Alleged gunman of Italian missionary nabbed

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/29 Dec) – Posing as mining prospectors, National Bureau of Investigation agents went to a hinterland village in Arakan, North Cotabato and arrested this morning the alleged gunman of Italian missionary priest Fausto Tentorio.

A brief gunfight ensued after companions of suspect Jimmy Ato fired at the NBI operations as they were bringing him down to the highway.

Military reports said the arrest was made in Sitio Iwak-iwak, Barangay Kulaman Valley in Arakan.

Atty. Virgilio Mendez, NBI deputy director, said not one of his agents was hurt and they were able to successfully bring Ato all the way to the NBI regional office in Cagayan de Oro City.

Mendez said investigators are getting a signed statement from Ato on how he and his cohorts allegedly plan to kill the Italian missionary.

“Ato is spilling the beans. He has named almost all the personalities involved in the murder of Fr. Tentorio,” Mendez said.

Mendez said Ato’s accomplice, his younger brother Robert, eluded arrest and was believed to be responsible for firing shots at the NBI team as they went down the mountain.

He said Ato came with his father, wife and two young children. The Ato family was all brought to the NBI office in Cagayan de Oro.

Mendez said initial questioning on Ato revealed that the motive on Tentorio’s killing was “about the environment and small town politics.”

He said Ato confessed that a tribal elder summoned him and his brother to a meeting where they planned the killing a week earlier. Fr. Tentorio was murdered as he was about to leave the convent in Arakan town last Oct. 17.

Mendez said there were “three important personalities” in the meeting. He declined to name them but said the masterminds hired two more gunmen aside from the Ato brothers.

“Beside the participation of the lumad elders, we suspect there is a political personality involved. There is also some participation from the military,” he said.

But the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command, in a text message to MindaNews, denied military involvement.

Lt. Gen. Arthur Tabaquero, EastMinCom commander, was quoted as saying: “Ako ay hindi kailanman nagduda sa aking mga sundalo at naniniwala na walang kinalaman ang AFP Campaign Plan Bayanihan sa pagpaslang kay Fr. Pops Tentorio. Hayaan natin na tapusin ng  NBI ang kanilang trabaho para matukoy at maisakdal ang mga utak sa pagpaslang kay Fr. Pops.” (Never had I doubted my soldiers, and I believe that the AFP Campaign Plan Bayanihan had nothing to do with the killing of Fr. Pops Tentorio. Let us allow the NBI to finish its job so they can identify and charge the masterminds behind the killing.)

Mendez described Ato as a simple farmer from the Tiruray tribe who follows instructions from their tribal elders.

“He was paid only P1,500 to kill the priest. When he finished the deed, he was overheard saying he can’t imagine that it was too easy to kill a priest,” Mendez said.

Mendez said they knew of Ato’s involvement after NBI covertly sent teams of civilian spies to listen to what the community was talking about regarding the priest’s murder.

“Some posed as vendors, others as miners looking for gold,” he said.

Mendez said the group posing as miners hit dirt and soon and elaborate plan to get Ato was planned.

He said they will secure several search warrants to get the two motorcycles used by the killers and most importantly, the 9mm pistol murder weapon. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)