An inside job is strongly suspected in yesterday’s discovery of the theft of jewelry adorning the image of Lapu Lapu city’s Nuestra Señora de Regla or Virgin of the Rule.
The loss was staggering: 69 necklaces, 70 rings and 16 bracelets.
The donation box below it was also looted.
The closed-circuit security camera in the national shrine was out of order. There were no signs of forced entry in the church doors. Thieves apparently knew their way inside the building, where the theft was discovered about 3 a.m.
A key opens the glass case of the wooden icon, which is revered by generations of devotees n Opon, the old name of Mactan island.
Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma deplored the looting.
“It is something that we decry and of course we condemn the act,” he told reporters.
“We pray for the conversion of the one who perpetrated the crime.”
He said the jewelry pieces were donations from devotees made over the years as expresssions of love and gratitude to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The burglary took place shortly after the Nov. 21 annual feast day of Mactan’s patroness, represented by the dark-faced, 30-inch icon sculpted out of “tugas” hardwood.
The same image is supposed to join tomorrow’s foot procession of 80 carrozas of various saints headed for the South Road Properties (SRP) for the National Thanksgivng Mass for Saint Pedro Calungsod.
Chief Inspector Christian Torres of the Lapu-Lapu City Police said everybody – including the clergy – was considered suspects at this stage of the inquiry.
He said lie detector tests will be administered for all individuals who have access to the convent.
Fingerprint samples of nine church workers, including church guards, were taken yesterday, said Inspector Atilano Fabilla, leader of the Scene of the Crime Operations team.
He said the samples and the latent prints recovered from the glass case will be sent to the main crime laboratory in Camp Crame in Quezon City for matching.
Police will also question workers who repainted the church’s ceiling before the fiesta last Nov. 20 and 21.
Fr. Agustin Polong, assistant parish priest, said they will cooperate with investigators. The parish priest, Fr Jaime Duero, is in Manila.
Chief Inspector Torres said the total worth of the stolen jewelry, at least 155 pieces, could be P500,00 to P1 million but the official value has yet to be declared.
An inventory to establish the actual loss has to be made by the “camarera”, who is by tradition a pious, well-respected female in the community entrusted with changing the clothes of the religious icon.
In Lapu-lapu City, that privilege belongs to Ida Radaza Rago, sister of Lapu-Lapu Rep. Arturo “Boy” Radaza, a duty handed down from their late mother.
The burglary was discovered past 3 a.m. by Virgilio Camposo, a maintenance worker, who entered the church to prepare for the 5:30 a.m. mass.
He said he saw one of the glass panels encasing the image was already detached and placed two meters away; the Virgin Mary’s crown and veil were in disarray. Then came the shocking discovery: most of the jewelry on the statue were missing.
What was left were three gold rings on the statue’s fingers, a pair of diamond earrings, four jade bracelets on its right hand, and the Virgin’s silver plated crown.
“Natinga nako, nganong nalayo na ang glass door sa iyang case, pag-check nako sa birhen, wana gyud iyang mga alahas, hurot, pati na sa Sto. Nino, wala napud (I was puzzled why the glass door was removed. When checked on the image, the jewelry was gone, including those on the image of the Sto. Niño),” he said.
Camposo alerted security guard Ricardo Loquite and Fr. Polong.
They later found that the donation box under the pedestal of the image was also looted. The large currency notes were taken. Only coins and smaller denomination bills of P50 and P10 were left behind.
The box’s lock was intact, indicating that whoever opened it had the right key. Torn white envelopes for cash donations littered the area.
Church officials could not give an official estimate of the value of the stolen jewelry pieces.
Fr. Polong said they never had the items appraised before by a jeweler. The parish church just accepts the donation as is , not knowing whether the gifts of devotees are genuine or not.
He said the Virgen dela Regla had several “sets” of jewerly that are taken out of storage and worn on different occasions and for different periods.
Chief Inspector Torres, a devotee of the Virgin, said he believes that the stolen items could be worth more than a million pesos. He said one of the missing necklaces alone was worth around P300,000.
An opening in the ceiling of the shrine that goes through the church’s bell tower could have been used by the burglars, said police investigators.
The perpetrators could have also stayed inside the church before the guards closed it for the night.
But security guard Ricardo Loqueto, who was in charge of locking down the shrine, said he made sure that no one was inside when he locked the doors. /Jucell Marie P. Cuyos, Jhunnex Napallacan, Norman V. Mendoza and Fe Marie D. Dumaboc, Correspondents