Revisiting the Aquino assassination: 39 years later

By Benjamin Pulta

August 21, 2022, 10:03 am

<p><em>(Original photograph by Times Journal photographer Recto Mercene)</em></p>

(Original photograph by Times Journal photographer Recto Mercene)

Forensic study shows Galman shot Aquino 

MANILA – The public defender who worked for the release of soldiers convicted more than 30 years ago over the deaths of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Rolando Galman said the government should consider pushing for the extradition of the so-called "missing link" in this highly politicized case.

Lawyer Persida Rueda-Acosta of the Public Attorney’s office had earlier interviewed former Air Force Master Sgt. Pablo Martinez whose new testimony was not heard both in the Agrava Fact-Finding Board in 1983 and the post-1986 Sandiganbayan trial.

In 1995, Martinez, who was then serving time at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), gave an exclusive interview to Philippine Daily Inquirer, where he claimed to know Galman and was part of the assassination plot against Aquino.

In the same interview, the former soldier alleged that Constabulary Gen. Romeo Gatan and businessman Hermilo Gosuico, who both have close ties with business tycoon Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, knew of the plot.

Martinez also implicated Philippine Air Force (PAF) Col. Romeo Ochoco, the AVSECOM vice commander at the time, and a known protege of Armed Forces chief of staff Fabian Ver, as one of the co-conspirators, and said that another PAF officer, Capt. Felipe Valerio, was in direct contact with Ochoco.

Ochoco, at the time of the assassination, was also a deputy at the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), which was then headed concurrently by Gen. Ver, who was also chief of the Presidential Security Command.

He also claimed that Ochoco ordered him to sneak in Galman, a hired gun from Nueva Ecija known to Gosuico, at the MIA tarmac.

Today marks the 39 anniversary of the death of Aquino on August 21,1983 at the Manila International Airport which would later be named after him.

New forensic analysis sustains Martinez’s narrative: Galman shot Aquino

Lawyer and forensic and medical evidence analyst Dr. Erwin Efre, one of the original members of the forensic team given unprecedented access to evidence at the scene of the crime and other pieces of evidence, remains active in government service up to the present.

The team, consisting of Prof. Jerome B. Bailen, Benito Molino and Anastacio Rosete Jr. published their work "Death on the Tarmac: Forensic Analysis of Assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr." has since gone out of print.

The work dealt mostly with the physical evidence following the incident and cleared Constable Rogelio Moreno, whom the 1990 Sandiganbayan decision pointed to as the “gunman.”

For one, Moreno supposedly shot Aquino as they were going down the stairs, a fairly difficult move considering that Moreno's teammates were also in the line of fire and dangerously close and moving shoulder to shoulder with Aquino as they were moving down the stairs.

In a more controversial experiment, Erfe's team also tested the maximum distance from a gunshot from a caliber .357 revolver which would leave "soot" or visible powder burn marks on entry wound similar to those found at the back of the head of Aquino.

The experiment ascertained that Moreno, from the rear of the entourage, with the handgun at least two feet away from the gunshot entry point would not leave such prominent and small tight powder burns.

A gun such as the caliber .357, according to the experiment would need to be no more than six to 10 inches away to leave entry wounds.

The experiment, like everything in the Aquino saga, turned political after supporters of the late senator denounced the use of a dead pig's carcass to substitute for human flesh.

"They were saying we should not have used a pig in the experiment," Erfe said.

Erfe noted that there had been no blood stains on the stairs, where Moreno supposedly shot Aquino, but there were blood feet away near the AVSECOM van where Aquino collapsed after being shot, and his escorts scampered for a few crucial seconds reacting to the shot before quickly returning fire at Galman.

More telling was the popular video of Moreno and his fellow soldiers approaching Aquino as the latter was seated in the plane and then escorting him out. The video taken by one of the journalists on board the flight briefly captured the uniformed men, including Moreno, with an empty pistol holster.

