CAGAYAN de Oro City - (Mike Baños/Nov 11) - Police operatives swooped down and nabbed one the prime suspects in the October 8 shooting of Iligan broadcaster Jose "Joe" Pantoja at his residence in Iligan early Saturday afternoon.
SURVIVOR. Iligan-based radio "blocktimer" Jose "Joe" Pantoja speaks about the Oct. 8 attempt on his life during a news conference at the Cagayan de Oro Press Club (COPC). Pantoja who started his career in the media in Cagayan de Oro, is a COPC member.
Philip Ken Jaudian, spokesman of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club's Task Force Pantoja, identified the suspect as Romeo Vequizo.
"Vequizo was arrested by elements of the Iligan police around 2:30PM Saturday, November 10, 2007, at his residence in Barangay Acmac," Jaudian told members of the COPC board shortly after their regular meeting in Cagayan de Oro City.
"He has been moved to the ICPO headquarters for further investigation." The arresting team was led by Supt. Lemuel Ga, deputy chief of operations of the Iligan City Police Office (ICPO) and team leader of the Special Operations Unit (SOU) of Task Force Usig, which was created to probe the spate of extrajudicial shootings of journalists all over the country.
Vequizo was earlier identified in a press statement as a former bodyguard of Rep. Vicente "Varf" Belmonte (1st District, Lanao del Norte/Iligan City) by Divina Suson, information officer of Belmonte's Iligan congressional district office.
However, Suson stressed in the same statement that Vequizo was terminated for cause by Belmonte's office in 2005 and has since not been connected with the congressman's office.
Jaudian said Vequizo was earlier reported to have been hiding in the hinterlands of Bgy. Rogongon, Iligan City's biggest barangay which borders Lanao del Sur province.
Vequizo was identified by Jaudian as one of the two suspected gunmen who sent him surrender feelers asking for protection against the alleged mastermind.
Jaime L. Umpa, regional state prosecutor for Region X, told media during a press conference hosted by the Cagayan de Oro Press Club's "Task Force Pantoja" Monday his office could place the suspects under its Witness Protection Program in return for their testimonies in naming the mastermind behind the shooting.
Umpa also stressed that the charges against the suspects have not been downgraded from attempted murder to attempted homicide as reported by some media outlets.
"I personally called the Iligan city prosecutor and he informed me there has been no change in the charges," Umpa said.
"I also assure you there will be no downgrading of the charges to homicide while I am regional state prosecutor." As regional state prosecutor, Umpa has jurisdiction over the DOJ prosecutors in Region 10.
Lawyer Roberto Goking, who is a member of the COPC's Prosecution Team led by Lawyer and Past COPC President Frederico Gapuz, explained that downgrading the charges from attempted murder to attempted homicide is tantamount to admitting the assassination attempt was not premeditated.
"It would also have the effect of absolving the master mind from any culpability of the crime," Goking said.Pantoja sustained five gunshot wounds from two .45-cal. fired by two assailants who later fled from the scene aboard a motorcycle.
He was hospitalized in Iligan and traveled under heavy guard to Cagayan de Oro Monday to personally thank the Cagayan de Oro Press Club for their support.
Umpa said the "least guilty" of the three suspects, in this case the driver of the getaway motorcycle that whisked the two gunmen from the scene, could qualify for state witness.
"We can not only reduce his sentence but even completely absolve him of the crime provided he identifies the true mastermind behind this shooting," Umpa said.
Umpa said the two other suspects can also seek clemency under the Department of Justice's Witness Protection Program if they testify against the mastermind of the failed assassination attempt.
A number of eyewitnesses who personally saw the incident have already been placed under the same program to protect themselves and their families. Pantoja and his family have likewise been placed under the custody of the DOJ's Witness Protection Program.