The circumstances were so similar that police investigators and headline writers couldn’t resist describing the murder victim as “Ang babae sa septic tank.” After all, a movie of the same title had become a big hit, an improbable black comedy that won for its female lead an international award.
But the story of the real woman found inside a bunker tank (not septic tank as earlier described by the police) is even stranger than fiction, with a twist that even a wildly creative screenwriter might not have imagined.
The most stunning detail about the murder of the wealthy businesswoman wasn’t that she was stuffed inside a bunker tank in an abandoned warehouse in San Pedro, Laguna. It was that the primary suspect turned out to be one of the police’s best and brightest.
A month after she had gone missing, Lea Angeles-Ng, 40, was found dead on February 23 this year. The wife of Tommy Ng, the CEO of the Gaisano malls in Cebu, had been murdered.
The primary suspect turned out to be family friend Rommel Miranda, a bright young police colonel who, before he was implicated in the crime, had a promising career before him.
Miranda was said to be the first Philippine National Police official to receive a Fulbright scholarship, a prestigious study grant awarded by the US government to potential leaders in various fields.
In August 2010, Miranda left his post as spokesman of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) to finish his studies at the University of Minnesota under the Fulbright’s Humphrey Fellowship. He then became the deputy chief of the Communication and Electronics Service of Police Regional Office 7 stationed in Cebu City.
“I knew Rommel when he was living in Minnesota last year. He is an upstanding gentleman, with the highest regard for others. He deserves a fair and impartial hearing of his case,” one signatory said in the online petition.
In past interviews, Miranda, then NCRPO spokesperson, was quoted as saying that he would like to improve the PNP’s record on human rights and its image that has been constantly tarnished by rubout cases and instances of police brutality.
But a year after he said those words, Miranda found his own reputation in tatters for his possible role in Ng’s murder.
The Department of Justice found probable cause to formally file charges against Miranda—a licensed electrical engineer and former instructor at a university in Manila—and four others at the Taguig Regional Trial Court.
Aside from Miranda, also charged were Reginel Regidor Santiago, who had confessed to the crime, San Pedro policemen Police Officer 1 Otelio Santos Jr. and PO1 Jifford Signap, and Elmer Paiste, the caretaker of the compound where Ng’s body was found. The case has been raffled off to Judge Aida Estrella-Macapagal of Taguig RTC Branch 258.
Those who knew Miranda may not have believed he was capable of killing Ng, but the victim’s family was convinced that he had masterminded the crime. “The evidence points to him. There was no doubt he was the last person that Ng saw before she disappeared,” said lawyer Ana Luz Cristal who represents the Ng family in the case.
Ng’s decomposed body was unrecognizable when authorities found it inside what police had described as a septic tank at 1430 Magnum Compound on San Vicente Road in San Pedro, Laguna. The body was positively identified only through a tattoo on its waist.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun, who had conducted an investigation upon the request of Ng’s family, clarified that the body was stuffed not inside a septic tank but an abandoned bunker fuel tank.
The necropsy of the PNP crime laboratory showed that Ng died of “subdural hemorrhage” after receiving blunt force trauma to the head.
Caught by CCTV
Police initially thought that Ng’s disappearance was a case of kidnapping for ransom when three days after she was last seen, her husband and brother Dr. Jauregui Angeles sought their help to find her.
Senior Superintendent Isagani Nerez, head of the Anti-Kidnapping Group of the PNP (now AKG, but formerly the Police Anti-Crime and Emergency Response or PACER), said he got a call from no less than PNP chief Nicanor Bartolome asking him to assist Ng’s husband in investigating the businesswoman’s disappearance.
A task force composed of the AKG, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group was immediately formed to investigate the case.
The AKG head refused to go into details when asked how Ng’s body was found, saying the matters are now with the court, but a February 23 AKG report submitted to the Justice department was more forthcoming. This was what happened, the report said:
According to Tommy Ng, his wife Lea left their house at St. Ignatius Village in Quezon City around 10 a.m. on January 20 onboard her silver metallic Toyota Land Cruiser Prado with plate number JUS-77.
Ng failed to return that afternoon and could not be reached through her mobile phone, Tommy said, adding that he even called up a branch of the Bank of the Philippine Islands where his wife was supposed to sign some documents but she was not there either.
During the police’s initial search on the afternoon of January 23, Ng’s car was found at the parking lot of the Waltermart grocery in Carmona, Cavite.
Footage from closed-circuit television cameras in four different locations aided the police in piecing together events surrounding the victim’s disappearance.
The CCTV footage showed two men parking Ng’s vehicle. Footage from another CCTV at the San Pedro Exit of the South Luzon Expressway in Laguna showed the victim’s vehicle exiting the toll gate about 2:40 p.m. on Jan. 20 with two men seen in the front seats.
