12-year-old witness tags suspect in Ellah Joy kidnapping

Posted on November 16, 2011

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Accused Bella Ruby Santos manages to smile as she is led out by jail guards after the closed-door hearing in the courtroom of Judge Ester M. Veloso yesterday.(CDN PHOTO/ JUNJIE MENDOZA)

A 12-year-old girl, whose name will not appear in media reports, yesterday pointed to Bella Ruby Santos in a closed-door hearing with a judge in Cebu City.

She pointed twice to the woman in a yellow prison T-shirt as the one who ushered her friend, 6-year-old Ellah Joy Pique, into a vehicle along a road in Minglanilla town nine months ago before the schoolgirl disappeared.

Throughout the hearing, Santos remained quiet.

The motion for bail was heard in the chambers of Regional Trial Court Judge Ester Veloso of Branch 6.

The judge will decide whether initial evidence against Santos is strong enough to deny her bid for bail or temporary liberty when the main trial on charges of kidnapping with homicide gets under way.

Parents of Ellah Joy were among the few persons allowed in the judge’s chambers, a special arrangement made since the witness was a minor.

“Nakatabang gyud nato nga gitumbok sa bata si Bella. Sigurado man ang bata nga si Bella gyud (It really helped our case when the child identified Bella. She was certain that it was her),” Ellah Joy’s father Renante told Cebu Daily News.

The 12-year-old girl was a “companion” of Ellah Joy and one of several children walking outside the school after classes were dismissed in the afternoon of Feb. 8.

Renante said the child witness described the person who abducted Ellah Joy as having “long hair; dili kaayo puti-dili pud kaayo itom; and mata nga Intsikon” (not so fair skinned, not really dark, and with chinky eyes).

The young witness stood up from her chair and pointed to Santos in the room as the person who ushered Ellah Joy into a vehicle a few meters from the Calajo-an Elementary School in Minglanilla town.

The judge asked Santos to come closer, a distance of about a meter, to be sure, and the little girl identified Bella again.

“Gisultihan man ni judge ang witness sa pagsulti sa tinuod kay kon dili, magpriso siya og tawo nga walay sala (The judge told the witness to tell the truth; otherwise, an innocent person would land in jail),” Renante said.

Santos used to have straight waist-length hair. She cut it short and had a tattoo artist apply elaborate tattoos on her legs during an almost three-month period wherein she evaded an arrest warrant, till her arrest in Metro Manila last Oct. 7.

Prosecution and defense lawyers were tightlipped about the child’s testimony after the hearing yesterday.

Assistant City Prosecutor Petronio Elesterio said the judge advised them not to discuss the “merits of the case” in the media so as not to jeopardize the court proceedings.

Defense lawyer Rameses Villagonzalo seemed not worried at all after the hearing.

“If nakulatahan pa mi karon, magngisi kaha ko og ingon ini? (If we were battered inside the chamber, would I be beaming now?),” Villagonzalo told reporters.

His co-defense counsel Julius Caesar Entice said, “The testimony given by the witness was not at all damaging to us. In fact, there were several statements made that were favorable to us.”

“We beg to disagree that there was positive identification. I can’t go into the details. All I can say is that the child didn’t positively identify Bella,” he told Cebu Daily News.

“There was hesitation . . . some degree of uncertainty. Her non-verbal gestures would show this,” he said.

“We don’t agree that there was positive identification. If there was identification made, it was far from being a positive one.”

Prosecutors said they plan to present 11 more witnesses against Santos in the motion for bail.

The defense is set to cross-examine the first child witness on Nov. 22.

The 12-year-old girl was described as a “companion” of Ellah Joy on the day she was last seen alive walking outside the school after classes were dismissed in the afternoon of Feb. 8.

On her way home, according to earlier police reports, Ellah Joy accepted a ride from a man and a woman driving a dark sports utility vehicle.

The girl’s body was found the next day, wrapped in a blanket and dumped off a cliff in the town of Barili, over 30 kilometers away.

The motive of the abduction remains a matter of speculation. She wasn’t raped. The cause of death was a blow to the head.

Early police theories indicated Ellah Joy may have been a target of human trafficking or a cybersex ring.

Assistant City Prosecutor Petronio Elesterio, in an interview, said the hour-long proceedings went smoothly.

“There were no heated arguments,” he said.

Elesterio said Santos kept quiet during the hearing. He said the little girl positively identified Santos as the person who abducted Ellah Joy.

The prosecution was represented by Elesterio and lawyer Joan Saniel-Amit of the Children’s Legal Bureau (CLB).

The little girl was accompanied by her parents and a representative from the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Hearings done in the privacy of the judge’s chambers are allowed when the witness is a minor to avoid undue “trauma” and to allow the witness to freely express herself, said Amit in a separate interview.

She said they will ask the court to adopt the same testimonies in the main trial proper.

In the courtroom, about 40 supporters of Santos waited outside the judge’s chambers. They wore white T-shirts that said, “Ian and Bella are Innocent.”

Santos was escorted by guards of the Naga City Jail where she is presently detained. She refused to grant media interviews.

Although Santos is charged with a heinous crime, the 1987 Constitution states that “an accused has the right to bail unless he or she is charged with a capital offense where evidence of guilt is strong.”

Santos and her British partner Ian Charles Griffiths are facing charges of kidnapping with homicide in relation to the death of 6-year-old Ellah Joy.

Santos was arrested last Oct. 7 in Metro Manila.

Griffiths, a 51-year-old accountant, was last seen in the United Kingdom. His name has been posted in the Interpol website’s “red alert list” as being “Wanted by: Philippines.”

The Interpol Red Notice sent earlier to the Cebu police described him as a “Fugitive wanted for prosecution.” /By Ador Vincent Mayol, Reporter

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