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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

entry arrow1:02 AM | Notes on a Forthcoming Story (or Footnotes to Gruesome Tales of Murders)

Do not let Dumaguete's Southern Gothic charm fool you. It is easy enough to be reeled in by all the genteelity, the tropical calmness made palpable by lazy promenades along its famous seaside Boulevard, the everywhereness of acacia trees, and the vast quiet that pervades even the very pores of our skin, punctured only by the sounds of tricycles merrily wheezing by.

Everywhere you look, there is some trace of history and of the familiar, like finding in every nook a semblance of home. Overlooking Tanon Strait, for example, on the corner of Rizal Boulevard and Silliman Avenue, Silliman Hall -- which is one of the oldest American colonial architecture in the country -- stands in a kind of majesty, the keeper of many memories, including that one time when Rizal himself walked the old shores and remarked, "This is a place of gentle people." The name stuck, and became Dumaguete's corny moniker.

Straight on from Silliman Hall, you will find mansions lining the Boulevard, old structures we call "the sugar houses" because they are remnants of Negros's hacendero legacy, which exists today only as wisps, pale ghosts of ancient history when Spanish mestizo debutantes from our side of Negros Island did not make their social coming out anywhere else but in St. James Court, right in the Royal heart of Great Britain. Like all of Negros, our sugar past makes us the original of all Pinoy bourgeoisie. And yet, the place still remains small and inert, like a treasure box.

It is easy to see only all of that.

But there is an underbelly of intrigue and mystery to the place, and truth be told, it borders on the murderous. It is also true that this is probably one of the safest places in the entire universe. We have a saying here, one that I love telling every new crop of writing fellows that come knocking at our door every summer: "Don't worry about walking around Dumaguete at two o'clock in the morning. Nothing bad will ever happen to you. If something bad does happen, you'll love it." Wink, wink.

Which is all correct. Most small towns are essentially like that. And Dumaguete, despite its sweet pretensions, is really a small town.

But note this: two years ago, a famous local designer, a prominent gay man of good family, well-known among the well-heeled circles of the small city, was found dead in the rubbles of his Bantayan home. He was tied with the tightest of wires to a chair, his mouth gagged. His killers had set him on fire. The police investigation that followed revealed his stomach still full of his last dinner. The man, they deduced, had actually invited his killers in, had dinner with them. Something happened between dinner and dawn that had led to this tragedy. I remember that morning when the fire sirens came. My house is only a stone's throw away from his. Nothing remained of his house, only old wood scarred black and licked by flames.

To date, nobody knows who the killers are.

I am mentioning this incident to begin this portrait of my almost schizophrenic city: It has an abundance of Southern charm, a surprisingly exquisite blend of both our Spanish and American pasts. But it also has a beautiful, noxious Gothic air.

In the late 1970s, several young women, some of them coeds in Silliman University, disappeared without a trace. This must have apparently gone on for years, but nobody reported anything, only that some people had gone missing. Nothing dramatic about that. People disappered all the time.

But one of the last of these women went by the name of Mary Ann who came to Silliman to study Psychology. In the first year of her stay, she met a man famous around the city for his wealth, for his Spanish good looks, for his charm and beautiful face. I remember one of my college teachers recalling this man. "A------ S----- was the epitome of a perfect gentleman," she said. "I remembered him opening doors for me. He was very charming." He was the son of prominent hacenderos, of good breeding and of good repute -- the scion of one of Dumaguete's prominent clans. He was also a well-known Don Juan, who chased women with gusto -- and people then would just shrug and say, "There goes A------ S----- again, with his women."

But men of privilege, as usual, were expected to misbehave. People turned a blind eye. Because what can happen in a small town?

The night Mary Ann disappeared, she had slunk away from Carson Hall, her campus dorm, and was taken by two of her closest friends to a spot near Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church, to meet her secret paramour. (Our Don Juan, of course.) She was pregnant, that was her news. Soon, her friends left her and Mary Ann and her Don Juan drove away to the man's hacenda. That was the last time her friends -- or anyone else -- saw her alive.

