by unidentified men.

With these incidents happening, the community needs to make sure its children are protected, he said.

Malilong and his group have raised P174,000 as of yesterday. Cebu City Vice Mayor Augustus Young also announced the council will give P25,000.

The group will come up with guidelines on how the reward will be given.

“We’re coming up with a foundation, and while the contributions from the people will be welcomed, it will be funded mostly by us as our expression of solidarity with children,” Malilong said.

“The longer I delve into this, the more I realize that it doesn’t have to stop with Ella Joy. We need to do something to protect our children,” he added.

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