In 2007, Inquirer reporter Norman Bordadora wrote about Sgt. Ruben Catimbuhan who drove the van used by the AVSECOM.

Catimbuhan said he saw Galman shoot Aquino. Catimbuhan also said as the dying Aquino was loaded into the van he was instructed by Valerio to go to the Military Security Unit of the Philippine Army instead of the closer Villamor Air Base Hospital.

Sandiganbayan finds 16 soldiers guilty

Sixteen defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Sandiganbayan in 1990 and ordered to pay damages to the families of Aquino and Galman.

The sixteen were Custodio, Capt. Romeo Bautista, 2nd Lt. Jesus Castro, Sergeants Claro L. Lat, Arnulfo de Mesa, Filomeno Miranda, Rolando de Guzman, Ernesto Mateo, Rodolfo Desolong, Ruben Aquino, and Arnulfo Artates, Constable Rogelio Moreno (the gunman), M/Sgt. Pablo Martinez (also the alleged gunman), Airman First Class (A1C) Mario Lazaga, A1C Cordova Estelo, and A1C Felizardo Taran.

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision in 1991.

It is interesting to note that the two military officials disappeared from the scene shortly after the 1986 EDSA revolt.

Ochoco was believed to have fled to Australia where he owns a farm while Valerio was later traced to the United States.

There were attempts to have Valerio extradited in 2009 but attempts to locate the official did not produce any results.

Through the years, some of the convicts have been pardoned, others have died in detention, while others had their terms commuted and immediately released to once again enjoy life outside prison.

In November 2007, Martinez was released from the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) after then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered his release on humanitarian grounds. He was 70 years old at the time.

In that same year, Martinez gave another exclusive interview this time to a television network, where he claimed that it was indeed Galman who shot Aquino with a revolver at close range at the MIA during that fateful day.

He added that he is very sure of this as he was the one who sneaked in Galman and that he was very near the gunman at the time. He added that his fellow soldiers, who were tasked to secure Aquino, were not aware of the plot.

Martinez also reiterated the names of Gatan and Ochoco as among the plotters and by their close association, Cojuangco and Ver as the possible masterminds behind Aquino's assassination.

Since the Aquino murder plot was compartmentalized, Martinez could not say the real motive behind the assassination. What he knew was that should Galman fails to shoot the former senator, Martinez will be the one to do the job.

In March 2009, the last remaining convicts were released from prison.

Following this development, the case of Aquino’s assassination was revisited in an episode of GMA Network’s docudrama series “Case Unclosed” aired on March 26, 2009, where Martinez also shared his side of the story.

This was the last time Martinez will communicate with the media as he died on May 9, 2014, after being hit by a Mitsubishi Montero while biking along Roxas Boulevard, Manila.

Martinez succumbed to fractures in the ribs at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Pasay City the following day. He was 77 years at the time.

Capt. Valerio as missing link

A standing warrant of arrest in connection with the death of Aquino still remains in effect against a former senior officer of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) who has since made a new life for himself in the United States.

"If only to get a chance to get to the bottom of the story, we should pursue to have him extradited back to the Philippines," Chief Public Attorney Persida Rueda-Acosta told the PNA.

Then Capt. Felipe R. Valerio Jr., a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1973, was among those named in an arrest warrant issued by the Sandiganbayan Third Division signed by then Sandiganbayan chairperson Godofredo L. Legaspi on Nov. 11, 2005.

His last known address was Seattle, Washington. In 2006, Acosta formally asked United States Ambassador to Manila Kirstie Kenney for assistance in going after Valerio after reliable information said the latter works as a commercial pilot in Texas and California and used aliases "Philip Valed" and "Edwin Salvador".

"We never received a favorable reply," Acosta said.

Valerio, who turned 71 last February could be the last chance for the truth to be known about the Ninoy Aquino assassination. (with reports from Priam Nepomuceno/Christopher Lloyd Caliwan/PNA)