She did not come back home the next day, and the day after next. Her teachers and friends noted her prolonged absence, and soon talk fueled more talk, and Dumaguete being the small town that it was (and always will be), finally brought all speculation down to the Don Juan in our tale. There had been small rumors before, you see, and people finally wondered, Could it be true? Not our Don Juan! But an investigation was dispatched, and digging commenced both in his hacenda and in his house in Amigo Subdivision, right at the heart of the city's residential section. (Today, the house remains removed from prying eyes in the streets: it has high walls resembling an army barracks, and what we can see over the top of that fence is a dark house lying squat in the center, shadowed by ominous old trees. The grounds, we presume, are extensive.)

They soon unearthed several bodies in both hacenda and house, all of them women, and one of them was Mary Ann curled up like a fetus, hogtied. Her grave was shallow, and it appeared that she was buried alive.

Imagine that: a serial murderer in a small town. A handsome, charming Spanish mestizo serial murderer in a small town!

And here is where my facts get confused, because most of what follows are basically elements of gossip carried on year to year in secret, furtive conversations nobody really acknowledges in the open. It is as if the whole episode was willingly buried by a polite town scandalized that one of their own could be a monster. It's been more than thirty years since the first killing. And yet, now and then, the whole sordid tale emerges, bloody still and perpetually exciting, resurrected always by secret wagging tongues (and writers like me who are haunted by the whole thing) that refuse to let the story die.

The case, I have learned from my queries, was finally taken to court in the 1980s. The families of three of the girls led the prosecution, and for a while, it seemed that they would get justice. The bodies were compelling evidences enough. A prominent dentist (now dead) had identified Mary Ann's remains through her teeth. Her friends took note of the corpse's familiar clothes. And then Don Juan's driver (some say it was his gardener) confessed. Apparently, he had helped Don Juan bury his girlfriends, and he said that his conscience was finally burdened when he was left to bury the last of the victims alive. You can only imagine how the national press descended on Dumaguete, with headlines screaming the story in the front pages of those early 80's national dailies.

But Don Juan's family hired a very good lawyer from Cebu, someone with influence. People said that eventually the Marcoses stepped in, and that was how and why the man was allowed to go to Spain "to rest" while the case was being tried. But one by one, the families of the other victims. many of them poor folk who could not afford a lengthy legal battle, fell silent -- save for the last three families who were vocal in their search for justice. People said the other families were paid off handsomely for their silence. Eventually, the driver, too, recanted. Was he paid to become the fall guy? Speculations grew thick.

The case for the prosecution fell apart, and the presiding judge finally decided to dismiss the whole thing. Our murderous Don Juan was released.

But the people of Dumaguete was finally becoming tired of the whole murderous fiasco. There was a need to move on, my mother remembered. An American photographer-friend told me that once he remarked to a close Spanish mestizo friend during party. "Isn't that A------ S-----? Why are we partying with a serial killer?" he asked. The friend replied with the most cono of shrugs, "Who cares? He's not murdering me."

That, my dear palanggas, is Dumaguete high society.

And yet it seemed that the gods had their own brand of justice. Some say that the Don Juan's own sister went mad. His well-respected doctor-older brother also perished at sea in an airplane which crashed during an emergency mission off the coast of Cebu. The body of his fellow passenger (and fellow doctor), a scion of a rich Dumaguete Indian family, was eventually found in the shark-infested waters. But the body of Don Juan's older brother was never recovered. I still remember this tragedy. I was in grade school then, and I remember going with my family to Cangmating Beach to witness the Filipino-Indian doctor's body burned in ritual cremation atop a pyre of wood and gasoline. I remember the ashes falling like rain from the otherwise blue sky.

