CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/05 January) — The man accused of killing Father Fausto Tentorio outside his parish convent in Arakan, North Cotabato on October 17 last year denied he was the gunman but admitted he served as lookout.
Corn farmer Jimmy Ato, 35, a resident of Culaman, Arakan,North Cotabato told reporters Wednesday night at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) regional office that he did not shoot the priest.
“Dili ako ang nagpusil. Kaila nako kinsa nagpusil sa pari. Gipabantay lang ko nila sa gawas (I was not the gunman. I know who killed the priest. I only served as the lookout),” Ato said .
Ato pointed to brothers Joe and Dima Sampolna, also residents of Culaman, as the killers of Father Tentorio.
“Didto lang ko sa tindahan sa atubangan sa simbahan nagbantay (I was in a store in front of the Church serving as a lookout,” he said.
Last week, NBI agents tagged Ato as the gunman after he was brought to the NBI regional office here after his arrest in Sitio Iwak-iwak in Culaman, Arakan on December 29.
Atty. Virgilio Mendez , NBI deputy director, said Ato was brought to Cagayan de Oro where he signed a four-page statement in the presence of lawyer Robert Raypon, Vice President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Misamis Oriental chapter.
Mendez said Raypon and Ato’s 20-year old wife, Ritchie and their two children were present when NBI agents questioned the suspect in Cagayan de Oro on Dec. 29.
Ato said he cannot read and write but was appraised by Raypon on the contents of his signed statement.
“My conscience is clear”
“We cannot do anything if he denies he was the gunman although we have witnesses who pointed to seeing him, his brother Robert, and the Sampolna brothers fleeing the convent. Roberto last week sought the help of North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco as he denied involvement in Tentorio’s killing and in the alleged shootout with NBi agents on December 29.
What is important, Mendez said, is that Ato admitted he was in the meeting when the plan to kill Fr. Tentorio was allegedly hatched.
“This is enough to pin the killers and the masterminds. This is important because up to now we only have circumstantial evidence to back our case,” Mendez said.
Mendez said they would file a case next week against the Ato and Sampolna brothers; and the two alleged masterminds for the killing of Father Tentorio.
In his signed statement, Ato named the alleged mastermind as William Buenaflor, a defeated mayoralty candidate in Arakan and Arakan police chief, Senior Insp.Benjamin Rioflorido.
Ato did not cite any motive why Buenaflor and Florido would order the killing of the priest.
Buenaflor could not be reached for comment. But Rioflorido told MindaNews in a telephone interview Thursday night that he had nothing to do with the killing of Fr. Tentorio.
“Malinis ang konsensya ko” (My conscience is clear), Rioflorido said, adding that he requested to be relieved of his post as chief of police on January 2 so investigators can do their work without him around. “Basta wala akong kasalanan” (But I am innocent), he said.
Rioflorido turned over his post as police chief at 2 pm Thursday, he said, adding he will now be based in the provincial headquarters.
“Money from left”
Ato, who could not cite a motive why the priest was ordered killed, later told reporters that it may be because “he received money from the left.”
“Sige man dawat og kwarta gikan sa pikas (He always received money from the left),” Ato said.
Ato said he was given P1,500 after the Sampolna brothers allegedly killed Tentorio. The money was also intended for him to shut up, he said.
“Ila kong gisultihan ako isunod og patay kung magsaba ako. Mao nang nahadlok ko (They told me I will be the next to die if I will talk. I was scared of the threat,” he said.
Ato said he is asking the NBI not to return him to Cotabato and allow him and his family to stay at the NBI regional office here.
A member of the Teduray tribe, Ato hails from Upi, Maguindanao province but transferred to Arakan when he was 20-years old. His family owns 20 hectares of land in Arakan.
Before he transferred to Arakan, Ato got embroiled in a family squabble where he was named respondent of an arson case for the burning of a family member’s house in Upi.
A warrant of arrest was issued against Ato by the Regional Trial Court branch 13 in Cotabato City for the arson case. This was the warrant that the NBI agents used in arresting Ato in Culaman on Dec. 29.
Mendez said Ato is a known neighborhood toughie in Arakan and had figured in several brushes with the law in the past.
Ato claimed knowing Fr. Tentorio. He said he even attended several masses celebrated by the missionary at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish Church in Arakan.
“Ako nadunggan nga bootan daw ni si Padre (I heard the priest was a good man),” Ato said.
Ato said he was selling his corn produce in Arakan when he was called by the Sampolna brothers to a meeting in the house of Buenaflor.
In his statement, Ato said Buenaflor and Rioflorido were in the meeting where details of the plan to kill the priest was bared. He said the meeting took place days before the murder was committed.
“Wala ko mosugot nga moapil ko sa plano. Naa ko’y mga anak og dili nako i-sakripisyo ang ilang kaugmaon (I refused to take part in their plan. I was thinking of my children and I do not want to sacrifice their future)” he said.
Ato said the Sampolna brothers agreed that he would not take part in the killing but they tasked him to be the lookout when they enter the parish compound to kill the priest.
Fearing for his life, Ato said he agreed. On the day that Fr. Tentorio was killed, Ato said he sat in a store in front of the parish and served as a lookout.
Ato said he acted alone and cleared his brother, Robert, of any wrongdoing.
“Nakita nako sila Sampolna brothers niabot sakay sa motor. Niadto dayon sila sa sulod. Puro wala magtangtang og ilang helmet (I saw the Sampolna brothers arrive on a motorcycle. They immediately went inside. They were wearing motorcycle helmets) Ato narrated to reporters.
He said he heard several gunshots and saw the suspects ran back toward their motorcycle and left. Ato said he stayed awhile for awhile but later also walked away.
NBI agents said several witnesses attested seeing two motorcycles, a black Yamaha DT motorcycle and a Honda XRM motorcycle, leaving the area after gunshots were heard. (Froilan Gallardo with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)