The abduction and killing of an innocent South Korean executive in the Philippines has blossomed into a national scandal amid President Duterte’s war on drugs
April 14, 2017 10:27 a.m. ET
ANGELES CITY, Philippines—Around lunchtime on Oct. 18, several men entered Jee Ick-joo’s home, bundled the South Korean businessman into his black Ford Explorer and drove off.
Nearly two weeks later, his wife began receiving text messages demanding five million pesos—around $100,000—for his release. “Do not ask the police or someone bcuz we know what u do,” one message said.
In mid-January, the National Bureau of Investigation discovered that Mr. Jee was dead. Investigators said they traced his remains to a funeral parlor owned by a retired policeman who had been contracted by police antinarcotics agents to dispose of his body. It had flushed Mr. Jee’s ashes down a toilet.
Of all the 8,000-plus killings that have taken place since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a bloody war on drugs here last year, it is the abduction and killing of Mr. Jee, who was 53 years old, that has raised some of the most troubling questions. Investigators have said he had no known ties to drugs.
Civil-rights campaigners say police are killing people without due process in what amounts to an extrajudicial execution campaign. Sometimes, they say, police are using Mr. Duterte’s war on cheap methamphetamine as cover for kidnapping and extorting people such as Mr. Jee.
The mayhem has drawn criticism from around the world. Mr. Jee’s death has transfixed the nation and sparked calls from South Korea’s government to bring those responsible to justice. The Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines, including those of the U.S. and European Union, have demanded a full investigation.
The Philippines police say they are enforcing the law and that if any abuses occur, offending officers will be punished. Several have admitted, in sworn statements, involvement in Mr. Jee’s abduction and have been detained pending further investigation, though none have confessed to the killing and no clear reason has emerged for it. The first court hearing about his death is scheduled to take place Wednesday in Angeles City.
Mr. Jee, a man of medium build whose thick black hair was starting to gray, was a successful businessman who friends and family say tried to keep a low profile.
He had worked in Europe and elsewhere before moving to the Philippines in 2007 as a manager with Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction Co. Ltd., which ran a shipbuilding operation at former U.S. naval base Subic Bay.
He and his wife, Choi Kyung-jin, had begun thinking about retirement, and thought the Philippines looked like a good place to settle down, Ms. Choi said in an interview. Mr. Jee opened a staff-recruitment business for factories around Angeles City, about 50 miles north of Manila. They moved there with their daughter in 2012 and found a growing community of South Korean expatriates drawn by the sun and slower pace of life.
Ms. Choi says her husband enjoyed golf, wines and science-fiction movies. He saved on his phone a song list for office karaoke outings—a favorite was Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” He was a talkative man. “I used to joke that my husband was silent only when he was asleep,” she says.
On the morning of Oct. 18, she got a text message from her husband asking about lunch. He often ate at home. She had plans to visit a sauna but said she would leave something for him.
When Ms. Choi returned at 5 p.m., she recalls, she found the door open and no one home. Upstairs rooms had been ransacked.
The couple’s housekeeper, Marisa Morquicho, later told authorities that two men identifying themselves as police entered the house and said they were looking for drugs. Among them was a paunchy officer with short dark hair whom she later identified as Ricky Santa Isabel. Police brought Officer Santa Isabel in for questioning after security cameras captured his wife’s car in front of Mr. Jee’s house that day.
Neighbors told Ms. Choi and investigators they had noticed a struggle when several men pushed Mr. Jee into his SUV. Ms. Morquicho also was taken to the vehicle, where she saw Mr. Jee sandwiched between two men on the rear seat. She said the men instructed her to wrap a shirt around her head as a blindfold. Then they drove to Manila.
When they got there, Ms. Morquicho was put into a different vehicle and taken to another location, where some men gave her money and told her to get out at a bus station, wait 10 seconds, then remove her blindfold, she said. She counted to 10. Then they were gone.
One man who later admitted to being in the Ford Explorer, police officer Roy Villegas, told investigators they took Mr. Jee to police headquarters, Camp Crame.
Another man who said he accompanied the officers, civilian Jerry Omlang, told police in a sworn statement that Mr. Jee pleaded to be let go and offered four million pesos, or about $80,000, for his freedom.
Mr. Jee was killed just before 10 p.m., witnesses said. Accounts of how it happened differ.
Officer Villegas told investigators that Officer Santa Isabel got some tape and surgical gloves and told him to wrap the tape around Mr. Jee’s head. Until that point, Officer Villegas said, he believed he was on a legitimate antidrug operation. Now he feared for his life and smothered Mr. Jee as instructed while Officer Santa Isabel killed Mr. Jee by strangling him, Officer Villegas said.
In an affidavit, Officer Santa Isabel denied killing Mr. Jee or being present at the kidnapping. He said he was at Camp Crame and saw another officer hitting Mr. Jee with a pistol, and helped dispose of the body on orders from his superiors.
Mr. Omlang, the civilian, who once was an informer for the National Bureau of Investigation, said in his police statement he was at the kidnapping and that Officers Villegas and Santa Isabel were there, too. He said he got out of the SUV before Camp Crame to draw money from an ATM with Mr. Jee’s card.
Efforts to reach Officer Villegas and Mr. Omlang, who are in government custody, and their lawyers were unsuccessful. In a brief interview during an investigatory panel at the Department of Justice in February, Officer Santa Isabel, who also has been detained, said other police were to blame for Mr. Jee’s death.
On the night of the killing, Mr. Jee’s body was dropped off at a funeral parlor owned by retired policeman Gerardo Santiago. He told investigators Officer Santa Isabel had asked him if he could get rid of a body. He said he assumed whoever it was had been killed in an antidrug operation.
