Damalerio, managing editor of the weekly newspaper Zamboanga Scribe and a commentator on DXKP radio station in Pagadian City on the southern island of Mindanao, was shot and killed at about 8:00 p.m.
A gunman shot Damalerio, 32, while he was driving home in his jeep from a press conference in Pagadian City. He was killed by a single bullet wound to his left torso.
On May 16, local police superintendent Asuri Hawani announced that police had identified and filed charges against an alleged hit man named Ronie Quilme based on an eyewitness’ account. But the two witnesses riding in Damalerio’s jeep, Edgar Amoro and Edgar Ongue, identified the gunman as local police officer Guillermo Wapile. Although an investigator from the National Bureau of Investigation said his office had recommended as early as May 17 that local prosecutors arrest Wapile, the suspect was not formally arrested. Instead, he was placed in the custody of his boss, Hawani, under “restricted supervision” with his fellow police officers. He was not formally charged, and could move freely in Pagadian City. According to news reports, he was seen in town stalking the witnesses and their family members during 2002.
CPJ believes that Damalerio, known for his critiques of corruption among local politicians and the police, was killed for his journalistic work. According to local news reports, the journalist had criticized Hawani on his radio show for his alleged involvement with drug traffickers and crime syndicates.
The day of Damalerio’s murder, his wife alerted him that she had noticed two men “casing the house,” according to a report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Hernan de la Cruz, publisher of the Zamboanga Scribe. Damalerio called his wife 30 minutes before he was killed to let her know that he was on his way home. The journalist advised her to “just close the door and lock the gate. Be careful.”
A few hours before Damalerio was shot, an employee of the Zamboanga Scribe reported receiving a number of mysterious anonymous telephone calls. On May 14, the day after the journalist’s death, an unidentified male made threatening phone calls to the newspaper warning that publisher de la Cruz may be next. (De la Cruz now has a uniformed army soldier as his bodyguard.)
On August 10, a possible third witness in the case, a member of a local civilian militia named Juvy Lovitaño, was murdered. He had recently contacted the National Bureau of Investigation to report that a local police officer had approached him to take out a contract on Damalerio’s life.
In August 2002, CPJ conducted an in-depth investigation into Damalerio’s murder and met with government officials, including Interior Secretary Joey Lina, to try to move prosecution efforts forward. Lina, who dismissed Pagadian police chief Asuri Hawani after Damalerio’s assassination for “covering up the crimes of his men,” has ordered a special investigation into the murder.
Amoro and Ongue, the two witnesses riding in the car with Damalerio when he was shot, were under threat and went into the witness protection program. Fearing death threats against her and her baby boy, Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, went into hiding in another province under the protection program. Despite the risks for their own safety, Damalerio’s family and colleagues continued to pressure regional authorities for justice.
On January 30, 2003, the Pagadian City regional trial court ordered Wapile’s arrest. Wapile had been temporarily reassigned at the time to Camp Abelon in Pagadian City, where he was supposed to be restricted to the premises under the supervision of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Provincial Director Pedrito Reye.
Apparently tipped off, Wapile managed to escape and evaded arrest for more than a year. In mid-2004, with a missing suspect and no leads, the case became “dormant” and Damlerio’s widow, Amoro and Ongue lost their protection despite ongoing threats.
International and domestic pressure to solve the Damalerio murder case increased until Wapile surrendered to authorities on murder charges on September 13, 2004. He pleaded not guilty to the murder charges on September 24, 2004.
But Wapile’s arrest did not end the reign of terror for the eyewitnesses and family members. On February 5, 2005, gunmen shot and killed Amoro while he was leaving Zamboanga del Sur National High School where he worked as a teacher. Two of the three eyewitnesses to Damalierio’s murder have been murdered to keep them from testifying in court.
In a February 14 ruling, the Supreme Court granted the request of Damalerio’s widow to transfer the trial from Pagadian City to the more neutral Cebu City, 350 miles south of Manila. The Supreme Court also ordered the Cebu City court to ensure a speedy trial.
Prison authorities were ordered to transfer Wapile from Pagadian City to Cebu City and ensure security to prevent another escape. There is still no official start date for the trial. According to local journalists, the prosecution is modifying its case, possibly to include charges against former Pagadian City Police Chief Azuri Hawani.
Gemma Damalerio, Amoro’s widow, and Edgar Ongue are back in the witness protection program.