Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unexpected Death

Unexpected death has always been a part of this place, but lately it’s become decidedly murderous. In fact, to those of us expats trying to quietly live our lives here in “The City of Angels,” potential violence seems to be swirling around us like never before. The latest spate of killing has left many of us permanent party members shaken, feeling insecure, vulnerable and unprotected.

This month alone there have been three multiple killing murders, all taking place within the dwellings of each of the murdered foreigners: First, a Canadian man and his Filipina girlfriend were killed in their home in the Oasis compound, followed last week by a Brit and his girlfriend in their apartment in Santa Maria 2, and just the other day a retired American air force veteran along with four members of his household were executed in his residence over in Hensonville Court. All these homes are in supposedly gated and guarded subdivisions.

I’m not whining about this. After all, with a six-inch scar on the left side of my chest, where 24 years ago I was slashed open by the business end of a butterfly knife during a mugging attempt by three thugs, I SHOULD know better. I was lucky to survive that attack; the cut was meant for my throat; so believe me, I KNOW personally how dangerous this town can be. We live here at our own risk; we ALL know that. It’s always had the reputation of being a Wild West town, a rep that it continues to live up to. A place where the “have nots” come to take from “the haves,” IF they can. Yet, we all hope that civil progress will eventually permeate and make us less of a target… a pipe dream?

Complacency! Part of the problem is that the trappings of civilization are all around us—nice malls, grocery stores, cafes and restaurants, and plenty of really sweet friendly people. It makes us forget the dangers. On that note, speaking to a tourist at the gym yesterday, an American, he was shocked to find out how quickly violence can be visited upon those not watchful. I related a few of the stories of what’s happened here in the years I’ve lived here and he was aghast, in complete disbelief.

NO ONE LOOKS dangerous you see. Back home, dangerous people LOOK dangerous. Not so here. An armed robber is likely to be an average clean-cut fellow in ordinary attire. Even back in the 80s, the fellows who attacked me looked as innocuous as everyone else. In seconds I was surrounded; without a word spoken, a knife came at me in a sweeping arc from the guy charging into my 11 o’clock. I moved to escape, and instead of my throat, he slashed the skin open just above my heart. I was in and out of the situation in 10 seconds, absolutely delighted to be alive. Indeed, I NEVER felt SO alive when I finally slowed to a walk some 200 yards from the scene of the attack and could finally assess the state of the booboo on my chest.

As we are continually unpleasantly reminded, violence potentially lurks around every corner. This town is a magnet for thugs, thieves and ne’er-do-wells from all over the archipelago. Although, perhaps many don’t start out that way; maybe they come with the best intentions, hoping to find work, only to learn that being jobless is even worse in a strange place with no family off of which to sponge. Most of these desperados resort to simple theft, but desperation, drugs, even drunkenness possibly, all can lead to much worse; something true the world over.

The Grapevine. When foreigners are killed or die in these parts we learn of their passing mostly by way of the expat grapevine, an informal network of communication that “gets the word out.” It’s a system that has become all the more effective with the instantaneous nature of Facebook, email, texting and messaging. And of course we have Harry the Horse, who does a great job of providing “the official word” from the local police, the mayor and from many other of his “personal sources.” Between all of it, both official and ad hoc, we probably have access to MUCH of the truth; although often, many of just put two and two together to arrive at an alternate version of it.

The amazing thing to me is that even with this efficient impromptu communication system, many of us never hear of some of the horrors that have taken place. For instance, the British chap and his girlfriend were killed a stone’s throw from where I now sit, yet until I finally read about it from Harry I appeared to be THE only person within my communication loop that had even second hand knowledge of their demise.

In another murder from last year, when “the crazy American guy” (that’s what we all called him due to his continuously aggressive manic state) bled out at the spot where he finally dropped on Fields Avenue at the entrance of the 7-11, the rumors of exactly how and why he was killed were significantly different from what was reported. What to believe? I spoke to a girl at my gym that personally saw the doomed American staggering away from the man chasing him who she said repeatedly stabbed the pitiful fleeing fellow. My God, I have nightmares resembling what happened to that guy who died in the street literally like a stuck pig.

I probably shouldn’t do it, but I shudder recounting the stories of people killed over the years. The tales of foreigners found trussed and hacked, stabbed or bludgeoned to death in their own homes are legion—seems like a new one pops up every few months or so. A few years ago I attended the quiet burial of a retired marine who was literally buried in a sack; his dismembered body had been found in their home by his wife. (Strangely enough, his wife did not attend the internment). To be fair to Angeles though, he had been killed in a town about an hour away from here. Just the same, we residents become hardened to the parade of gruesome murders and convince ourselves that it could NEVER happen to us.

One way we harden ourselves to it is to talk about these unfortunates in ways that lead us to the conclusion that they died due to their own stupidity. We tell ourselves, ‘THAT could NEVER happen to ME. That German guy was an ass; he was asking for it.’ Or, ‘that Swiss fellow always brought home a veritable parade of bar girls to his house, no WONDER he was killed.’ We ALWAYS do that—always. I try not to, but heaven help me, even I do it. I suppose it’s a way to maintain sanity, to keep from being overwhelmed by fear.

