PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. (File photo)

MANILA – Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. on Monday said they are not setting aside foul play over the death of inmate Cristito Villamor, the alleged middleman in the killing of veteran broadcaster Percival Mabasa also known as Percy Lapid.

"It's an unfortunate incident but the timing is questionable. Sabi ko nga kasi nung una yung report na lumalabas parang nabangungot di ba. Sabi ko, paano ka mababangungot ng tanghaling tapat hindi ba? (As I have said, the initial report showed that he had a sudden and unexplained death in sleep (SUDS). I said 'how can you get SUDS at noon?'). Because when I was a captain, I had been entering the NBP [New Bilibid Prison] at nakita ko kung ano yung situation doon eh na hindi ka puwedeng makakatulog ng tanghali kasi nga napakasikip (And I saw the situation there and you cannot just sleep at noon because it’s too congested)," Azurin said in a press briefing at Camp Crame, Quezon City.

Azurin said Villamor could have provided vital information that could lead the police investigators as to who ordered the killing of Mabasa.

Villamor was tagged by self-confessed gunman Joel Escorial as among those who contacted him to kill Mabasa.

"We were almost there, isn't it? We have the triggerman, we have the pieces of evidence and we were almost there to talk to the middleman and this happened. I don't know if that was accidental because he was the person we were looking for, we wanted to talk to," Azurin said.

A day after Escorial surrendered on Oct. 17, Villamor died inside his detention facility at the NBP in Muntinlupa City.

An initial medico-legal report by the National Bureau of Investigation dated Oct. 20 showed issues in Villamor's heart and that there were "no apparent signs of external physical injury" in his body.

Azurin, however, said they will wait for the investigation by the Department of Justice.

"Due to the exigency and urgency of the situation, we immediately coordinated with the NBP and they said there was no inmate of that specific name. What they should have done is to segregate and secure all the inmates with the Villamor surname. But what happened was that we were not furnished with the right information," he added.

He said 160 personalities including politicians, police, military, and even suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Director General Gerald Bantag are considered as persons of interest in the case.

Azurin said they are determining who among these personalities was most frequently discussed in Lapid’s program.

When asked if these personalities include Bantag, Azurin said, "Oo, kasama siya (Yes, he is included)."

He said Bantag was among those criticized by Mabasa, especially on the issue of the series of deaths of inmates.

He said they are doing it through the statements of Escorial and other personalities who had knowledge of the planning and execution of the killing of the broadcaster.

Bantag was the head of the BuCor when Villamor died at the NBP, which is under the BuCor's supervision and management.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said Bantag was suspended on orders of President Ferdinand R. Marcos.

Mabasa, 63, was in his vehicle when he was gunned down outside the BF Resort Village in Las Piñas City on October 3. (PNA)