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The Arc of the Moral Universe and the Salvador “Bubby” Dacer Case

Philnews.com's previous topic on whistleblower Ruby Tuason asked what can we expect from Philippine justice. Nada. But that may not be the end of the story. At least not for us. - Rodel

ow long before the people responsible for the Dacer-Corbito murders are brought to justice? Attorney Rodel Rodis (left) with Dacer daughters Carina (middle) and Sabina (right)The hopeful answer may be found in a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965 when he said:

"How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

For me, the long arc began in 1980 when I read a landmark federal court decision handed down that summer that I just knew I would one day use as the basis for a federal lawsuit. The opportunity finally came in 2010 and, more than 3 years after I filed the civil suit in federal court in San Francisco, a federal judge handed down his decision on January 21, 2014.

The Filartiga precedent

The landmark 1980 case was
Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, which established that US courts have jurisdiction over non-American citizens for tortious acts committed outside the United States. The suit was based on a rarely used 1789 federal statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which gives foreign nationals the right to sue in US federal courts for wrongful actions that violate international law.

The plaintiffs were the New York-based father and sister of 17-year old Joelito Filartiga who was kidnapped and tortured to death in Paraguay on March 29, 1976 by Asuncion Police Inspector General Americo Pena-Irala. The killing drove the victim’s father and sister to flee to the US in 1978.When they learned a year later that Pena-Irala was in New York, they sued him in US federal court for Joelito’s wrongful death by torture.

Pena-Irala’s lawyer succeeded in getting the case dismissed because the action occurred outside the US. But after the Filartigas appealed the decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal declaring that foreign nationals who are victims of international human rights violations may sue their malfeasors in federal court for civil redress, even for acts which occurred abroad.

"The torturer has become – like the pirate and slave trader before him –
hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind", the appellate court declared.

After the case was remanded back to the trial court in New York, it ruled in favor of the Filártigas, awarding them $10.4 million against Americo Pena-Irala for his torture-killing of Joelito Filartiga in 1976.

The Dacer-Corbito murders

In 2010 I met Carina Dacer, the daughter of prominent publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer, who described to me what happened to her father and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito, on November 24, 2000. She recounted that about a week before that fateful day, her father was summoned to Malacanang by then Pres. Joseph Estrada where he was accused of working with Estrada’s political enemies to have him impeached and removed from office. After the severe tongue lashing he received from Estrada, Dacer told his daughters that he feared for his life.

Estrada knew of Dacer’s activities because his Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) had bugged Dacer's office. Estrada appointed Gen. Panfilo M. Lacson to head the PAOCTF and to retain that post even after Estrada promoted him to head the Philippine National Police (PNP), a promotion that Dacer fiercely lobbied against.

[On August 30, 2001, Lacson and 10 of his PAOCTF men –including Magtanggol Gatdula - were charged by the Philippine National Police before the Ombudsman for wiretapping the phone of Dacer, among other crimes].

Because of their wiretapping, Lacson's men knew that Dacer would be meeting for lunch with former Pres. Fidel Ramos at the Manila Hotel on November 24, 2000 and that he planned to hand over to Ramos documents in his attaché case. The documents would purportedly expose Estrada’s compensation for giving Best World Resources the exclusive contract to operate on-line bingo as well as to introduce Quick Pick-2 (similar to “jueteng”) that increased the value of Best World stock by 18,025%. This was explosive evidence which would have virtually guaranteed Estrada’s conviction in the Philippine Senate hearing on his impeachment which was ongoing at the time.

On November 24, 2000, Dacer’s car was stopped at a Makati intersection by PAOCTF officers as he was headed to the Manila Hotel. Dacer and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito, were then taken to a safe house in Dasmarinas, Cavite where they were tortured and executed. Several months later, their charred remains were later found in a creek in Indang, Cavite. The eyewitness testimonies of two farmers (who were subsequently killed) led to the arrest of the PAOCTF officers involved in their abduction, torture and murders.
Further investigation led to the apprehension of PAOCTF Superintendent Glenn Dumlao who confessed to his role in the Dacer-Corbito abduction. In his sworn affidavit, Dumlao revealed that on November 24, 2000, he received a call from his commanding officer, PAOCTF Operations Chief Michael Ray Aquino, ordering him to “tactically interrogate” Dacer in a safe house in Dasmarinas, Cavite and to seize Dacer’s attaché case and destroy all the documents in it. Dumlao disclosed that he brought Dacer's attache case to the Old Balara Dam and burned all the documents in it.

Based on Dumlao’s confession, warrants of arrest were issued for Aquino and Cezar Mancao, Lacson’s top aides.

