AT Branch 165 of the Pasig City Regional Trial Court, folders bursting with papers are stacked in two messy piles on the floor. Both are at least knee-high and are grouped into folders by volume. Transcripts of stenographic notes—also called TSN—can be found on top of the piles.
Almost all papers bear the words “People of the Philippines vs Mitchell Gumabao.”
Mitchell Gumabao is more popularly known as Dennis Roldan, the 1980s movie kontrabida turned Philippine Basketball Association player turned Quezon City solon turned ministry pastor turned prime suspect and mastermind in the 2005 kidnapping of a Chinese-Filipino boy after allegedly gambling away millions in Las Vegas.
The decision in his case, rendered on Aug. 26 by the branch’s presiding judge, Rolando Mislang, is found in a drawer nearby.
“This is what the media usually photocopies,” says an employee of the branch who allowed Sunday Inquirer Magazine to sift through the folders but requested not to be named. According to her, Roldan’s is the first high-profile case the branch has handled.
“That’s all of it,” says the employee, pointing to the stacks once more. “It’s really a lot because the case has been transferred many times and it took so long.”
Indeed, like the drawn-out conclusion of a typical Filipino movie, the case took nine years and went through four judges before Roldan was sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or life imprisonment, on the charge of kidnapping for ransom 3-year-old Kenshi Yu.
Positively identified the “big boss” by Yu in his lone testimony in 2008, Roldan’s fate was seemingly sealed by the boy from whom he sought to raise enough funds to pay off alleged gambling debts in Vegas. The boy’s testimony, along with other positive identification from a conspirator-turned-state witness and operatives of the Police Anti-Crime Emergency Response (Pacer), formed “vital and decisive evidence which virtually sealed the accused’s culpability,” according to Judge Mislang.
At the press conference after the verdict, Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order (MRPO) founding chair Teresita Ang-See lauded the “benchmark” decision. “The significance of this case is that it shows victims that it pays to fight back. It doesn’t pay to keep quiet,” See said.
Two of the other four accused—Adrian Domingo, who snatched the boy and carried him into a white Honda CRV, and Rowena San Andres, who watched over Yu during his detention—were also found guilty; Octavio Garces was acquitted on the ground of reasonable doubt, while Noel San Andres, Rowena’s husband, died before the decision could be rendered.
Roldan, Domingo and San Andres are now detained at New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, pending an appeal. Another alleged mastermind remains at large—Roldan’s then girlfriend Suzette Wang, a friend of the child’s mother.
The kidnapping case could easily play out as a crime thriller. Coincidentally, the convicted mastermind once played the role of a kidnapper in the 2005 movie “Terrorist Hunter” with veteran actor, Eddie Garcia.
It all started on the morning of Feb. 9, 2005, in Ortigas, Pasig City. Then 3-year-old Kenshi Yu was walking to school with his nanny when two men—Domingo and Noel San Andres—snatched and carried him off in a white Honda CRV, with getaway driver- turned-state witness Albert Pagdanganan on the wheel.
That same day, Yu’s parents, Roger and Jennie Yu received the ransom demand for P250 million. During negotiations, the boy was transferred from a safe house in West Avenue to Cubao, both in Quezon City. Rowena Andres was tasked to watch over the boy, along with her two children.
It was apparent that a desperate need for money was behind the kidnapping. In the 11 days that the boy was held captive, the ransom dropped from a whopping P250 million—then the highest ransom demand in recent years—to P50 million, then P10 million, P5 million, and finally, P3 million. At one point, the kidnappers declared Yu dead due to disagreements over the ransom.
“It was very traumatic for the family,” MRPO’s See was quoted as saying. The kidnappers had obviously overestimated the wealth of the Yus, who, despite running a successful business in the plastics industry, could not raise the needed amount.
It was also during negotiations when operatives of Pacer, the Philippine National Police’s main anti-kidnapping unit, were brought in and began trailing the group. The boy was rescued in Cubao on Feb. 26. He was found playing with Noel San Andres and Rowena’s two children. The boy’s father would later tell the media how the ordeal had personally affected his son.
“When he sees people (he does not know) he cries, but not the way he used to,” the elder Yu said. “He now tries to keep his voice down whenever he cries,” the father added, probably because the kidnappers had threatened the boy to keep quiet while in detention.
The trial proved as taxing on the Yu family. On July 27, 2006, a year after the incident, Roldan was allowed to post a P500,000 bail by Judge Agnes Reyes Carpio despite kidnapping being a non-bailable offense.
“The court believes that, at this stage, the aggregate of evidence so far presented by the prosecution is not strong to prove the complicity of [Roldan] in the subject offense,” Carpio’s decision read.
It was a controversial decision. Seven suspects—including Pagdanganan who was placed under the Justice department’s Witness Protection Program—had identified the actor as mastermind with his then girlfriend Wang. Roldan had given them instructions and funds, the other suspects said. Several cellphone SIM cards submitted by the Pacer operatives also purportedly contained the ransom negotiations between the Yus and the kidnappers. But they were later considered inadmissible as they could no longer be opened.
Speculation was rife that Mikey Arroyo, son of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had intervened on Roldan’s behalf. But Roldan’s lead counsel, Orlando Salatandre Jr., told SIM in an interview that the speculation was unfounded, and chalked it up to the high profile of the case.
“To accuse a person right away… is not the essence of democracy. In democracy, we hear before we condemn. That is why even if you are caught in the act, you are still presumed innocent until proven guilty,” the lawyer said. “Conclusion without premise, without basis, will not serve… the delivery of justice.”