But I also try to make the personal knowledge of the details of each killing useful. To me, finding out the specifics of all the grisly deaths provides valuable lessons of what to do and what to avoid. And actually, all the latest discussion of how three foreign men could allow themselves to be shot to death in their own homes has brought to light a few beneficial reminders of bad stuff that has happened in my OWN home that COULD have led to similar deathly disaster.

Case in point, Divine reminded me today of the time a few weeks back when two men showed up at our gate on a motorcycle claiming that I had sent them to work on our air conditioners. Smart girl my fiancée, this prompted her to call to me at the office. I was with a client and told her distractedly that I had no idea what she was talking about. Thinking it merely a mistake, she sent them away. I only dimly remember the phone call but in talking about it today I asked her why she hadn’t called subdivision security. She says now, in light of the latest epidemic of killings that she should have. If those two men had been able to gain access to our house, who KNOWS what awful things might have happened. Read on…

In trying to figure out how a lone gunman, if indeed there was only one, could kill five grown people with such apparent ease, check out this scenario, one perhaps very similar to what COULD have happened on that day when the two bogus repairmen showed up at our place:

Once the criminal is in the house he brings out the hidden weapon and trains it on one person. I asked Divine hypothetically what she would do if a man got in and held a gun to the head of one or her daughters. Naturally, she said she would do whatever she was asked to save the life of her girl, whether it means handing over money, or even going to the bank to get some.

Here’s the problem with that sort of compliance; once the robber/ransomer gets what he wants he will be compelled to kill everyone in the house to protect his identity. He knows with no witnesses left behind that the police will not likely figure out who did the killing, and even if they do “solve it,” with enough money and negotiation he may well beat the rap and possibly be released in relatively short order (there is no death penalty to worry about). And understand this; the police routinely will not do much more than a cursory investigation unless someone pays for “the costs of it.” And remember, if one side is willing to pay for an investigation, someone else may well pay to counter it.

The justice system can be a strange quirky animal to those of us from other hemispheres and continents. Many times, in the event of a murder, justice is more a question of negotiations between three parties: the defendant’s family, the family of the victim, and the government prosecution team. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; I’m just describing how it CAN operate. For the most part, locals seem satisfied with this system of give and take, which in actuality is completely outside of written code. The benefits are: The bereaved family gets some compensation, while the offender’s family gets their loved one back. Little of it sits well with victimized outsiders, but they can choose to live somewhere else if they don’t like it.

So, in hindsight, that phone call from my fiancée may well have saved the lives of everyone in the house. Thing is, on occasion we DO have workers in our home, as do LOTS of people for many perfectly valid reasons. In fact, the man who killed the five people is said to be a computer technician; and I’ve seen a purported picture of the guy—he is a handsome young fellow with a winning smile—in the photo he’s tenderly holding a little baby, perhaps his own child. At first glance, I would probably let this guy in my house all day long if he came recommended to fix my computer or to install a new appliance. A beguiling man like that, intent on theft and murder, only needs to get INSIDE the door. Once he pulls a gun and has it trained on a loved one, he’s got you and he’s got everyone in the house and it really wouldn’t matter if you have a gun or not.
Thinking along preemptive lines, I’ve already instructed my people to inform the subdivision’s security guards whenever we have to have unknown delivery or repair people in the house. We will ask the guards to note the men for later identification purposes. Perhaps that will give them second thoughts of carrying out a theft/murder. The problem in the case of the killer computer repairman though is that he was probably already known and trusted by the household. The police have labeled him psychotic, although the better description would probably be psychopathic or sociopathic.

Thing is, unanticipated death reaches out to expats and locals alike. A few months ago my fiancée got off the phone after an animated conversation and told me that her cousin’s body had just been found in a nearby town. She said the left arm of his corpse was horribly mangled and missing below the elbow, as if blown off by an explosion. That was the initial story with more bits of info to come.

Over the days and weeks, more information slowly trickled out as to the state of his mutilated body. Keep in mind though, if I hadn’t continually probed I would not have been told much of anything. THAT is the way of it here. MOST folks do NOT ask questions; they know it’s not safe, that no good can come from knowing anyway. If ONLY I could keep to that advice!

The next time I asked for the latest on her cousin’s death she told me that the investigators counted over 50 bullet holes in him. What! Seems like something like that would have been immediately apparent; then again, there was so much gore and mayhem that perhaps the presence of some little bullet holes weren’t all that apparent until after all the blood and mud had been hosed off. Who knows? I DO know this though; the death, as sensational as it was, NEVER made it into the news! In fact, I asked every local and expat I happened across and NO ONE has ever heard of the shocking killing. How could this be NOT newsworthy? (In this purview THAT is a rhetorical question ONLY!)

