The Percy Lapid Case:  ‘On the Job’s’ Macabre Premise Realized

THE INVOLVEMENT of several inmates and some still unnamed prison officials in the killing of journalist Percy Lapid recalls what was presented as fiction in the film franchise “On the Job (OTJ)” by Filipino director Erik Matti. The  two productions involved prisoners who were temporarily released from jail to work as contract killers in behalf of high-ranking government officials. Although it was based on a convict’s experience, the film was mainly a dramatization, an artistic work. 

“OTJ,” was first released in 2013 followed by the sequel “On the Job: The Missing 8”, released as a film mini-series in 2021, which will be the Philippine’s entry to the 2023 Academy Awards. 

Any similarity to real incidents is pure coincidence. Or is it?

Media reports on the killing of journalists have mainly relied on information from police blotters, as they do in reporting other crimes. 

Since 1986, CMFR has recorded 176 journalists killed for their work in the Philippines. Of this number, at least 19 cases had convictions — 50 if the 31 cases in the Ampatuan Massacre are included. Only three in the 19 cases had the masterminds been tried: those of Herson Hinolan (killed 15 November 2004), Marlene Esperat (killed 24 March 2005) and Gerry Ortega (killed 24 January 2011). Only in Hinolan’s was the mastermind convicted but the case was reduced to homicide from murder.

So far, references to Erik Matti’s work have been limited only in online exchanges among those who recalled its similarities to what is going on. No police officers have volunteered information related to the pattern so artfully dramatized in “OTJ.” No reporters have dared ask police sources about the use of convicts  as hitmen. 

In an interview in 2013, Matti said that the story was based on the accounts of an ex-convict who was tasked to carry out an execution. But Matti’s lead did not cause any journalist to investigate whether Matti’s art was faithful to the reality underground.  Despite Matti’s claim, neither the media nor any government agency has taken the lead to investigate and check evidence of the practice. 

Matti’s sequel mini-series came even closer to projecting real life characters. Like Lapid, the journalist targeted for a contract killing was a vocal critic of a government official — in the film, a corrupt town mayor. When the series was shown in 2021, critical journalists were already the subject of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign to demonize the independent press.  

The circumstantial resemblance of Lapid’s case was obvious to those familiar with Matti’s films. It is not rare for a speculative art form to reflect reality or for life to imitate art. 

But whether in art or in real life, the stories of violence against hard-hitting journalists have mostly gone unchecked and un-examined. Such real life stories can only be expected to happen again and again. 

The unfolding story of Percy Lapid’s murder 

On 3 October 2022, motorcycle riding men shot and killed veteran radio anchor Lapid in Las Pinas, Metro Manila. Lapid, whose real name is Percival Mabasa, was on his way home to do an online broadcast for his radio program at around 8:30 p.m. when he was gunned down. 

Lapid was a prominent media personality, whose commentaries on politics and social issues had gained a strong following since 2019.  His regular program, “Lapid Fire” on dwBL 1242 with simulcast on social media had at least 225,000 subscribers in Youtube. Lapid being one of the few journalists killed in Metro Manila, his murder prompted national media attention and quick investigation.

On October 18, Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos presented in a press briefing the alleged gunman Joel Escorial, who claimed that a contact inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) gave the order to kill Lapid. The contact, who was referred to as the “middleman” by Abalos, was identified as a certain Jun Villamor.

Escorial claimed that six of them were involved in the murder. The team received a total of PHP550,000 for the work. Escorial named three of his alleged accomplices as Edmon Dimaculangan, Israel Dimaculangan, and a certain “Orly” or “Orlando.”

All three remain at-large.

Villamor, the “middleman,” whose real name is Cristito Villamor Palaña, died inside the national penitentiary hours after Escorial was presented to the media. This was revealed by Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla only on October 20, two days after his death. 

According to the autopsy  by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Villamor died of natural causes in his cell. A second autopsy by Forensic expert Raquel Fortun concluded on October 29 that the inmate had died of suffocation. 

Also on October 20, PGen. Kirby Kraft, chief of the Southern Police District, revealed in a news briefing that there were actually two middlemen, identifying Christopher Bacoto who was at the time detained in a facility under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). He said they had secured the suspect for investigation.

