A widow’s story

SOMETIMES, ANGELINA ‘Angie’ Cauzo chats with her husband in front of a small family altar in their modest house in Talavera, Nueva Ecija. As stereotypical marital conversations go, the talk is always one-sided, with the wife pouring her heart out to her silent husband.

But then Julius Cesar Cauzo, radio commentator, vice president of the Nueva Ecija Press Club, and Angie’s husband, has good reason to be unresponsive. He has been dead for a year now, assassinated in broad daylight by a gunman in a province long known for its history of political violence.

“I pray to him, I talk to him in front of the statue of Jesus, and I ask that justice be given to him from above,” Angie said last November 8, the first anniversary of her husband’s death. “That is the only thing I can do now.”

One year after her husband’s death, police have not yet identified the gunman and his accomplice, much less identify the masterminds of the murder. Police say no physical evidence was ever found at the crime scene, and that all witnesses saw were two men hanging around at the scene of the crime minutes before it happened — possibly enough for a lead, but hardly enough to pin anyone down for the murder. No witnesses, no evidence, no motive, no case.

And yet, like many media killing cases, this had seemed in the beginning to be one murder that would not go unsolved.

On the morning of November 8, 2012 — his and Angie’s 33rd wedding anniversary — Julius Cauzo had been shot dead by a motorcycle-riding gunman along Flowerlane Street in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija. Cauzo was then reportedly on his way back to the broadcast studios of DWJJ, a local radio station owned and operated by the family of Cabanatuan Mayor Julius Vergara.

Cauzo was a political radio commentator and host of the program “Teleradyo” at DWJJ. Almost as soon as he was gunned down, the entire police bureaucracy had swung into action. First responders secured the crime scene while a police investigator arrived to look for witnesses. Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) agents also combed the area for possible clues.

Task Force Usig adopted the Cauzo case as one of its own as well, a clear recognition that the murder was related to the journalist’s work. In the meantime, the Provincial Police Office (PPO) of Nueva Ecija activated a special investigation task group (SITG) that it called SITG Cauzo, to work on the case on the provincial level. This investigation would be separate, although complementary, to the investigation conducted by the police investigator assigned by the Cabanatuan City Police to the case. Capping everything was a P2-million reward put up by provincial and city officials for any information leading to the suspects’ arrest.

Yet today the case — the 15th media murder during the Aquino administration — remains in the investigation phase. The fourth and last progress report submitted by the Cabanatuan City Police to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Provincial Director, dated February 24, 2013, merely noted that there was no progress in the Cauzo case. But the report, signed by then Cabanatuan City Police Chief Supt. Eli Depra, assured higher-ups that “this station has not ceased from conducting follow-up investigation and intelligence buildup to identify the suspects.”

Depra’s office had been submitting regular progress reports to the PNP Provincial Director since the shooting of Cauzo last year. Depra’s last progress report summed up the supposed problem: “In the absence of testimonial evidence from the witnesses, this station still could not file an appropriate criminal case against the suspects and even its mastermind, if there is any.”

Police officials say that they have been exerting their very best. Unfortunately, PCIJ has found glaring weaknesses in the manner in which the investigation has been carried out so far.

For example, both the Cabanatuan City Police and the Provincial Police Office’s SITG Cauzo reported that no slug had ever been found at the crime scene. The recovery of a slug may be significant since markings on the bullet left by the rifling of the gun barrel sometimes leads to the identification of the firearm used in the crime. This distinctive rifling can also be used to check if the same gun had been used in other crimes.

Because they said there was no slug found, the Cabanatuan police could not say even just what caliber of firearm was used. But then the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Cabanatuan field office had in fact recovered a slug from the crime scene days after the murder. According to a report filed by NBI agent Manuel Dimaano on November 16, 2012, the recovered slug had already been examined by the PNP Crime Laboratory in Cabanatuan City and had been identified as coming from a .357 magnum revolver.

NBI agents have since told PCIJ that the recovered slug is now with the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG). Why the Cabanatuan police seem unaware of this is unclear. Just as puzzling is why police investigators appear uninterested to talk to Jessica Eraña, who has a child with Cauzo and was often visited by the broadcaster. According to Eraña, she was the last person visited by Cauzo before he was killed. She said she has repeatedly offered to help the Cabanatuan police identify the suspects. So far, they have not interviewed her.