But as for me, I HUNGERED for news. I pestered my fiancée with question after question, trying to find out WHY? Why did this quiet young man in his early 30s die so horribly? Who could possibly be THAT mad at him? What did he do to deserve such a thing? No one kills with that sort of brutality unless trying to make an example, or perhaps, out of supercharged passionate anger.

With that in mind, did he have a lover? Yes, he had two of them; in fact, both of these ladies were at the funeral and grieved right next to his widow. What!

(That’s another one for my “ONLY in the Philippines” list!)

Okay, did any of these ladies have a husband or a jealous boyfriend? Nope, apparently not; there was no love triangle that anyone knew about, and if there HAD been a resentful third (or fourth party) then the involved mistress(es) would have let THAT cat out of the bag—no doubt about it.

He was killed at night, apparently bushwhacked driving his motor trike on a back road. Was it a mugging then? No, he still had his wallet and it was undisturbed. It MUST be concluded then that he was purposefully targeted and probably by more than one assailant. Fifty some bullet holes mean probably at least three or more assassins took part. Look carefully at the dead man’s face through the casket viewing window and a bullet hole depression can be seen in the lip, even through the makeup and plaster. The man was riddled.

On that note, was he involved with drugs? No, he was a loving father with small children and had a good job doing fabrication and construction as a master welder. He had no reason to dabble in such things. He didn’t sell drugs and he didn’t take them.

Was he involved in politics? Ahhhh. NOW there was no definite answer. It was a resounding “I don’t know, maybe?” He was known to carry around explosives in the form of “fireworks” for “protection,” and he WAS killed in a time leading up to the elections. Hmmm.

But WHAT! Who carries fireworks for protection? No way. And was his arm blown off from his own explosives? No answer. In fact there never will be an answer. And truthfully, not even the family wants to know. They just want the horrible memory to fade away. In these parts, finding out bad things can be far worse than knowing—how peculiarly un-American—WE MUST KNOW; it’s in our DNA. Folks here on the other hand, seem to be able to shrug off such things and not lose much sleep. Amazing.

Ah, but here’s an interesting cultural oddity that I was fortunate enough to learn about due to this unexplained killing. The family placed three chicks atop the dead man’s coffin where they busily chirped and scratched away throughout the death vigil. The purpose of such a weird practice?—by tradition the chirping chicks provide comfort to the spirit of a person killed too soon in life, perhaps unjustly, where the killer is never expected to be brought to justice. Strange; right?

At this point, I don’t even want to know anymore why the guy was killed. I liked him, he enjoyed coming here on occasion and sitting up in my tower among my fruit trees, but I don’t care enough to put my own life at risk to find out the answers to all these mysteries. His own immediate family has accepted his ghastly passing with nary a mutter so who am I to question it? I shrug it off as they have. For them, it’s all about survival and finances. It would probably be dangerous to pursue answers; and besides, they can’t afford to pay the costs of funding such a thing anyway. Justice does not come free. I couldn’t live like that, but I’m not them.

The ONLY reason I bring up his strange demise anyway is to make the point of how violence can rear its ugly head like a deadly game of whack-a-mo for both foreigner and Filipino alike. Pop! Pop! POP! We all just hope it’s not OUR head that gets whacked, because whether we want to admit it or not, while we live here, we ARE in the game.


Ed said...

Among the many Fil-am couples I have met over here in the states, I have heard a few of them say a time or two that they wish to retire to the Philippines someday. But oddly enough, most of us who have been over there enough, don't express that desire. I know I don't, mostly because I can't stand the crowds and the smell, but partly because of this very reason. With a nation as corrupt as the Philippines, there really isn't any such thing as security.

PhilippinesPhil said...

As you know Ed, the longsuffering women that come from this place are some of the most loving wonderful ladies anywhere. I've found mine and now we seek to make our escape. Its just a question of winding our way through two very difficult bureaucratic systems, one Filipino and the other American. Pray for us.

Ed said...

I wish you luck. Your journey should be a bit easier than mine. Back when we were going through the visa process, Bush was in office, 9/11 just happened, and it was a nightmare. People with ten year multiple entry visas were getting denied left and right for renewal. Over the years, my MIL and other relatives tried getting visas but were always denied due to lack of evidence that they were a flight risk once over here. Suddenly when Obama got in office, every single one of them now has a ten year multiple entry visa and several of them have no jobs, no money and no ties to the Philippines. The only sense I can make is someone in Obama's administration, or he himself, loosened up the immigration strings. I have mixed emotions about it because it does benefit me but will most likely cost me more tax dollars in the long run.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Really? THAT is VERY good to hear. These things run cyclic though; so I just hope I get my feet in the visa door before they tighten the screws again. Please God!

justkyut said...

I'm sorry about the death of your finacee's cousin.. Thank you for sharing this story from now on I'll keep out of Fields Ave. during night time... But don't you think the fast arrest of the murderer (Dizon) is a fast response of the local authorities?

PhilippinesPhil said...

I am very pleased with the apprehension of Dizon. I sent a note of congratulation and thanks to the mayor telling him exactly that. It was a fine job.