Ng’s brother Jauregui Angeles identified one of them as Tagoy, whom Ng and her family knew as Miranda’s assistant.
Miranda, a close friend of the family, served as debt collector for Ng’s lending business even while he was assigned in Cebu City.
Lawyer Cristal said it was Tagoy — later identified as Reginel Regidor Santiago, a former police officer residing in San Pedro, Laguna-who was collecting debt payments for Ng when Miranda was in the US for his studies.
On February 22, police operatives accompanied by Ng’s relatives trooped to Pacita, San Pedro, after getting confirmation that Santiago had been seen inside an Off Track Betting station.
“After the arrest, Santiago at first denied the charges. But he confessed after seeing himself on the CCTV [clips],” Ng’s lawyer said.
Santiago’s confession led police operatives to Ng’s remains and to the primary suspect in the gruesome murder.
In his extrajudicial confession, Santiago told the police it was Miranda who had ordered him to dump Ng’s body, who was already dead when he saw her on January 20.
A day before that, Miranda had called him up so they could meet in Corinthian Village in Quezon City, Santiago added.
Before going to Quezon City, Santiago said he first met up with Police Officers 1 Otelio Santos and Jifford Signap in Pacita, San Pedro.
“After two hours of waiting, Miranda called and told me to proceed to UCC in Corinthian Village in Quezon City,” he said in Filipino.
Santiago said he saw Ng slumped in the driver’s seat of the Toyota Prado, with Miranda in the passenger seat. “We moved Lea Ng to the back seat and then drove off to San Pedro,” he added.
Before Miranda got off on C-5 Road in Taguig City, Santiago said he told them, “Kayo na ang bahala dyan [You take care of it].”
Santiago admitted dumping the victim in the tank at the Magnum Compound in Barangay San Vicente, San Pedro, Laguna, even sealing the tank with cement to hide the crime.
As to the possible motive, lawyer Cristal said Miranda may have killed Ng at the height of an argument over his debts amounting to P18 million, including collections that he had not turned over to the businesswoman.
Cristal described Ng, the mother of four children, including a 2-year-old boy, as a “tough woman” engaged in trucking and money-lending.
In earlier reports by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, however, Miranda denied any involvement in the murder, claiming that the victim had been his good friend since 1997. In his counter-affidavit, he said he had no motive to harm or kill Lea Ng, and called the motive to implicate him in Ng’s death as “sinister.” He also denied the claims that he owed her a lot of money.
He, however, admitted meeting Ng at the Corinthian Village but claimed they only talked about business matters. Miranda said he left Ng alive with Santiago, who was to accompany her in the car.
The two San Pedro policemen, on the other hand, said they had nothing to do with the murder and just hitched a ride with Santiago and Miranda to San Pedro.
Lawyer Cristal feared that Miranda and the two other policemen were now at large because they had failed to appear at a scheduled arraignment last month.
Cristal said Judge Estrella-Macapagal has yet to issue arrest warrants against the accused, apparently assuming that Miranda and two other policemen were under the custody of the PNP.
“We are appealing to the judge to issue a warrant of arrest and put the accused in a jail facility, instead of the Personnel Holding and Accounting Unit,” she said.
She said Miranda was nowhere to be seen when her team went to visit him at the PHAU in Camp Crame. “We’re afraid he could go anywhere and even travel outside the country,” Cristal said, adding that the petition for a hold departure order is still pending in court.
Nerez, however, said that the accused were “under the custody of their immediate superiors.” Cristal said the five accused were scheduled to be arraigned on July 31.
Cristal raised the issue that the businesswoman’s case was not an isolated one after her team and Fortun on March 15 this year found burnt fragments of human bones in the same compound where Ng had been found.
“Kinilabutan ako nung makita ko [A chill went up my spine when I saw the body],” Cristal told the Inquirer in phone interview.
Dr. Fortun said the burnt fragments were “unmistakably parts of human bones” found a few meters away from the tank.
“It was obvious that the fragments were parts of a human skull and fingers,” she said.
However, Fortun said it would be impossible to identify the bones since these had already been burned. Assessing the compound, Fortun said investigators in Ng’s killing “should have searched the entire compound for clues,” noting that clothes, bags and other valuables can be seen scattered all over the place.
Near the bunker tank, the investigators saw several tires and a vacant room with heavy soot. “The question here is, why did they do the burning inside a confined space?” She noted that since residential houses were at the compound’s periphery, some residents may know something valuable in the investigation.
The police’s job, Fortun said, is to dig deeper and answer these questions.
Until then, the mystery of what really happened to Lea Ng remains.