One of the eight Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) members arrested for illegal possession of firearms in December 2004 has been convicted.
Municipal Trial Court in Cities Judge Ester Veloso sentenced Master Sergeant Heracleo Rallestan to four to five years in prison and ordered him to pay a P15,000-fine.
Rallestan and the other accused were charged with the possession of low-powered firearms that included a .32 revolver and assorted ammunition.
They still face two other cases for illegal possession of high-powered firearms and explosives, which are pending before the Lapu-Lapu City Regional Trial Court.
Veloso cleared Rosalito Oaper, Elpidio Amarila, Michael Baylon, Arjulyn Gallarda, Damiano Esconde, Richard Caballero and Nestor Carrol "for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt."
But the judge did not give weight to the mission order of Rallestan's gun, which was signed by a Capt. Vedasto A. Caballes Jr. Caballes was not called to the witness stand to authenticate the document he allegedly signed.
Besides, the ballistic examination further described Rallestan's gun as homemade, which reinforced the court's belief that the gun was not issued to him.
As to the two bags that contained the firearms, both police and the defense accused each other of opening them.
Carrol had admitted on TV that he owned the bags.
Former Lapu-Lapu City police chief Louie Oppus said he even asked Carrol to open the bags, which the latter did in front of media people.
Oppus said the prosecutors should have summoned them as witnesses.
"Be that as it may there is no convincing proof to establish the ownership of the bags in question, along with its contents," the judgment stated.
The court was not convinced that all eight men helped each other to bring the bags.
For lack of factual and legal basis, the court could not hold any of the accused liable for possession of the ammunition.
Aside from the .32 and .38 bullets found inside the bags, police also recovered three short Armalite rifles; an M16 Armalite rifle; six rifle grenades; a smoke grenade; an apple grenade; 1,073 rounds of 5.56 mm (Armalite bullets).
Police also found inside the bags four black vests marked "Swat" and "Cebu City"– with the flaps on the right pockets marked "Santiago and Dagohoy" –four black fatigues, two Army camouflage pants, two combat packs, six pairs of combat boots, bandoliers, four bush hats with attached wigs, a pair of gloves, two more wigs and several PBMA paraphernalia.
Veloso's decision was promulgated yesterday, almost three years after the suspects were arrested in December 2004 at a checkpoint in Barangay Buaya.
A police team had stopped the van, and found two of its passengers –Rallestan, a member of the 53rd Engineering Brigade based at the Central Command in Lahug, Cebu City, and Carrol – with guns tucked in their waistband.
The team arrested the two and secured the vehicle. When they checked the two big bags inside, these contained high-powered rifles and grenades.
All eight men were taken to the station for investigation.
They denied knowing each other, saying it was just coincidence that they all belong to PBMA and shared a van.
Carrol had insisted that the seven others had nothing to do with the firearms.
He pointed to rebel leaders in Samar as the ones who promised to pay him P300,000 to bring the firearms and battle gear to a place in Punta Engaño. From there, a pumpboat was supposed to bring the items to Samar.
Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña believed the arrested men were out to ambush him, as he was scheduled to visit Barangay Pusok, Lapu-Lapu City that day to give the awards in a shooting competition.
The mayor had tagged PBMA leader Ruben Ecleo Jr. as the mastermind in the death of lawyer Arbet Sta. Ana-Yongco.
Yongco was the private prosecutor in the parricide case against Ecleo, who stands accused of killing his wife Alona in January 2002.