Crime in Paradise, an Unfinished Story

I promised in a previous post that I would explain why I went to the Hall of Justice, and then discovered behind it the Mahagony Market, where I later broke my rib. I went there again today. My rib, by the way, is healing nicely, very little pain now.

This all began when we moved to our rental house in Tagaytay on January 16, 2011. It’s a 4 bedroom house with a large outdoor pool. I had never had a private pool before, although my parents had. I knew there were important pool maintenance tasks that if neglected could impair the health of people using the pool. There was a caretaker at the house, who had been working there for several months, a man called Junie (his real name is Dionisio T. Bragil, which becomes important later). Junie (his nickname) had worked for the owner for several years, on construction projects, and the owner was good friends with Junie’s brother, Jerry. Based on the owner’s recommendation, and on talking to Junie, who has limited English, we agreed to hire Junie to take care of the pool, the extensive grounds, and clean the house. Initially we were not comfortable with having a live-in caretaker, so we were planning to have Junie come 4 days a week and live elsewhere. Attached to the house there is a hallway which includes a very small bedroom and bathroom, where Junie had been living. (To his credit, Dindin was at first very uncomfortable with Junie, but got used to him as he got to know him.)

Somewhere along the way it changed to Junie living in that bedroom, with his 3-year old daughter, and working for us 5-6 days a week. Overall he did very good work. He was good with the pool and the grounds, spending most of his time outside. He was very helpful in fixing things in the house and hanging pictures as we got settled. He was reluctant to enter the house to clean, as he didn’t want to disturb our privacy. Eventually we told him to clean the house twice a week.

The caretaker’s quarters has 2 separate entrances, at the front and back of the house. There is a door from that hallway that leads to the kitchen. Junie told us that he does not have any keys to the house. We would lock the doors at night, or when we went away, so that Junie only had access to the hallway and his quarters.

Both Dindin and I seemed to keep misplacing things. Dindin lost his new wallet, with his ID cards in it. We thought he might have left it at the mall, and inquired there. I lost one cell phone, then another. We had bought 2 small locks when we moved in, then could not find them, even with Dindin’s whole family searching the house. Some food also went missing. I was particularly upset about losing my Blackberry phone, as it had all my personal data in it. Of course I asked Junie if he had seen it, he said no, he hadn’t seen it, he doesn’t know anything about it.

It wasn’t until the middle of March that we started to suspect that perhaps Junie had something to do with these disappearing items.
Finally, on March 23 we invited Junie up to clean the upstairs, where our bedroom is. Before Junie came upstairs Dindin placed a small Nokia cell phone in a drawer in the bedroom, and closed the drawer. After Junie was done cleaning, the cell phone was no longer in the drawer.
We went down stairs and confronted Junie. He continued to claim he knew nothing about the missing items. I was not yet ready to fire him. I felt I either needed more certainty that he was truly at fault, or at least to sleep on it. We had been very helpful to Junie and it seemed like we had a good relationship. It was difficult to accept the betrayal, I guess.

The next morning, Junie talked to us, he was crying, he said he’s leaving. He asked us if we wanted to take his 3-year old daughter! Of course, while I was and still am concerned about the child, I want no connection to him.

After Junie left, our neighbor told us that Junie had tried to sell a cell phone to the neighbor on the other side, Darwin. I talked to Darwin, and asked him what kind of cell phone it was. Darwin said, Verizon. Verizon is a US company that does not operate in the Philippines. Darwin also said that he looked at the cell phone and saw that the contacts were all in English, not Tagalog. He told Junie that this cell phone must have come from a foreigner. He did not buy the cell phone.

Well, at this point we now had evidence that Junie had stolen from us. Over the next 2 weeks, the owner, who also felt betrayed by Junie, worked with Junie to try to recover some of the stolen items. Junie told us where to find Dindin’s wallet. He recovered the wallet and the ID cards, which saved him a great deal of hassle. The money of course (about $75 worth of Philippine pesos) was gone.

In all Junie stole 4 cell phones, one gold ring, seven silver rings, and a great deal of other items. After he left we found books, magazines, and other things of ours in his quarters. We also found a set of keys. We didn’t know what these keys were for, and thought they might be to another house where Junie had worked. We discovered today that one of the keys on that key ring unlocks the door that leads from the caretaker’s quarters to the kitchen.

