Emails, villa photos led to Reyes brothers’ arrest

Mara Cepeda
Emails, villa photos led to Reyes brothers’ arrest
(2nd UPDATE) An email exchange between the informant and police investigators, which began on September 8, led to the arrest of the two most wanted fugitives

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – It was an email sent on September 8 to the Philippine police that eventually led to the arrest of the Reyes brothers in Phuket, Thailand, on September 20.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) presented Joel and Mario Reyes early Friday, September 25, at Camp Crame, 5 days after the two were arrested by Thai authorities in Phuket. 

The ex-Palawan officials, charged with plotting the murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerry Ortega in 2011, have been at large for nearly 3 years now. Joel was governor of Palawan while Mario once served as mayor of Coron. (READ: Timeline: Gerry Ortega murder case)

The brothers, who each had a P2-million bounty, were captured by Thailand authorities for overstaying, according to Chief Superintendent Victor Deona, chief of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG). 

Deona said the Reyes brothers will be brought to a Palawan jail on Friday. Their lawyers intend to file a petition for bail next week.

How it began

JOEL REYES. The mugshot of the former Palawan governor taken at Camp Crame. Photo from PNP Public Information Office (PIO)

When Deona was appointed new CIDG chief in August this year, he resumed focus on the manhunt for the two.

On September 8, they received an email from an anonymous informant saying that the Reyes brothers were in Phuket.

In the following days, CIDG investigators were able to obtain more information from the source, whose identity Deona did not disclose during the Friday press conference for security reasons.

“’Yung initial message was that he knows where the Reyes brothers were hiding,” Deona told Rappler in a phone interview after the press conference. “In order to extact more info, we had to engage him. So we tried to exchange email with him/her, then doon na nag-umpisa.” (That’s when it started.)

The informant stressed he needed to communicate with someone he could trust, Deona said. 

Eventually, one CIDG investigator was able to gain the informant’s trust “by sharing his personal phone number and personal email address” with the informant, Deona added.

MARIO REYES. The mugshot of the former Coron mayor taken at Camp Crame. Photo from PNP PIO

On September 15, or a week after the first email, the CIDG Detective and Special Operations Unit was able to talk to the informant on the phone.

Two days later, they received more information from him through email: photos and maps of the villa in Rawai area where the brothers were staying.

“We had to cross reference it with the files that we have and somehow there’s some cedibilty in the email and the info that he was trying to send us,” Deona told Rappler.

The informant told them that Joel was using the alias “Johnny” while Mario used the name “Nicky.”

These pieces of information were verified on September 18 by members of the Thai police, who also confirmed that the brothers used a white Ford Eco Sport while in Thailand.

The police sought assistance from Interpol.

THE VILLA WHERE THEY LIVED. This is where the Reyes brothers stayed in Phuket, Thailand. Photo courtesy of PNP/CIDG

‘We got them’

It was on September 20, after days of surveillance, when Interpol Thailand and the Royal Thai police returned to the area to arrest the two.

At 2:06 pm that day, CIDG investigators received a text message from the Thai police, saying, “We got them (Reyes brothers).”

Arrangements for the brothers’ transfer to the Philippines followed. They arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport past 3 am on Friday, September 25, via Philippine Airlines flight PR733.

They arrived at Camp Crame at 4 am and were presented to the media two hours later.

According to Deona, he has not personally met the informant.

PNP chief Director General Ricardo Marquez said he is confident that the informant will come forward to claim the reward for the Reyes brothers’ arrest.

CAUGHT. The Reyes brothers Joel (left) and Mario are presented to the media by PNP chief Director General Ricardo Marquez and Interior Secretary Mel Sarmiento. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Because of their escape, which aggravates the case against them, the Reyes brothers face maximum imprisonment of up to 40 years, Deona said.

Na-violate nila ‘yung immigration laws ng Thailand. Kung dito naman sa atin, kung saka-sakali man na mag-prosper ‘yang kaso na ‘yan, magiging aggravating circumstance lang po siguro ‘yung hindi sila kusang nag-surrender,” said Deona. (They violated immigration laws of Thailand. If their case prospers here in the Philippines, their refusal to surrender will only be an aggravating circumstance to their murder charges.)

Mas mataas po ang penalty in terms of the number of years they’ll be spending in prison. Maximum po siguro ‘yung imprisonment (Their penalty will be increased in terms of the number of years they’ll be spending in prison. They may face maximum imprisonment),” he added.

Gun of Joel’s lawyer

The brothers are believed to be behind the murder of Ortega, who was shot in the head at point-blank range while shopping in the capital of Palawan in 2011.

Ortega was known to have been critical of the Reyes brothers because of the illegal logging, mining, and overfishing cases suffered by Palawan, an island known as the Philippines’ last environmental frontier.

The gunman was caught trying to flee the scene and police said his weapon was owned by one of Joel Reyes’s lawyers.

Aside from alleged environmental crimes, Ortega had accused Joel Reyes of syphoning off millions of dollars in revenues from a gasfield off the coast of Palawan when he was governor. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.