(The tabloids and crime TV are fairly reeking of them, here are three of the country’s most confounding and still unsolved cases in recent times)
Another body is found. Kibitzers crowd the scene to take in the grisly sight. Police cordon off the area with that distinctive yellow tape. The media announce themselves with the blinding flash of cameras and a battery of questions. These are the telltale signs of another violent, often mysterious, death.
The screaming headlines keep people riveted for several days as broadcast commentators pick the news clean of every single detail, except the most crucial: whodunit and why?
Here are three of the more recent, most controversial crimes that have hit local headlines and confounded both police and the public, sometimes because of the celebrities involved, often because of the rage and passion behind the attack.
The Nida Blanca Murder
This one has all the elements of a sensational crime: A well-known, beloved victim, a highly-suspect husband, an out of country escape, a US arrest, an apparent suicide, and another suspect’s death.
Nida Blanca – real name Dorothy Jones – was one of the country’s most venerable actresses, an audience favorite since her teens who had maintained a pristine reputation both on- and offscreen.
But in the early morning of Nov. 7, 2001, her bloodied body was found inside her green Nissan Sentra parked at the Atlanta Center in San Juan, where the Censors Board, of which she was a member, had its offices. She had 13 stab wounds, including one on the neck. Her jewelry remained intact however, prompting authorities to rule out robbery.
Among the suspects was Blanca’s personal aide, Elena de la Paz. But after further investigation and much public scrutiny, suspicion finally fell on Blanca’s American husband Rod Strunk, who denied the charges vehemently. Strunk would eventually be charged with murder, along with Pedro Philip Medel, Jr., who claimed to have been hired by Strunk to kill Blanca. In January, 2002, Strunk left for the United States ostensibly to tend to his ailing mother. He never returned to the Philippines. With Medel in custody, the Justice department started working on Strunk’s extradition. In May, 2003, federal marshals arrested him in California.
Meanwhile, as the local bureau of investigation probed allegations of missing evidence in the case, its prized witness, Medel claimed torture and recanted his confession. As a result, the US court released Strunk. In July 14, 2007, the 68-year-old’s lifeless body was found after he apparently fell from the second floor of a Tracy, California inn where he was staying. Authorities ruled his death a suicide. Did the truth die with Strunk? We may never know.
But the case was far from over. In April, 2010, the lone person of interest in the case, murder suspect Philip Medel died in a Pasig City hospital of complications from pneumonia.
The Abduction of Pilar Pilapil
Perhaps the most befuddling incident in recent memory is the abduction of another respected actress, Pilar Pilapil. The circumstances surrounding the incident just gets stranger by the day.
In April 2011, Pilapil was found stabbed and severely wounded in a grassy lot in the foothills of Antipolo, Rizal. With her face bruised and bleeding, she had crawled to the gate of a farm worker’s house near midnight and asked for help. Although they did not recognize the former beauty queen and actress, the farm worker and his friends brought her to hospital.
Pilapil later told police that she and a companion named Rossel Jacosalem Peñas were at the Riverbanks Center in Marikina and had gone there to meet with some of Peñas’ friends. Penas was at the wheel of the Kia Carens when two men forcibly boarded the car and robbed them at gunpoint. They also started stabbing Pilapil and dumped her in the Antipolo lot where she was found. Her companion was nowhere to be found however, making it difficult for the police to determine if the younger woman was a victim or a suspect.
She was “attacked by the devil,” the actress, a renewed Christian, said. Peñas remains missing, and has been variously identified as a sister-in-law of her pastor husband Bernard Peñas or his niece. When a dead female was fished out of the Marikina River, authorities initially thought it was Peñas. But the body wasn’t hers, and all previous description of her turned out to be false as well.
As police began looking more closely at Rosel Peñas, they learned that she had worked as a housemaid in Metro Manila, with one woman claiming that as the family’s maid two years ago, Peñas had stolen jewelry from them. Immigration officials reported as well that Peñas had never left the country, and Unilever denied ever being her employer as she had reportedly claimed. Police also discovered that Peñas had bought her “carjacked” vehicle with cash in January, though the car was still under its original owner’s name. Police also found highly suspicious a supposed call to Peñas husband, Nelson, asking for a P10 million ransom for his wife.
Authorities now suspect Peñas of staging her own abduction to get the ransom money. They consider her a dangerous con artist and now the target of a manhunt. Pilapil is said to have left the country to star in an international movie. The case remains wide open.
The Woman in the Drum
Many strange things have surfaced on the waters of Manila Bay in Navotas, but none stranger and more chilling than what police found in June, 2009, following a tip from a suspect who wanted to turn state witness.
Weighing about a ton, the large metal box covered in barnacles and welded shut, revealed a light blue steel drum soldered shut. Inside the rusted barrel was a body encased in solid concrete.
The body was identified as that of Ruby Rose Barrameda Jimenez, who had been missing for more than two years. It would later be determined that Ruby Rose had been strangled prior to being stuffed in the drum and covered in cement. The last time Ruby Rose, 27, was seen was when she lost a custody battle over her two children with estranged husband Manuel III. According to Ruby Rose’s sister Rochelle, a former beauty queen, Manuel had been beating Ruby Rose, which led to her sister leaving him and suing for custody of the children. The discovery of the body led to a long and complex case that had some of Ruby Rose’s in-laws, members of the family of fishing tycoon Manuel Jimenez Jr. charged with the crime, along with several others. The key player in the case was one Manuel Montero, a former employee of the Jimenezes. Considered a suspect in Ruby Rose’s slaying, Montero who had led authorities to the drum, vowed to tell all if he were considered as a state witness. Ruby Rose, he claimed, had been killed in a warehouse at the Navotas pier owned by the Jimenezes. She had allegedly been abducted and killed on orders from the Jimenezes, something the Jimenezes vehemently deny.
The case is being heard by the Malabon-Navotas Regional Trial Court Branch 170, which in August 2010, approved the prosecution’s motion to turn Montero into a state witness. •
Ruel S. De Vera with reports from Inquirer Research