Before a full investigation could be completed, Secretary of Justice Hernando Perez issued a statement clearing former Pres. Estrada of any involvement in the Dacer-Corbito murders. Perez would later be charged with receiving $2 million in bribe money from reputed Estrada crony Mark Jimenez.

Finding safe harbor in the US

In May of 2001, Lacson was elected to the Philippine Senate. In July of 2001 (according to Mancao’s affidavit), Lacson tipped them off about the warrants of arrest for them and arranged for them to flee the Philippines and to enter the US on tourist visas. Dumlao was also able to escape from his confinement in 2003 and to flee to the US where he linked up with Aquino and Mancao. According to Mancao's affidavit, Lacson met with them on three occasions while he was visiting the US and that Lacson reimbursed them for all their costs.

Not so fortunate was PAOCTF Visayas Chief Teofilo Vina, who was identified by arrested PAOCTF officers as the officer in charge of the actual abduction and execution of Dacer and Corbito. Michael Ray Aquino had complained to Mancao, according to Mancao’s affidavit, that Vina botched his assignment by “sloppily dumping Bubby Dacer’s car in a ravine in Cavite where it was easily discovered.”

In January of 2003, Vina was shot dead by Medar Cruz, a reported balikbayan “hitman” from Virginia Beach who returned back to the US after Vina’s family dropped the murder charge against Cruz.

Lacson’s lawyers succeeded in delaying the issuance of the warrants of arrest against Aquino and Mancao from 2001 until 2006 when the Manila Regional Trial Court ordered their arrests after finding probable cause against them and18 others in the double-murder case.

In November 2008, Mancao and Dumlao were arrested in the United States on extradition requests from the Philippines. Mancao arrived in Manila in June2009 and pled not guilty at the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC). He later turned state witness against Lacson and Aquino.

Operation "Delta"

At a court hearing before the Manila RTC, Mancao testified that while sitting in the front seat of Lacson’s car sometime in October of 2000, he heard Lacson instruct Aquino to proceed with “Operation Delta” (D for Dacer) and that the sanction had the approval of “Bigote” (Estrada).

Lacson’s lawyer cross-examined Mancao about when he first learned about the abduction of Dacer and Corbito. Mancao replied that it was only after they were abducted on November 24, 2000 when Dumlao informed him that Aquino had ordered him to proceed to Cavite to tactically interrogate (“T.I.”) Dacer.
Following Mancao’s sworn testimony, in January 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Lacson with two counts of murder in connection with the Dacer-Corbito killings and issued a warrant of arrest for him.

But even before the warrant was issued, Lacson fled to Hong Kong in December of 2009 while his lawyers challenged the legality of the issuance of the warrant of arrest against him.

It was during this period while Lacson was in HK that I met with Carina Dacer in San Francisco. Noynoy Aquino had just been elected president of the Philippines and, although I actively campaigned for him throughout the US, I knew that his election would be good news for Lacson. After all, Aquino was his close personal friend and would likely accept his story that the charges were the product of the political vendetta of former Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. At that time, Aquino’s girlfriend was Shalani Soledad, a former Lacson senate aide. There was grave concern that Aquino would drop the case against Lacson and allow his friend to return to his senate post.
I informed Carina Dacer about the Filartiga precedent and I advised her that we had to file the federal civil lawsuit in San Francisco before the 10 year statute of limitations would run out on November 24, 2010.

Federal suit filed in San Francisco

On September 16, 2010, together with my co-counsel, Errol Zshornack and Felix Antero, I filed the federal civil lawsuit in San Francisco on behalf of the four Dacer daughtersSeptember 2010: Dacer daughters file a multimillion-dollar civil suit in United States District Court against Joseph Estrada, Panfilo Lacson, and five others [Carina, Sabina, Amparo, and Emily] against former Philippine president Joseph Ejercito Estrada, former Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief General Panfilo M. Lacson, former Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) chief Reynaldo “Butch” Tenorio, former Best World Resources CEO Dante Tan, and PAOCTF police superintendents Michael Ray Aquino, Vicente Arnado, and Glenn Dumlao [Case No. 3:10-cv-04165 WHA].

The first order of business was serving the summons and complaint on the named defendants and that was a formidable task. We could not locate the whereabouts of Tenorio, Tan and Arnado and we could not serve Lacson because he was hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong where even the Interpol could not locate him. We also could not personally get Estrada personally served because his security would not allow any process server to come near him.

But we could serve Michael Ray Aquino because he was serving time in a federal prison in New Jersey after he pled guilty to federal criminal charges where he was sentenced to 79 months in jail. We served him with the summons and complaint in June of 2011 just before he was to be extradited to the Philippines.