On October 24,  Villamor’s siblings told the police that their brother texted them the identification of the mastermind in anticipation of his death while in detention. According to Villamor’s sister, alias “Marissa,” Villamor told her that the command to kill Lapid came from the “office” which she referred to as the NBP. She further said that three “commanders” who go by the aliases “Sputnik,” “Happy Go Lucky,” and “BCJ” directed the killing of the broadcaster.

The siblings are now under the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice (DOJ). And the police in several interviews told the media that several persons of interest were already under their watch.

As of October 28, the police claimed that they already had the name of the mastermind and that at least eight persons tagged in the Lapid case are now all secured under the custody of authorities. The police are closely watching 160 persons of interest.

On November 3, three inmates submitted a sworn statement to the NBI and confessed their involvement in the killing. According to one of their affidavits, the inmates were informed of the “project” early in September. They were directed by a certain “Tanda,” who said the order was from a high official.  

Another affidavit signed by an inmate said the team had to fund the killing, and he had no choice but to follow the orders for fear of retaliation. He also said that this has been an ongoing practice in the NBP.

In another  affidavit, a gang commander provided information about another commander’s telling him that they would all be endorsed for clemency once the project was accomplished. He said one of his members engaged Villamor to contract the gunmen. 

An inmate  confessed to having been directed to kill Villamor and confirmed Fortun’s autopsy that a plastic bag was used to suffocate the middleman. 

Lapid’s murder and the OTJ playbook

On October 27, Christian Esguerra interviewed Matti on his online show, Facts First, about the film’s entry to the Oscars. Esguerra asked the director to comment on the film being compared to the journalist’s killing.

Matti shared that it was a case of “life imitating art, art imitating life.” Matti then mapped out the backbone of the OTJ films.

Based on their research for the film, a killing plot starts when a mastermind contacts the middleman for a hit. The middleman will then contact his connection in the NBP to tip the prisoners who’ll do the killing. These prisoners are temporarily set free to do the contract with the help of the middleman. The middleman usually works outside of prison. Matti said that the persons between the mastermind and the hired killers are called “stoppers.” They are strategically placed  between the instigator and the contract killers so in case the latter are caught, it would still be hard to identify the mastermind.

Esguerra pointed out that the middlemen in Lapid’s case were the “stoppers.”

The five-minute discussion revealed the similarities and differences in the film and the case of Lapid’s murder now being investigated. The middlemen in Lapid’s case were working from inside prison, and the gunman was a childhood friend while the accomplices were members of one of the gangs contracted to do the deed. Several inmates, especially those in gangs, were involved in planning the killing. NBP officers were allegedly the ones who ordered the killing. The mastermind, as in almost all journalists’ killings, has yet to be identified.

A plot to kill is intentionally meant to work like a maze with multiple endpoints meant to draw investigators away from the mastermind. 

In Lapid’s case, the case could have come to a dead end had Villamor failed to message his siblings or had Bacobo, like Villamor, been silenced as well. The involvement of several inmates has thickened the plot.

As in most cases of journalists’  killings in the country, only the gunmen are arrested and prosecuted, and often, with little success as witnesses are often not secured with enough protection.

A realization of a macabre plot

Matti’s films opened up the reality of the involvement of state institutions in extrajudicial killings. Previously unknown to the public except as film drama, the system was unfolded right before everyone’s eyes by the police themselves. There may have been slight differences in the involvement of characters between the films’ and Lapid’s case. But there can be no denying the stark similarities.

In the ending of both OTJ films, the hired convicts turned against each other, thus preventing the use of any measure to address the fundamental system. It could have been another Matti’s direction to hint that the same things will continue to happen.

In Lapid’s case, the inmates are turning against the system by cooperating with the investigators. In several interviews, police sources  have insisted  that the investigation is nearing its resolution. The identification of masterminds and the filing of charges against them will be a step closer to a hopeful and restorative ending for this case.

Media should closely follow the unfolding of the case, engaging the public as a vigilant watchdog of justice, not just for Lapid but for all victims of a cruel and unjust system.