The tragedy even went as far as my own time when Don Juan's daughter -- a beautiful high school lass who carried the feminine version of his name -- was found dead in the beach adjacent to Cangmating. Apparently she had drowned. But the friends who were with her earlier said that couldn't possibly be, because she was just walking in the shallows, eating a bag of Chippy. And her father was with her. The autopsy report allegedly showed she was pregnant at 14. But who could have impregnanted her? Again, people talked. People noted that his other daughter -- an acquaintance of mine who eventually became Miss Silliman -- was taken away from her father's care when she was growing up, to live with her grandparents. For protection, people's tongues wagged.

In the early 1990's, bloody justice finally came. Our Don Juan, now middle-aged, was riding his car (or was it a Jeep?), and in the intersection of Rovira Road and Real Street, on the corner of St. Paul's College, he was ambushed by what many people later claimed to be the Alex Boncayo Brigade of the NPA. The gunmen riddled him with bullets, and then gunned away with their getaway car.

That was how our monster died.

And until now, much of Dumaguete still talk about everything in a hush-hush. Truth be told, the story has occupied my thoughts for years, because this was something I grew up with, and the entire bloody saga actually grew with me. I think it goes beyond morbid fascination. For me, this is very well something historical of my city; it is part of its heritage -- like all tales of the underbelly are; they may be swept under proverbial rugs, but they will never go away. We might as well own them, because these stories have become a part of us, whether we like it or not.

I am beginning my story's rough draft this way...

Pedazo de Verguenza*
By Ian Rosales Casocot

Based on a true story

We can begin with the unceasing silence. It has grown moldy like the years -- the way nobody in this small Negrense city would talk about it in the open, but only in furtive and anonymous conversations, sensational gossip verging on urban legend soaked with blood.

We will begin, instead, with the body, the way the bullets riddled him, cutting him down to a bloody pulp. That day in September 1992, the man staggered from his Jeep which had rammed into a lightpost at the corner of St. Paul College, and crawled to the corner where a bakery tottered into the intersection: there, in the filth of melting asphalt, spit, and roadside dirt, he succumbed to the death people would say he deserved a long time ago.

A----- S----- past middle age was always a handsome man, more beautiful and charming than the common lot of his Spanish mestizo peers, and perhaps even forebears. And yet, by the time the smell of gunpowder dissipated into the thick heat of Dumaguete's air, there was no trace of that face or beauty. There was tattered flesh instead of charm, and in the fading sunlight, his brownish hair shone with the dark matting of blood. The gunmen had emptied their shells of the last of their bullets, and then -- with the careful confidence of righteous assassins -- they boarded their getaway car, almost leisurely. The car gunned twice before racing to the north, and disappeared.

In the corner, A----- S----'s body lay sprawling, his blood gushing into the asphalt quickly mixing with the dirt, and drying in the late afternoon sun. By then a crowd had gathered, a palpable electricity in the air. He lay untouched for a very long time, even as people gathered, pointing fingers at the dead man, the din growing in hysteria before the police arrived, thirty minutes late. By then, everybody knew who it was. A----- S----, they all whispered. In small places, news travel faster than the fastest calesa, and by the time night came to claim the small city into its familiar embrace of darkness, people everywhere knew that A----- S---- was dead.

And they all agreed that he deserved the most painful of deaths -- the only just wages for ordinary monsters.

But the city always has a habit of killing anyone who called it home. Perhaps it is the descending humidity of summer mixing with the baking heat of asphalt roads, sand, and surf. It is most likely that, on any given day, the place stands very still, like a beautiful corpse....

Hopefully, I will be able to dig deeper into all these, perhaps someday transforming the whole tale into a novel, something in the vein of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the meantime, this is where I will be, making a short story, performing autopsy into the dark recesses of my city's psyche.

What dark tales does your own city tell? And if you are a Dumagueteno, and you know something more about the serial killings, please do share. The comment board awaits your two-cents' worth.

* pedazo de verguenza is the Spanish term relating to the familiar custom of leaving one last morsel on one's plate, not to be consumed.

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