by Bob Couttie
It was 11.45pm on 11 October this year when room attendant Elias Gallamos entered Room 1 at the Celzone Lodge, a short-time hotel, in Olongapo, Philippines, for the second time that evening. Fifteen minutes earlier he had seen a pair of slippers at the bathroom door and assumed that the attractive young woman who had checked in around 45 minutes earlier with a white male was still there although the male had apparently already left. The slippers were still there, unmoved.
Looking into the bathroom, Gallamos found a female figure, head leaning against the toilet bowl. A cream-coloured sheet covered her part-naked body. She had been badly beaten and there were bite marks on her body. There were grip marks on her neck and the water found in her lungs showed that she had been drowned.
Two used condoms were found in a trash can but nothing is yet known about their provenance.
That discovery set in motion a manhunt for a US Marine in what will prove to be one of the most controversial and sensitive cases of its kind, the echoes of which will last for decades.
Despite her slim, attractive, full-breasted bikini-worthy figure, Jennifer was a transgender sex worker called Jeffrey Laude. She should no longer have been in the Philippines, where same-sex marriage is forbidden, but in Germany with her fiancé, Marc Sueselbeck, but the German embassy had denied her a visa. She had an appointment to apply again for a visa on 16 October, five days after her death. Laude was the breadwinner of a poor family in a conservative country in which there are few work opportunities for transgenders, and homophobia is common.
A friend, known as ‘Barbie, who accompanied Laude to the Celzone Zone Lodge, which rents rooms by the hour, says Laude was wary of the suspect discovering that she was transgender. Barbie and another friend booked themselves into another room at the hotel.
Jennifer was familiar with the Celzone Lodge. She had stayed there twice with Marc Sueselbeck.
All that is known for sure is that Jennifer met her killer at about 10.45 at the Ambyanz Disco in the company of three US Marines. CCTV cameras at the disco show her with her alleged killer. The photographs helped the US Naval Criminal Investigative service identify a suspect among the thousand or so US military personnel who were in Subic Bay as part of joint 2014 Amphibious Landing Exercises with the Philippines.
Following a photo ‘identification parade’, Marine Private first class Joseph Scott Pemberton was identified as a suspect. Initially detained aboard the USS Peleliu, a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship, he has been helicoptered to a Philippine military base where he will be held pending trial. Olongapo mayor Rolando Paulino met the suspect, who is alleged to have said “I did something wrong” and declined to say more without the presence of a lawyer. Pemberton is just 19 and joined the Marines last year.
US authorities, the NCIS, and the navy are collaborating fully with the Philippine authorities on the case. But things are going to get messy on several critical fronts.
Few Americans are aware of the history of American-Philippine relationships. Few know that the Philippines, having declared independence from Spain in June 1898, fought a war of independence from February 1899 to July 1904. The campaign was often brutal on both sides. Until 1946 the Philippines was US sovereign territory. Even afterwards the US treasury controlled the Philippine economy.
Despite that, the number of anti-American Filipinos is tiny, not surprising in a country in which around one in four families have members residing in the United States. That tiny group, largely influenced by the Marxist politics popularised in the 1970s, make the most noise and get the most media coverage, while having minimal influence.
Nevertheless, that historical record means that most Filipinos, while not anti-American, don’t trust American policy. This is not surprising. After World War Two, the US refused to pay benefits to the Philippine Scouts who served – and had served since the early 20th century. The Scouts were an entirely US military, not Philippine government, unit. Indeed, its cavalry arm performed the last cavalry charge by a US military cavalry unit, in Morong, Philippines.
Another thread of controversy is that Olongapo, where the Laude killing took place, remained US territory until the 1960s, long after the rest of the country got its independence.
Add to that the fact that long after Olongapo itself was finally handed back to the Philippines, the US Navy was perceived to have been a law unto itself, shuffling personnel out of the country when crimes had been committed by US service personnel. Later the naval base was nominal put under Philippine control but remained de facto US territory until the Philippine senate by a margin of one, declined to ratify a new treaty that would enable the base to remain and on 24 November 1992 the US Navy finally departed..
With the growth of Chinese power in the region, the US is focusing on the western Pacific once more. The Philippines has a territorial dispute with China but negligible means to defend itself. While the US is not establishing permanent bases, it is increasing its presence throughout the region and the Philippines is a key part of its ‘pivot’.
Under a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), similar to what the US has with Japan, the accused may request to be detained in US custody until the end of all judicial proceedings. This has become a bone of contention but the there are several reasons why the measure is in place. Under Philippine law the accused has no right to know what his or her rights are; there is no equivalent of the Miranda requirement. There is also no trial by jury in the Philippines, a country where Judges are notoriously corrupt.
The VFA also mandates that judicial proceedings must be complete with a year. Given the notoriously slow legal processes in the Philippines, in which even the simplest case can last thirty years, with lawyers mainly concerned with delaying judgement as long as possible, this is a sensible demand.
It is now, for instance, five years since a powerful political family in Mindanao were implicated in the murder of 58 people, 30 of them journalists. There have been no convictions and it is unlikely that there will be any in the foreseeable future.
That perception may not be accurate. In 1983, Michael J Butler, a military serviceman, was condemned to death in a Philippine court for the brutal killing of a Filipina. It was later changed to reclusion perpetua.
Hanging over the current case is that of Daniel Smith, accused of rape in 2006. It is widely perceived that Smith was guilty and that he was only released when the plaintiff, Suzanne Nicolas, retracted her statement. In fact the appeals court set aside the alleged retraction and found Smith innocent because the plaintiff was considered, at best untruthful and unreliable.
As if things were not messy enough, the Philippines is moving towards presidential elections in 2016. Philippine presidents are allowed only one term so the current incumbent, Nonoy Aquino cannot run again. As a result president-wannabees are riding on the back of the Laude killing. Vice-president Jejomar, a frontrunner for the next election, has sought media coverage with photo opportunities of him posing next to Laude’s coffin.
Another president-wannabee, Miriam Defensor Santiago, is leveraging the case to raise her profile by demanding that witnesses appear before a Senate committee, thus getting media traction for herself. Name recognition is one of the most important factors in getting elected in the Philippines.
Harry Roque, the activist lawyer acting on behalf of the Laude family, is grandstanding the case to attack the government and the Visiting Forces Agreement.
In addition to everything else, the case has, rightly, become a cause celebre for the Philippine LGBT community. In a country where beating up gays is common, but rarely prosecuted, and bigotry is rife, this is something they feel keenly about. It is a very public opportunity for them to demand rights in country where they have none.
Preliminary investigation spearheaded by Olongapo City Prosecutor Emilie Fe de los Santos began on 17 October. Pemberton was not required to appear which has encouraged conspiracy theories that the US Navy has spirited him out of the country despite assurances by his prosecution team that he is still aboard the USS Peleliu. However, at 8.50am the day after the preliminary investigations began Pemberton was transferred to Camp Aguinaldo following agreement been the US and Philippine governments that he be held in joint custody in the compound of the Joint US Military Assistance Group, JUSMAG.
Unless required to attend court he will be held in an air-conditioned 20-foot van with a single cot bed.
Pemberton’s team must now decide whether or not to lodge a counter-affidavit by 27 October, after which the prosecutor’s office will decide whether to dismiss or pursue the case.
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