A key witness in the slaying of a priest from Chicago has been shot and killed in a remote mountain village before he could testify, friends and attorneys say.
The slaying of the witness is only the latest in a series of incidents that raise questions about possible military involvement in the April 7 murder of Rev. Carl Schmitz, a Roman Catholic missionary.
A self-professed military informant has been charged with the priest`s death and is standing trial in this provincial capital on Mindanao Island, 1,000 miles south of Manila.
However, there is growing suspicion that the suspect, a longtime friend of the victim`s, may have been working either for military leaders or business interests who wanted the priest killed for various reasons.
”There is evidence, though circumstantial, that points out the fact that there are people behind the killing,” said Rev. Roberto Wapan o, new director of the mission that Father Schmitz ran in the mountains on the island of Mindanao.
”Who these people are we can only guess. (But) the kind of work Father Carl was into brought him always in collision with the loggers, both legal and illegal, and the military.”
The most significant circumstantial evidence hinting at a possible cover- up or conspiracy in the priest`s death was the mysterious killing several weeks ago of Calutong Hollero, a potential key witness.
Friends said Hollero was eating supper with his wife and children at their home in the mountain village of Bulol on Aug. 23 when a gunman burst in and shot him to death. The gunman escaped.
Bulol is a remote village of 3,058 people in the rugged Roxas Mountains. Everyone in the village knows one another and there is only one steep, narrow trail into the community. It is hard for a stranger to walk in or out unnoticed.
Relatives said Hollero planned to testify that Saguin Munday, the man accused of killing Father Schmitz, told him several hours before the shooting that he was going to kill the priest. That testimony, if presented, would have been crucial.
Munday has admitted killing Father Schmitz, but says he only did so in a rage after the priest struck him during an argument. His attorney is expected to argue a case of self-defense.
The trial is being conducted several days at a time between several weeks of recesses. Three days of hearings were held last week.
Prosecutors say they expect to wrap up their case during the session scheduled for Oct. 3-5, and the defense could begin presenting witnesses when the trial resumes again Nov. 22-24.
On-again, off-again trials are the rule rather than the exception in the Philippines, where it sometimes takes 10 years for a case to reach court and often takes five years for hearings to end.
Father Schmitz`s case, however, is receiving special treatment. President Corazon Aquino, a devote Roman Catholic, had her Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case. And a United States consular officer has attended at least part of every session since the trial began in June.
The murdered missionary`s work brought him into direct conflict with many important figures in the region, including some in the military, which often encompasses both the regular armed forces and the paramilitary Philippine Constabulary.
In many rural areas, Philippine Constabulary soldiers wield incredible influence. And their commanders often receive kickbacks or openly control illegal syndicates that bring in staggering amounts of money from gambling, logging or cattle-rustling.
Fourteen months before his death, Father Schmitz told The Tribune in an interview that he was spending much of his time trying to protect his people from what he called ”the unscrupulous masterminds” controlling a troublesome cattle-rustling syndicate.
He never linked those ”masterminds” to the military. He did say, though, that his relations with local military commanders had been strained for some time because they thought he was helping rebels of the Communist New People`s Army-a charge his friends, family and parishioners vehemently deny.
The military has denied any involvement in Father Schmitz`s killing, but church officials and local residents point to a number of curious
developments, besides the shooting of Hollero, that raise suspicion.
Munday had long claimed to be a close friend of the constabulary commander`s and often bragged about being a military informant. Friends say he parlayed these connections into a job as the go-between for illegal logging operators who wanted military protection.
The night of the priest`s killing, Munday demanded to be taken to the commander. He remained in constabulary custody, not in police custody, and soldiers conducted the investigation.
In the days following, constabulary officials issued several press releases about the killing, including one that claimed Munday shot Father Schmitz after the priest struck him during an argument. Witnesses at the trial have denied the priest hit Munday or was even close enough to touch him during the fatal argument.
Munday has been represented by one of highest priced attorneys in Mindanao, Nelo Flaviano, a fiery, gun-toting barrister who admitted in private conversations with friends that he is being paid by the military.