Virac judge: Insult from accused prompted transfer of drug cases

MANILA — The presiding judge of the Virac Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 43 tasked to handle the illegal drug cases on the discovery of a “mega shabu” laboratory in the municipality in 2016 said she has ordered to transfer the venue of the cases.

Judge Lelu Contreras said she made the move to spare her staff from the offensive demeanor of one of the accused in the case, former NBI Anti-Illegal Drugs Unit head Augusto Eric Isidoro.

“Initially, I did not agree to the transfer of venue, even when I will be inhibiting, since the security of the witnesses is more important than that of the prosecutors. However, after I was subjected to verbal assaults by the principal accused, Augusto Eric Isidoro, I changed my position and I agreed to the transfer of venue in order to spare my staff, who will still be handling the cases despite my inhibition, from the abusive conduct of Isidoro,” Contreras said in a message sent to the Philippine News Agency Wednesday.

In an order dated April 24, Contreras said she received a call from the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) on April 20 directing her to comment on the request filed by former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II asking Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio to transfer the cases filed against Isidoro from the Virac RTC to either a Quezon City or a Makati RTC and to issue an order to the accused to comment on the same request.

Since there was no available court personnel as it was already past office hours, Contreras, together with her police security, personally went to Virac District Jail to deliver the order to Isidoro.

She narrated that while she was waiting inside her car, her police security returned and informed her that both accused Isidro and Lorenzo Flores Piñera II refused to receive her order.

This prompted her to enter the jail facility to explain to them the urgency of the directive from the OCA.

“It took several minutes for Isidro to emerge from the cell. Even before the undersigned could utter a word, Isidoro, in a loud voice, told the undersigned that he could not be forced to receive the order since he has a counsel,” Contrera said.

She explained that she wasn’t able to speak as Isidro went on with his tirades, claiming that she had no authority to be at the BJMP since there is a separation between the judiciary and the BJMP.

“All throughout Isidoro’s verbal attacks against the undersigned, not one of the BJMP personnel, who were about two (2) meters from them, lifted a finger to pacify Isidoro, who was about two (2) feet from the undersigned. It was only when the undersigned raised her voice that Isidro stopped and returned to his cell,” Contreras said in her order.

The judge noted that Isidoro, while on his way to his cell, shouted in the Bicol dialect, that she never wanted to transfer venue and that she acts as if she is God.

This incident prompted Contreras to withdraw her initial opposition on transferring the venue of the cases.

“Although the undersigned had already manifested, both to the Acting Chief Justice Antonio T. Carpio and Court Administrator Jose Midas P. Marquez, that it is the security of the witnesses, especially the eyewitness, that should be considered and not the convenience of the prosecutors, but, in the light of the abusive conduct and utter disrespect displayed by Isidoro to the undersigned, disregarding her position as presiding judge before whom his case was raffled, the undersigned wishes to spare her staff from being subjected to similar behavior by the accused. Thus, the undersigned is withdrawing her previous opposition to the request to transfer venue,” Contreras said in the same order.

Contreras also clarified that the release of the search warrant was not delayed, contrary to the claim of the prosecutors stated in the motion asking her inhibition from the case.

“The undersigned has already announced her intention to inhibit from handling these cases, but not on the basis of the Motion for Inhibition filed by the three (3) prosecutors. She will inhibit for security reasons after the preliminary stages of the proceedings,” Contreras said in her letter addressed to Carpio dated April 6.

She also defended her order dated March 21, directing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s (PDEA) office in the Bicol region to proceed with the destruction of the shabu, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals, as well as the instruments and laboratory equipment seized from the warehouse which was questioned by former justice secretary.

“The PDEA Regional Director or its authorized representatives should proceed with the destruction without further delay “in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the DOJ, civil society groups and any elected public official” provided that representative samples, duly weighed and recorded, are retained,” Contreras noted.

Contreras also rebutted Aguirre’s claim that the change of venue “would also obviate the need for elaborate security arrangements for the state prosecutors and the witnesses as well.”

The Virac judge said that “it is very clear that he (Aguirre) is more concerned of the state prosecutors than the witnesses because the latter, especially the eyewitness, Ernesto Tabor, whose statements led to the indictment of the principal suspect, Atty. Augustus Eric C. Isidoro, are more secured here in Catanduanes than somewhere else. The testimony of Ernesto Tabor is vital in the prosecution of these cases. Thus, it is his life that must be secured and his safety must be the paramount concern of the prosecution and not those of the state prosecutors.”

“Former Secretary Aguirre simply forgot that a prosecutor, or any counsel for that matter, may be replaced at anytime of the proceedings, but not an eyewitness, whose testimony determines the outcome of a case,” she added.

In an en banc resolution released to media on Monday, the SC granted the request of Aguirre to transfer the cases against Isidoro from the Virac RTC to the Makati RTC.

The SC also directed the Executive Judge, RTC, Makati City to raffle the subject criminal cases among the branches of the said court within three days from receipt of the record.

Aside from Isidoro, also named as respondents were Xian Xian Wang, Pido Bonito, Paolo Uy, Jayson Gonzales Uy, Lorenzo Flores Piñera II, Paolo Wee Palisoc, Phung Yuan Estorco, and Sheng Wang.

The case stemmed from the mega shabu laboratory inside a warehouse that authorities discovered and raided in Virac on Nov. 26, 2016.

Police seized in the operation 22.509 kilos of shabu and 359.75 kilos of ephedrine, as well as other equipment and chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu.