Thursday, June 01, 2006


The year was 1971, and the place was Cotabato City, Cotabato Province in Mindanao, Philippines. These were heady and exciting times for me. I was barely twenty-four years old, and I was Chief Operating Officer for a road construction company based in Cotabato City.

Cotabato Province was in the heart of Mindanao, with still a predominantly Moslem population. But steady encroachment by Christian settlers mostly from the Visayas had reached a point that the balance of power was shifting from Moslem to Christian. Cotabato was a very dangerous place, full of armed factions on either side of both the political, ethnic and religious divide.

The company office was in a suite at the Hotel Imperial II, at that time the newest and most modern hotel in the city. I had a chief accountant and two office clerks working in the office, together with a personal driver and security officer. I also lived in the hotel and my security officer slept in the office while I was in town, providing me and the office round the clock protection.

One of the guests at the hotel was another businessman who also had an office and a room at the hotel. His name was Architect Jovellano, who was working on a project in Tacurong, (I believe it was a new town market) probably a couple of hours away from the city. He employed a lone draftsman who worked in his office inside the hotel.

Architect Jovellano was an interesting character. He was not physically imposing, but he had a colorful background. He was actually a well-to-do resident of the city. A few years ago, one of the powerful Moslem datus took a liking to one of his teen-aged daughters and kidnapped her, intending to marry her, by all accounts forcibly against her will.

Jovellano did not take this laying down, marshaled enough military and private muscle of his own and retook his daughter. Fearful of retaliation and to prevent another kidnapping, Jovellano moved his family to nearby Davao City, about a couple of hours drive away.

Now fast forward to several years after the incident, and Jovellano was back in Cotabato City working. I would say that we were probably in that hotel about the same time for about three months. During that period, his daughters came for a visit from Davao and I met them and exchanged a few words of pleasantries with them. The daughters were gorgeous, and I can understand why the kidnapping took place. I should probably also mention that Jovellano’s brother Willy, who worked as a radio announcer at one of the city’s radio stations, became one of my business friends.

On that particular day, it was mid-morning and I happened to be at the lobby of the hotel, chatting with a business friend. Jovellano came out of the elevator, hurrying to conduct business for the day.

He was dressed casually but smartly in a batik shirt, which looks like a colorful Hawaiian shirt but with ethnic designs peculiar to Mindanao. He had a sidearm, a Magnum .38 tucked in his waist, and he was carrying an automatic rifle to his car. Some of the hotel clerks greeted him by name, I said hi to him as he breezed by, and he waved and yelled a general greeting to everybody.

The hotel had double glass doors , and standing at the lobby, you can actually see out through the glass doors into the street outside the hotel. As usual, they had a smartly uniformed doorman at the door, who actually opened the door for anybody coming in or coming out of the hotel, and warmly greeted known patrons of either the hotel or the hotel restaurant. The doorman opened the door for Jovellano, greeting him good morning.

Jovellano was parked almost right in front of the hotel, just a little bit to the right as you exit the hotel. I was probably the closest to the glass door other than the doorman.

Jovellano climbed into his vehicle, which was a Fiesta, a Philippine made Ford vehicle. The Fiesta had no doors that closed, but instead was open on both the driver and passenger side. Jovellano braced the rifle along the left side of the car, started the car and proceeded to shift to reverse gear.

At that moment, the first shot rang out. The doorman prudently moved from the glass doors to a few steps inside the lobby. I impulsively ran towards the glass doors at the first shot. As I was rushing towards the glass doors, I could see the people on the other side of the street, frozen in their tracks.

By the time I got to the glass doors, it was all over. A gunman had stepped out of the sidewalk and had shot Jovellano four times point blank with a .45. Jovellano was slumped backwards against the driver’s seat. There was a neat round red hole around his temple and his neck. There was a mass of blood around his mouth and jaw, and his chest. The front of the batik shirt now ran dark red with blood. The gunman must have shot rapid fire down the left side of the body—temple, jaw, neck, chest.

There must have been at least a couple of dozen eyewitnesses to the shooting, including several sales ladies in a store right next to the hotel. Predictably, only a handful offered any statements, and I was told that if by any chance it came to a trial, these witnesses would conveniently suffer amnesia.

Willy and I would chat about the murder sporadically. At one point, I asked Willy point blank if it could have been the Moslem kidnapper, who was known to Willy. Willy said he did not think so, and if he ever found out that it was indeed he, Willy would simply just retaliate in kind. There were many conjectures offered as motive. It could have been the present project. It could have been a past project. It could have been a business association that had soured. In short, it could have been anything.

In the end, it became just another of Cotabato City’s unsolved murders, unless they somehow solved it since I left for the United States. For me, it was just another sober reminder that, like Dorothy, I was no longer in Kansas. During my stay in Cotabato City, I received about a couple of dozen death threats directed either towards me personally or the company, and had somebody pull a gun on me several times.

Sometime that same day, I ran into Jovellano’s draftsman on his way out of the hotel. He had his light jacket on, and he had cleaned out his drafting tools from the office. He gave me a wry smile, and we wordlessly waved at each other.


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