Thursday, March 15, 2012

The original 'hamog' boys

April 1, 1996, would have been just another necklace day for Teddy Bernardo and Cesar Rivera, an unlucky day for a pedestrian suddenly separated from her neck adornment. But that day the two teenagers wanted to try something else.

They decided to go to SM City in Quezon City, a stone’s throw away from the San Roque slums where they lived. It was close to noon when they spotted 14-year-old Oliver Ang, a scholar at the nearby Philippine Science High School, paying for his meal at Wendy’s. He was alone.

“We were not inside Wendy’s,” recalled one of the two boys when I interviewed them at the Quezon City jail. “We were outside watching him through the glass panel.” When Oliver stepped out, Cesar and Teddy walked close to him. Cesar was beside Oliver, Teddy was slightly behind. Cesar put his arm around Oliver’s shoulders. “Nakaakbay,” he said.
Cesar and Teddy had bladed weapons, slightly hidden but sharp enough for Oliver to feel. The three barely spoke and passed other people without calling attention. No one noticed that a boy was being held up. No one noticed that the boy at the center looked different, that he looked every inch a school boy.
“We were not wearing rugged clothes,” Cesar said, “but we were wearing slippers, alpombra.” People failed to notice that something was wrong.

Taking Oliver some distance away from where they got him was not difficult. Cesar and Teddy described to me the route they took (which I would later walk through so I could picture how it all happened). From Wendy’s they walked across the front of SM then crossed North Avenue (near the Edsa intersection which had traffic lights at that time) to the bus stop. (That SM wing where Wendy’s was located has since given way to a much bigger SM annex.)

The three crossed Edsa and went toward the old Paramount Theater (where Radio Veritas is now) then turned left until they reached a messenger services branch. That strip, which was slightly across from the San Roque slums, was somewhat deserted because there were no bus stops there at that time.

This was where Cesar and Teddy forced Oliver to hand over his money. When he put up a fight, Cesar and Teddy stabbed him. One of them had an ice pick, the other a beinte nueve (a size-29 fan knife).

Cesar remembered plunging his weapon twice into Oliver. “We later learned that he had six stab wounds,” he told me, “and one was close to the heart.” Oliver was left bleeding on the pavement and died almost instantly. The two confessed killers said they threw their bladed weapons into a canal, split their earnings, called it a day, and went their separate ways.

It was murder at high noon. It took the cops only two days to find Cesar and Teddy who then tearfully confessed to the crime on live TV.

I wrote a long two-part front-page series on the two young offenders, aged 16 and 20 at that time, their growing-up years, their families and the place where they lived. How they killed, why they killed. When I met them, both were wearing T-shirts marked with the words “Compliments of the Guillotine Club.”

Cesar told me that he realized the gravity of what happened when the effect of the drugs they used had worn off. So, did they remember anything? I asked. Was Oliver’s body soft? Did the weapons go in softly, slowly? Did they hear Oliver plead, moan, cry? Did they see the look on his face? Did they see the blood? Did they look around before they ran away?

I tracked down the mothers of Teddy and Cesar in the San Roque slums, a filthy, congested, overpopulated place that is still there today. Finding the two boys’ “homes” was a feat and getting their mothers to speak was a challenge. I wanted to find out how the murderous streak developed, how San Roque spawned boys who would kill a young, bright scholar who was just having lunch.

San Roque is not an easy place to enter. If not for the residents’ help, I wouldn’t have found my way out of there.

Unlike many urban slum areas, San Roque is right smack in the middle of a sprawling business district where shopping malls, condominiums and commercial buildings continue to rise. Many times the squatter colony faced the threat of demolition, and every time the residents put up a fight.

In 1996, a “no names, no photographs” policy on minor offenders was not yet in place. So here I am now, looking at Teddy and Cesar’s photo on the Inquirer front page, wondering where they are, how they are. I surely want to meet them again after they have served their sentence. Teddy, being a minor then, must have been sent to youth rehab.

I am also looking at the school photo of Oliver Ang, which the Inquirer used. He was an only child. Sixteen years after his death, how is his family? I remember his father, so overcome with grief, speaking of his son, so brilliant and so promising. Oliver was a math wiz. He would have been 30 years old now, perhaps a Pinoy Steven Hawking in the making.

I bring up this story, 16 years after it happened, because of the recent disturbing incidents on Edsa which involved the so-called “batang hamog” who figured in windshield-smashing, snatching and other petty crimes against commuters and drivers. They are not pure like the morning dew, as the moniker might suggest. The perpetrators are getting younger and getting away with their crimes because of their age. The enraged, helpless victims who strike back have to face the human rights commission for child abuse.

On rainy days, they clamber up the hoods of vehicles to clean windshields. They peek through the glass window to check out the insides of your vehicle. You have to make sure your doors are locked and your valuables are out of sight.