EIGHT years after he was convicted of killing his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo, cult leader and former Dinagat Islands congressman Ruben Ecleo Jr. was arrested in a Central Luzon city on Thursday, July 30, 2020.
However, the arrest of Ecleo—the supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA)—was based on the warrant of arrest issued by the First Division of Sandiganbayan for his conviction of graft and corruption charges.
Ecleo, 65, was reportedly on his way to join his friends and play golf with them when the police captured him.
National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) Director Debold Sinas said the operation to arrest Ecleo was dubbed "Oplan Almighty," a reference to Ecleo's god-like status at PBMA.
The NCRPO surveillance on the elusive cult leader started last January, and they later learned Ecleo used an alias to hide his identity—Manuel Riberal.
Ecleo was caught around 4:30 a.m. in San Fernando City, Pampanga by a joint team led by the NCRPO-Regional Special Operations Group. His driver Benjie Relacion Fernan was also arrested for obstruction of apprehension and prosecution of criminal offenders.
Before his conviction in 2012, Ecleo had gone into hiding in 2011 after his lawyers convinced a Cebu City court to grant him temporary liberty as he was a "walking time bomb" due to his frail condition.
Fast forward to this year, Ecleo is still alive and his arrest was lauded by Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, lawyer Fritz Quiñanola and anti-crime advocate Thelma Chiong.
Labella said Ecleo's arrest means that justice has been served to Alona and the Bacolod family.
Quiñanola and Chiong, Crusade Against Violence (CAV) vice chairperson, were elated by Ecleo's arrest. CAV is a non-governmental group that helped the Bacolods in attaining justice, while Quiñanola was part of the team that prosecuted Ecleo.
Quiñanola said there was a "deprivation of justice" when Ecleo was still at large.
Ecleo's arrest could also do good to the cult leader as his camp can seek legal remedies, Quiñanola said.
Ecleo, who has a P2 million bounty on his head, is the foremost wanted person of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).
The Sandiganbayan convicted him of graft and corruption in October 2006, and sentenced him to 31 and a half years of imprisonment.
The charges stemmed from the fictitious construction deals that he had entered into when he was town mayor of San Jose, Surigao del Norte between 1991 and 1994.
Ecleo was also convicted of parricide by a Cebu court in 2012, 10 years after the body of his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo was found inside a trash bag that was dumped in Dalaguete town in Cebu.
Five months after Alona’s remains were found in January 2002, her parents and two siblings were gunned down in their residence in Barangay Subangdaku, Mandaue City by a PBMA member. This had happened just hours before the surrender of Ecleo in his residence on Dinagat Islands.
The police who stormed Ecleo's residence met armed resistance from loyal PBMA members. The shootout lasted about three hours, killing 16 cult members and a police officer.
The other casualty in the quest for Ecleo's conviction was private prosecutor Arbet Sta. Ana-Yongco, who was shot dead in her home in Cebu City in 2004.
After his surrender, Ecleo was imprisoned at the Cebu City Jail.
Ecleo was later released after posting bail of P1 million on humanitarian grounds. However, the bail was cancelled and a new warrant for his arrest was issued in April 2011 after Ecleo failed to attend hearings on his parricide case. He had evaded capture since then.
In April 2012, Cebu City Regional Trial Court Judge Soliver Peras sentenced Ecleo to spend 20-40 years in jail. The judge also ordered the PBMA supreme master to pay Alona's family at least P25.62 million in damages.
Alona was 27 when she was murdered.
Before the police learned about Ecleo's hideouts in Luzon, Sinas had dispatched a team to Dinagat Islands to monitor Ecleo's residence with the help of the Caraga Region's police office.
The surveillance dug information that Ecleo had already transferred to Metro Manila.
The further intelligence gathering led to one person—Ecleo's close friend.
Covert police officers then started to tail Ecleo's friend; they tried to get Ecleo's address and they eventually got one—Don Antonio Royale Subdivision in Barangay Old Balara, Quezon City. But Ecleo was no longer there.
The undercover team continued to follow Ecleo's friend. It found a house in Batangas, but Ecleo was not around. Only PBMA members were staying in the residence.
The NCRPO surveillance temporarily stopped after Metro Manila was placed on enhanced community quarantine early this year to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Just two weeks ago, the NCRPO resumed its monitoring on Ecleo and its covert personnel found another house where Ecleo transferred. The house was located in Diamond Subdivision in Barangay Balibago, Angeles City, Pampanga. Ecleo was living with his brother.
Ecleo was reclusive most of the day. However, the police were informed that Ecleo often played golf with his friends.
The NCRPO operatives waited for Ecleo to go out. On Thursday dawn, Ecleo exited the house to reportedly play golf and the police then arrested him with his driver. (TPM, WBS, JJL, AYB)