The Norwegian Has Strong Alibi

Sven-Erik Berger and his fiancee who were charged yesterday by the police with kidnapping and homicide were telling the truth when they said they were in Cebu City in the afternoon of Feb. 8, when 6-year-old Ellah Joy Pique was abducted by a car-riding couple in the southern town of Minglanilla.

That is what agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Central Visayas (NBI-7) will report to Govenor Garcia.

She called in the civilian agency yesterday to validate the couple’s story, amid doubts that police had rushed to file a case with weak evidence.

NBI agents followed the itinerary described by 49-year-old Sven Erik Berger and Karen Esdrelon, who are at the center of Cebu’s most controversial case of child-snatching and suspected human trafficking.

NBI agents talked to staff of the Norwegian Language School in Lahug, where the sweethearts visited to enroll Esdrelon in a language course about 3:30 p.m of Feb. 8.

Agents viewed security videotapes of the Waterfront Lahug Hotel, whose camera recorded the couple checking in at 4:40 p.m.

But that did not stop the Cebu provincial police from filing charges against the couple for the “complex crime” of kidnapping with homicide and violation of the Anti-Trafficking of Persons Act.

The NBI-7 findings about the suspects’ whereabouts on Feb. 8 were not part of the evidence cited by police in their charges.

NBI-7 Director Edward Villarta said his men just have to finish verifying the couple’s itinerary and submit a report to Governor Garcia.

“The NBI-7 could no longer intervene in the case because charges have been filed before the prosecutor. It’s now up to the prosecutor to decide whether to file the case in court or order its dismissal”, Villarta told Cebu Daily News.

Governor Garcia is chairman of a new Provincial Anti-Crime Task force, and even dropped in the police camp last Sunday to meet Berger and Esdrelon who were undergoing investigation.

She apparently wasn’t satisfied with the progress.

Governor Garcia called Villarta on the phone yesterday and asked the NBI-7 to verify the couple’s claim that they were nowhere near the scene of the crime in Minglanilla town on Feb. 8 when the little girl was kidnapped.

Defense optimistic

Defense lawyer Salvador Solima said he is optimistic the charges against his clients will be dismissed as a case of “mistaken identity.”

While the suspects were “positively identified by three children, who are Ellah Joy’s classmates, “documentary evidence cannot be disproved,” the lawyer said in an interview.

He urged the NBI-7 to conduct a separate investigation to find out who the real killers are.

He also suggested that the young witnesses undergo a lie detector test because they may have been coaxed to pinpoint the couple.

The trail followed by NBI-7 agents yesterday included private offices, the Norwegian Consulate, two hotels in Lapu-Lapu and Cebu City, and Tuburan town, northwest Cebu where the couple said they spent time with each other before they were arrested last Saturday.

Bergers movements traced

NBI-7 agents traced his movements from the day he arrived to Feb. 12, when the couple were arrested at the airport.

They gathered a receipt and testimonies from the owner of the Norweigan language school in Cebu City.

They talked to the waiter of Family Choice restaurant next door who confirmed the presence of Berger and Esdrelon who ate there past 4 p.m. Of Feb. 8.

The security management of Waterfront Hotel in Cebu City can also attest that the two suspects stayed in the hotel based on the hotel’s closed-circuit television (CCTV).

Confirmed visit

NBI-7 Assistant Director Lauro Reyes and Supervising Agent Rennan Augustus Oliva went to the Sigvathsen Norweigan Language School in Cebu City.

Its owner Vernel Christy Gaviola-Sigvathsen confirmed that the couple dropped in around 3:30 pm last Feb. 8 to enroll for Norweigan language studies and left about 4:10 p.m.

Sigvathsen said she personally signed the receipt to prove that the couple paid P2,000 as reservation fee with Esdrelon’s classes to start on Feb. 28.

“I’m willing to testify. Around five people, including me, two receptionists, and two students can attest that Berger and Esdrelon were here,” Sigvathsen said.

Sigvathsen said she was “shocked” to learn from media reports about the couple’s arrest.

“We are sure they (suspects) are innocent unless they can travel to Minglanilla in 20 minutes),” she said.

Sigvathsen said the couple arrived at about 3:30 pm and left at around 4:10 in the afternoon.

Sigvathsen, a Filipina, said her Norwegian husband was upset with the case.

“We are very disappointed. Journalists from Norway hid their (suspects) identities in their reports. But here comes the local media, revealing their names and photos. No clear investigation was made,” she said.

Sigvathsen also expressed disappointment over the police arrest.

“Its a big embarrassment for these two people. Shame is irreparable. Why were they indentified as suspects? They were here (when the abduction happened). The statement I gave was the truth,” she said.

The NBI-7 yesterday took Sigvathsen’s testimonies.

The couple’s itinerary that day included checking out of Days Hotel in Lapu-Lapu City, visiting Colon Street, Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño and Metro Gaisano Colon.

The next day, Feb. 9, the couple went to the the Norwegian Consulate to apply for a tourist visa for Esdrelon before they took a rented car with driver to go to Tuburan town, where they stayed until Feb. 11.

The NBI-7 was able to confirm the couple’s visit to the Keppel Building, site of the consultate, at around 3 p.m. Based on the guarder’s logbook.

Another NBI-7 group went to Tuburan, Esdrelon’s hometown.

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