Junie had already sold the cell phones, and we were not able to recover any of them. Three of those cell phones had extensive personal data that is worthless to anyone else but very important to me, and is now lost. Hundreds of addresses, phone numbers, emails, birthdays. Records of all my personal appointments for the last 6-10 years. Memos, passwords, etc.

I was able to talk to a woman at a local pawn shop who bought the gold ring and 4 silver rings from Junie. She returned to me one silver ring, and 1500 pesos (about $35), which was her profit on the other rings. They were already melted. The gold ring was my class ring. It was a special design that I chose when I graduated Princeton in 1983. I contacted the company, which still exists, but that design does not. No one currently at the company recalls it, and they have no pictures of it.

We decided to file a case against Junie. I went to the police station around the corner. After discussion with them, we followed them to the main Tagaytay police station, behind city hall. I typed up a statement there, including a list of the stolen items and their value. The items we knew about at that point added up to 76,400 pesos ($1,777). We were told to bring our witness, Darwin, to the police station so that he could make a statement.

Overall, despite the repeated warnings (and bona fide reports in the news) of corruption, incompetence, and outright criminal behavior by police in this country, my dealings with the police here have been very good. They’ve been very professional, very concerned with getting the facts straight. The one aspect that is very different from my US-based expectations had to do with the witness. In the US, the police would have gone to Darwin’s home and talked to him. That was not going to happen here. I was responsible for bringing Darwin in to make a statement, which took about 2 weeks because Darwin has a job and is a busy man. But it turned out fine. I was told to expect a subpoena from the prosecutor, but they could not tell me how long that would take.

On Friday, April 29, Dindin and I left the house at 3 pm to do some shopping. Jerry, who works most days for Darwin, was working in our yard, cleaning the pool and the yard. We returned at 4:20 pm and saw mail on the front door, which Jerry said had arrived at about 4 pm. I opened the mail to find my subpoena, which of course I was very excited to receive. However, the subpoena said that I was required to appear at 3:30 pm on Friday April 29! In other words, about an hour ago.

The subpoena said I had to appear at the Hall of Justice. No one seemed to know, but I assumed this was in the very large City Hall building. I got in my car and drove right over there. The guard at City Hall however, explained that the Hall of Justice is a separate building, in a part of Tagaytay I had not yet been, about 1-2 km from City Hall. I followed his directions and found the building. It is a 3-story white building that says Hall of Justice at the top. The front was obscured by 3 stories of scaffolding. The front door had a chain around it and a padlock. There is a traffic police building next door, where they explained that the Hall of Justice is closed already. It probably closes at 4 or 4:30. They told me to come back Monday.

So, for two days I was a fugitive from justice! (cue music from Mission Impossible) I had not appeared at the required time. It was nevertheless an uneventful weekend.

Monday morning I went to the Hall of Justice again. As it turns out, the locked front door was irrelevant, although the building had been closed. I had to use the side entrance, and walk up the stairs to the third floor, where I met the prosecutor. He explained that the preliminary hearing had already been rescheduled for May 27 (today) at 11 am. He told me to bring Darwin to the hearing on the 27th. He explained that the reason it was scheduled so far out is that Junie is in another province, Pangasinan, which is very far. We had given the address of Junie’s family there.

Today Darwin and I left at about 10:30 am to go to the hearing. Junie had been texting Dindin occasionally over the last month, which bothered Dindin, who did not respond. He had also been texting Darwin. so we knew before we left the house that Junie was already in Tagaytay. We arrived on the third floor at 10:50 am. The small office was crowded with people, but no sign of Junie. We were told to wait, as the prosecutor dealt with other people. A very well dressed older Filipino man, we think he is a judge, talked to me while we waited. He wanted to know where I lived, and did I have a Filipina wife. No I have a Filipino boyfriend. Oh, you have a girlfriend! No, a boyfriend. Oh, that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with having a boyfriend, he announced to the whole office. He seemed sincere, just unprepared for the reality I confronted him with. It’s a common kind of reaction here.