Soon after Roldan was granted bail, Carpio of Branch 261 inhibited herself from the case on Nov. 6, 2006, for undisclosed reasons. Her inhibition began a pattern in the case, as the subsequent judges—Judge Rodolfo Bonifacio of Branch 159 and Judge Rowena Modesto-San Pedro of Branch 158—also inhibited themselves from the case on Aug. 1, 2013, and March 26 this year, respectively.
Roldan would also change counsel thrice. He was first represented by Salvador Panelo, then Sigfrid Fortun—who got him out on bail—and now, Salatandre. All three are no strangers to high-profile cases: Panelo was once the lawyer of the Pastor family in the slay of race car driver Enzo Pastor; Fortun once represented the Ampatuan clan in the Maguindanao massacre case, while Salatandre had counseled Ruben Ecleo Jr. in parricide charges against him.
The snags in the trial also included the curious accident of Kenshi Yu’s father. Early in the morning of Oct. 30, 2008, Roger Yu’s car fell into a deep ravine and caught fire in Tuba town, Benguet province, while he was on his way to Baguio City. His body was found charred and unrecognizable inside the car, with relatives identifying him only through his driver’s license.
Slippery roads were ruled out as the probable cause of the accident. But according to residents nearby who spoke during the subsequent investigation, it was foggy that night and police could only speculate that the elder Yu must have been sleepy or less than alert at the wheel.
Despite the controversies, the court dismissed the technicalities in Roldan’s warrantless arrest and the defense’s objections over the lack of surveillance footage. The highlight of Mislang’s decision was the boy’s lone testimony in 2008, three years after his ordeal. On April 14 that year, the court decision stated, Yu positively identified Roldan and Rowena San Andres in the courtroom as having kidnapped him, with other suspects calling Roldan “big boss.”
According to Salatandre, Yu’s testimony becoming the basis for Mislang’s decision was one of the main points he would raise in their appeal. He said the decision, which was “not properly considered,” failed to include all events that transpired on the day of the boy’s testimony.
“We are so confident that if things would only be scrutinized, the court would find absence of proof beyond reasonable doubt,” the lawyer said. “When we speak of doubt, I’m sure we can establish that. I think we have established that. But it was not discussed in the decision.”
In the interview, Salatandre recounted an alternate story that he said could be gathered from the transcript of Yu’s testimony. He said the first time the boy was asked to identify those who kidnapped him, he could not do so, even when the suspects were seated in front of him.
“I even raised that for the record: that the child had tried to identify them and he could not, while Dennis Roldan and the other accused were all in court. It’s on the record,” Salatandre added.
After that, the lawyer said, the prosecution asked for a recess and stepped outside for a minute with the boy. “When he came back, even without the question being asked, the child asked the prosecutor, the one presenting him as witness, ‘Oy, you want me to step down? I will point to them. Yes, him, that’s the one.’ ”
“That fact alone mitigates or destroys the credibility of the child. So the statement of positive identification [in Mislang’s decision is wrong] because that was the only time the child was asked to identify (the suspects). The first time (he was asked to do so), he failed. After the recess, he managed to identify the (suspects),” he said.
Added the lawyer: “We’ll ask the judge, ‘Where did you get that?’ You have to support your decision because it is not so holy that it cannot be questioned. It must be based on facts and evidence.”
In fact, Salatandre said, despite Yu being “cognizant” and “intelligent” for his age, a child psychologist they had consulted said that children at that age practice selective memory and cannot remember facts properly around 90 percent of the time.
“I asked him the identities of his classmates… and teacher because they were together for one (school) year. And you know what? He could not remember any of them. I even asked him to draw any of the classmates or the teacher, but he could not,” said the lawyer. “The purpose is to find out whether those narrations in his testimony are really emanations of what he could remember, or (coaching) from other sources. Because there is such a thing as selective memory.”
Among other details that Salatandre said he would raise at the Court of Appeals is the lack of footage where Roldan was positively identified, the lack of phone SIM cards proving that ransom negotiations had transpired, and the fact that state witness Pagdanganan was never tried in court despite his involvement.
In the midst of a possible round two on the dock for Roldan, Salatandre lauded how the actor had handled his conviction and credited his demeanor to his newfound faith. “He said he had committed his life to God. If this (case) is a test of his faith, then so be it.”
But the lawyer was quick to add: “Regarding the case, Roldan still has to question the decision, at least in its legal aspect.”
Roldan has been a pastor with Jesus Christ the Life Giver Ministry Inc. since his yearlong stint in jail in 2005 when he started joining Bible studies with former inmates. Before that, he had starred in such movies as “Salome” (1981) and “Paradise Inn” (1985). He was also a one-time player for Ginebra San Miguel in the PBA and the Gilbey’s Gin Gimlets before he tried his hand at politics and was elected Quezon City councilor in 1988.
“It’s really fortunate that Dennis Roldan found Christ in jail. I saw his strong faith in God, and of course that includes his family. That faith made them stronger in facing the trials in his life,” Salatandre said.
The day Roldan was declared guilty of kidnapping for ransom, his children Michelle and Marco took to Twitter to express support for their father.
“Your strength and love for God is what amazes me, Papa. I love you and I am proud of you! We will never stop fighting by your side. Trust God!” said Michelle, a former volleyball player at De La Salle University and now an aspiring actress.
Marco, also an actor with ABS-CBN, posted an Internet meme depicting a man filling with water a plastic basket with holes. On the photo are the words, “Tiwala lang (Have faith),” and the message: “Proverbs 3:5 walang imposible kay Lord (Nothing is impossible with the Lord).”
It remains to be seen whether Marco Gumabao’s statement would prove fortuitous. But if the MRPO would once again take up the cudgels for the Yu family, the sequel to “People of the Philippines vs Mitchell Gumabao” should be one hell of a starrer. •