While he was in the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) – by then headed by his former PAOCTF subordinate Magtanggol Gatdula, Aquino filed a motion to dismiss the Dacer daughters’ federal lawsuit. The motions, and all the other pleadings filed by Aquino, were filed in his name with him acting as his own attorney. But they were all posted in the Philippine Senate Post Office as shown by the postmark on the envelope stamps

Our assumption was that it was prepared and filed by lawyers in the office of Senator Panfilo Lacson, who had resumed his senate office after a 15 month absence. Lacson returned to Manila and his senate post on March 30, 2011 after the Philippine Court of Appeal had dismissed the criminal charges against Lacson after finding that Mancao is "not a credible and trustworthy witness.”

"Triumph of due process"

Lacson’s lawyers had successfully argued that Mancao was not credible because he said that he only learned about the abduction of Dacer on November 24, 2000 when he also testified that he overheard Lacson and Aquino discuss the plan to kill Dacer while in Lacson’s car. The appellate judges apparently could not believe that Mancao would know of the plan of Lacson and Aquino to kill Dacer but not know about the actual abduction until after it had already occurred. The judges could not imagine Lacson and Aquino carrying out their plan to kill Dacer without including Mancao in the planning of it.

In the US, informants regularly testify with total credibility about being present when a Mafia Don ordered the hit on a victim even if that informant did not participate in the actual execution of the victim.

Associate Justices Ramon Bato Jr., Juan Enriquez Jr. and Isaias Dicdican issued the order dismissing all the criminal charges against Lacson, who they said, "should be relieved from the pain and agony of trial." We wondered why the court showed no concern for the families of the victims who would go through the “pain and agony” of not having a trial.
Sen.Gringo Honasan, Lacson’s PMA classmate and close friend, hailed the court decision as a “triumph of due process”. That's right, in the Philippines, if you pay your "due", your “process” will triumph.

While Aquino was waiting for his day in court, which had been delayed by his sojourn in the US, his lawyer filed a motion to dismiss all the criminal charges against him for “lack of evidence”. On December 19, 2012, Manila Trial Court Judge Carolino Sison granted the motion finding that the sworn affidavits of Dumlao and Mancao pointing to Aquino as the man who directed “Operation Delta” of the PAOCTF and Aquino’s flight to the US when a warrant of arrest was issued for him and remaining in the US for 10 years were all simply not enough evidence to establish Aquino’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

This ruling may yet set a precedent that anyone in the Philippines accused of a crime can now file a motion to dismiss all the charges before a trial if the prosecution has not convinced the judge that the evidence not yet presented in a court trial is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. No need for a trial then.

On December 20, 2012, Aquino was released from his detention cell at the NBI headquarters and is now employed as a security officer by billionaire Enrique Razon at his Solaire Casino.

To show just how “due process” in the Philippines works, it is enough to consider that the Philippine Department of Justice is now hunting down Cezar Mancao for the Dacer-Corbito murders even though everyone agrees that he only learned about the abduction of Dacer and Corbito after it had already occurred.

While Aquino was detained in NBI custody, he managed to file a motion to dismiss the Dacer federal complaint which was denied. He filed a 20-page answer with two exhibits denying the allegations of the complaint and he then filed a motion for summary judgment which was also denied.

Michael Aquino was required to attend the February 1, 2013 pre-trial conference in federal court in San Francisco but he was a no-show. Judge William Alsup postponed the trial to November of 2013 to allow him time to hire a lawyer or personally appear at the next hearing.

Torture Victim Protection Act

When Aquino did not appear at the September 2013 hearing, Judge Alsup entertained a motion from the plaintiffs to obtain his default. The default hearing was held on November 7, 2013 and Judge Alsup granted the motion under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

In his decision issued on January 21, 2014, Judge Alsup noted the following facts:

“Defendant Michael Ray Aquino played a significant role in authorizing, instructing and coordinating the effort to kill Salvador Dacer…He also issued instructions to interrogate and “neutralize” the decedent. The Philippine Department of Justice..noted that he was “obviously stage managing the whole operation via cellular telephone”. Michael Aquino’s brutal actions took the life of a prominent and influential publicist, a friend and mentor to the Filipino community and a father of four now orphaned daughters. The cruel manner in which defendant orchestrated the abduction, torture and killing of Salvador Dacer is chilling…Despite “silencing” Dacer in such a gruesome manner, defendant has escaped relatively unscathed.”

Judge Alsup found Michael Ray Aquino liable for subjecting Salvador Dacer to torture in violation of the Torture Victim Protection Act and ordered him to pay damages to the four plaintiff daughters of Dacer in the total amount of $4,205,000.

One can only hope Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the long arc of the moral universe will eventually bend towards justice.
Published 02/16/2014

(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).


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