Around 11:05 the prosecutor called my name. There is no wall or divider between the waiting area and the prosecutor’s desk, where Darwin, Junie, and I all sat down. The prosecutor asked if Junie could make amends to me. I said I don’t think he has any money. The prosecutor said to Junie, Mr. Saiff here is a reasonable man, perhaps you can work for him to pay the debt off? I said, no, he cannot come to my house, that is not safe. He lied to me too many times, I do not trust him.

The prosecutor set the next hearing for June 10 at 11 am. He explained that Junie is entitled to a public defender at no cost, who will help him prepare an affidavit. We all left the building. Junie, who had brought his daughter with him, had been talking to Darwin. Darwin suggested that we all go to his house to talk. I said, I don’t know what there is to talk about. Junie has lied to me so many times, why should I believe whatever he says?

We ended up talking briefly outside the building, as it began to rain. Junie showed us the slip of paper listing the requirements he must fulfill to be able to get a lawyer. He needs certification from his Barangay (like a village) in Pangasinan that he is indigent, and also from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) there. He said he doesn’t have the money to go back there. I said that’s not my problem. The conversation dragged on for a few minutes, then I said to Darwin, I think you and I should leave, which we did. Meanwhile Dindin was making lunch for the 3 of us. Dindin made bulalo for the first time, which was very good. Darwin came over for a very nice lunch after we returned.

I’ve heard differing opinions of how long Junie is likely to be in jail – from 2 years to 8. I’m willing to leave that up to the court. I think it’s important that he have a record so that future employers can be forewarned, and I’d also like to see him serve time in jail. We don’t yet know what will happen to his daughter, who of course is not to blame for his crimes, but unfortunately she may be made to suffer for them. If no family member will take her the DSWD will likely place her in some kind of facility. That part is very troubling, but it’s not something I can change.

I haven’t gone through this kind of process in the US, so it’s difficult to compare. It seems that the system here places a great deal of power and decision-making authority into my hands, as the “complainant.” If I did not file a case, nothing would happen to Junie. If I agreed to work something out with him, he could stay out of jail. It’s an unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable place to find myself in. But I feel quite certain that Junie going to jail is what needs to happen, and that I should not stand in the way of that.

We did of course learn things from this experience. After Junie left we decided we would not get another live-in caretaker. We (mainly Dindin) have been cleaning the house ourselves. We can hire people by the day to take care of the pool and the grounds. Before we settled on Jerry (not Junie’s brother, but another Jerry who works next door for Darwin), we interviewed another man. He had been recommended by his brother-in-law, who is a local friend who also works occasionally for the owner. Nevertheless, we took all the precautions with this new man. We requested and received from him a police clearance, a barangay clearance, and a resume with a list of references. Two of the references were from a local rural bank, where he had worked for 8 years. I talked to those two people, who had a glowing report about him. They described him as very trustworthy and industrious.

The first time he was scheduled to come to our house without his brother-in-law, he was 90 minutes late. The next time, which was a Friday, he never showed. He didn’t respond to text messages for 2 hours. Finally I texted the brother-in-law, who said he was with him. Then the man himself texted, apologizing and promising to come Saturday or Sunday. On Monday, after hearing nothing from him, we hired Jerry. A few days later the man texted again, offering to come the next day. I told him no thanks, we found someone else.

I actually ended up doing business with that bank, and when they asked me about him, I told them what happened. I said, You told me he was trustworthy and industrious, but you didn’t say he was reliable! Although he caused us a minor amount of trouble, had I not met him I would not have found out about the bank, which has some very good programs. So I have not named him here.

Of course, the story of Junie is not over. Stay tuned for further developments!

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  • Althea  On June 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    The pictures are beautiful! I have a lot of family in the Philippines. What is it that you are doing there exactly?

    SIS BA ’11

  • Barry C. Saiff  On June 3, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Thanks, Althea. You can read lots of detail about what I’m doing here in the prior posts. But to summarize, I’m living here in Tagaytay with my Filipino boyfriend. I’m starting a publishing company and writing and publishing several books. The first one is “Moving to the Philippines: The Expat’s Complete Guide to Life in Paradise.” I’m also planning to start a technical writing outsourcing firm. I’m particularly interested in contacts in the Dept of Tourism, Dept of Foreign Affairs, in education at all levels, in publishing, in shipping, and in software development.

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