“Why do they refuse to get my statement?” asked Eraña. “In a proper investigation, they should talk to the last person that the victim met. I have been presenting myself, but they just ignore me.”

Eraña said she and Cauzo had spotted several unidentified men tailing the journalist and casing their residence just a day before he was killed. “We saw men riding a motorcycle parked in front of our house, as if waiting outside our gate,” she said. “Julius told me to lock the gate and not come out.”

“I told police officials that I saw their faces, one was wearing a helmet and another was about to wear his helmet,” she added. “I told them that I would recognize these faces again if I see them.”

Eraña said that when Cabanatuan City Police released computer composite images of the two men spotted at the crime scene just before the murder, she thought one of them looked like the man she saw casing their house.

Both she and Angie Cauzo also said that Julius Cauzo had received several death threats through text messages to his mobile phone. Interestingly, police investigators told PCIJ that Cauzo’s cell phone was the only evidence of any value recovered from the crime scene. But the phone was locked with a password, so the device was turned over to PNP technical experts for them to unlock. That may have been an unnecessary move, though, since Eraña said she had offered to provide the password to Cauzo’s cell phone, but was ignored by the police.

Angie Cauzo herself has been interviewed by the police only once, nearly a month after he was murdered. She said no police officer had talked to her since, whether to ask her for more information, or to give more updates on the case.

To be fair, the police probers’ case load can be formidable. Cabanatuan City has a complement of 200 city police officers for a population of 272,000 as of 2010. Of these 200 police officers, only six are crime investigators, said investigation section head Police Chief Inspector Reuben Garcia.

These six investigators need to work in two shifts of three investigators who are on duty for 24 hours at a time. That means a police investigator is on duty three times as long as a regular government employee. Expectedly, the performance and efficiency of an investigator may go down as he nears the end of his 24-hour shift.

The work also tends to pile up, as more complainants come in even as an investigator is already working on several cases at a time. Garcia said an investigator can average two to three additional cases a day. He said that ideally, he should have twice as many investigators to handle a city the size of Cabanatuan. Until and unless that happens, Garcia said, the local police will have to make do with what it has. And ordinary citizens would have to make do with whatever performance the local police can dish out.

Which is, in the Cauzo case, not much.

PO3 Ashley Vergara has been the investigator of the Cauzo case from the start. But when he was asked to give a very brief narration of the crime, he had to read the whole police report to PCIJ because he no longer remembered details of the case. He could not even say how many times Cauzo had been shot, and had to look for the PNP autopsy report before he could tell PCIJ the answer: three. Yet this was a case that the Cabanatuan City Police had insisted that it had been continuously following up, a case that was high-profile and had the high-level involvement of police officials in the investigation, from Camp Crame to the Provincial Police headquarters.

“We do not have any physical evidence, that is why we are having a difficult time with this case,” Vergara told PCIJ.

Vergara also said Cauzo’s cell phone was undergoing “digital forensic examination” so it could be unlocked. Told that Eraña was willing to give the password to facilitate things, Vergara said the ball was already in CIDG’s court. Since he had yet to receive any report from CIDG regarding the phone, Vergara said he assumes it is still locked, a year after its owner was killed.

He said the digital composite sketch of the two unidentified men spotted earlier at the crime scene was their only lead. He said the police had already shown around the composite sketches of the two suspects, but no one has been able to identify them so far. Asked what the Cabanatuan City Police has been doing to move the investigation forward, Vergara replied, “We are continuing to look for information, just in case someone can identify the mastermind.”

Asked what this meant in real terms, Vergara said that the Cabanatuan City Police had teamed up with CIDG and SOCO to conduct what police like to call “follow-up investigation.”

Not surprisingly, Angelina Cauzo said she has already given up on the police, and has surrendered the matter to God. “There is no development at all for the case,” she said. “There is no update at all.”

She wondered aloud, “Is this how it is with the lives of mediamen? If you are killed, that is the end of everything?”

“That,” said Angie Cauzo, “is the question on my mind.” — With research and reporting by Cong B. Corrales and Fernando Cabigao Jr., PCIJ, November 2013