Officer Villegas said Mr. Santiago was paid the equivalent of a few hundred dollars and given a set of golf clubs from the back of Mr. Jee’s car. Mr. Santiago said in an affidavit he took some money, but denied getting the clubs.
Funeral-home staffers told police they prepared Mr. Jee’s body for cremation under a false name and with a faked death certificate. Teodolito Tarepe, the embalmer, said in a sworn statement he found strangulation marks on the neck and said the wrists appeared to have been tied. “The front of his pants were wet, as if he had urinated himself,” he said.
Back in Angeles City, Ms. Choi says, she tried texting and calling her husband, but he didn’t respond. She called his driver, and together they searched for Mr. Jee’s car until 1 a.m.
The next day, she called the police, but they weren’t much help. As it became more evident her husband had been abducted, she started looking through evidence herself, including neighborhood security-camera footage that showed a Toyota Hilux pickup. It was later identified as belonging to Ricky Santa Isabel’s wife.
Ms. Choi found out from her husband’s bank branches that his cards had been used to withdraw cash. She began packing Mr. Jee’s clothes into zip-lock bags so they could depart quickly for South Korea if he returned.
“It was OK if he came back crippled, as long as he came back,” Ms. Choi says.
On Oct. 30, still unaware of her husband’s fate, Ms. Choi received a late-night text message from an anonymous sender asking for five million pesos, or about $100,000, by 6 p.m. the following day, along with the warning not to contact the police.
The sender said nothing further. Ms. Choi began calling friends and family to raise the money. She decided not to alert police, but wrote down the serial numbers of the bank notes in case they might be useful later.
A message the next day from a different number instructed her to go to a supermarket near a Jollibee fast-food restaurant in Angeles City. She was to park her Honda Civic in front of the store with the engine running, leave the cash inside and wait in the restaurant, with an obscured view of the parking lot.
“Now move hurry and don’t try anwting ok,” another message said.
Ms. Choi arrived, with some friends watching from a distance, and waited inside the hamburger joint. After half an hour, she sent a message asking if she could return to her car. When she didn’t get a reply, she walked back. The bag with the cash was empty.
Half an hour later, a text message arrived telling her not to worry and promising to be in touch.
Another message two days later asked for 4.5 million pesos more. This time, Ms. Choi didn’t have the means to pull together the cash.
She couldn’t respond immediately because of a cellular-network outage. When service was restored, she found a message warning her she was “playing” with Mr. Jee’s life. When she texted back, no one answered.
In mid-January, an intermediary summoned Ms. Choi to the office of a private detective she had hired. He told her Mr. Jee was dead, without explaining how he knew. She broke down, and to this day can’t remember how she got home afterward.
A couple of days later, the National Bureau of Investigation called Ms. Choi into its offices to tell her that her husband’s body had been cremated and its remains flushed away. Other investigators asked her to identify Mr. Jee’s golf clubs, found at the crematorium.
On Jan. 20, the Philippines Department of Justice accused several policemen, including Officers Santa Isabel and Villegas, of kidnapping for ransom, with homicide. The case became a national sensation. National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa told reporters he was “deeply offended” and sorry that “my people” were involved in Mr. Jee’s homicide. “If I had my way, I will kill the policemen involved,” he said.
President Duterte also apologized. “Police, you sons of bitches, I won’t let you get away with it. You will suffer,” he said in a speech.
He suspended his antidrug campaign and ordered police to clean up their act, but vowed to get tough again a few weeks later, when authorities launched a new phase of the drug war, dubbed Operation Double Barrel: Reloaded.
Officer Santa Isabel said he was pressured into taking the fall for the killing by his commanding officer, Superintendent Rafael Dumlao. Mr. Dumlao has denied wrongdoing and in a sworn statement implicated Officer Santa Isabel.
Last month, a Philippines lawmaker filed an impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte, saying he was unfit for office, partly because of the drug war. Catholic Church leaders have criticized the drug campaign. Human Rights Watch cited Mr. Jee’s case in calling for a United Nations inquiry last month.
At the end of January, Ms. Choi says, Gen. Dela Rosa, the police chief, asked her if her husband or his company had links to casinos or drugs. She said they didn’t. He didn’t even like taking medicine when sick. She says Gen. Dela Rosa told her not to read anything into his questions.
Some police officials and lawmakers, including Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief, have said they worry the contradictory accounts of what happened on Oct. 18 might undermine prospects of ever convicting anyone for Mr. Jee’s death.
Ms. Choi has tried to move on. At a memorial service on the outskirts of Seoul in February, she laid out her husband’s favorite blue shoes and the clothes she saved in zip-lock bags on firewood and set them ablaze as part of a Buddhist ritual for the dead.
A week later, she visited their Angeles City home again. She had moved to a more secure location after the killing. She stared blankly into her old living room.
“He only visited me in my dreams once,” she said after leaving. “I’m a bit hurt he didn’t visit more often.”
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) talks to Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald Dela Rosa. AFP photo
Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa
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Philippines Policeman found tortured and strangled after some fellow police said he was involved in the illegal drug trade. Photo Credit Boy Cruz
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Tags: abductors, Amnesty International, antinarcotics agents, Choi Kyung-jin, corruption, Dela Rosa, Duterte, extortion, High Commissioner for Human Rights, human rights, Human Rights Watch, Jee Ick-joo, kidnapping, muder, National Bureau of Investigation, national police chief Ronald dela Rosa, Philippine National Police, Philippines, PNP, President Duterte, President Duterte's War on Drugs, ransom, rule of law, South Korean Businessman, United Nations