CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Every time Misamis Oriental cult leader Cresanto Ercilla stomped his right foot and sang a worship song, his followers, including members of his clan, followed right away.
At 21, 5’6″ and athlete-looking Cresanto was able to start a small congregation in his hometown Balingasag, commanding loyalty and obedience from his followers.
He convinced them that he was destined to become a religious leader and follow the footsteps of the late Tomas Eugenio Sr., the founder and “divine master” of the Philippine Benevolent Christian Missionaries Association (PBCM).
The PBCM broke off from a similar group, the Dinagat Islands-based Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association of the Ecleo political family, and built its network of followers from Jasaan town in Misamis Oriental.
Like Eugenio, Cresanto’s word is his followers’ command. To them, he is divine like Eugenio, who had claimed to be the Holy Spirit reincarnate.
They proved their unquestioned obedience to him by throwing his grandmother, Teofila Camongay Cabusas, into a fire supposedly to purge her of her sins more than a week ago.
Investigators said the victim, a devout PBCM member, had been a follower of Eugenio for years and refused to acknowledge Cresanto as a religious guru.
Like the murdered clan matriarch, the cult members attended PBCM gatherings in neighboring San Antonio, Jasaan town, until Cresanto claimed that he was possessed by Eugenio’s spirit, and formed his group.
Police said the cultists had with them photographs of Eugenio when they were arrested.
Forced to do a ritual dance
Authorities have submitted to prosecutors a complaint for parricide against Cresanto and 10 other suspects, mostly his relatives, over the brutal killing of Cabusas in Sitio Palipi, Barangay Baliwagan, in Balingasag town.
Of the 11 suspects, four were the cult ritual victim’s children and five others were her grandchildren.
The complaint, now with the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office, was filed by Cresanto’s aunt Erlinda Cabusas based on the narrative of her son Jonathan, the primary witness.
Jonathan said his cousin Cresanto woke him up around 3 am on August 26 and told him to go out and see what was being done to their grandmother.
By the time he went out, Jonathan said the old woman had already crawled out of the pile of burning wood and was grimacing in pain because of her burns.
He said the cultists, mostly her children and grandchildren, then forced the dying woman to stand up and perform a ritual dance near the flames.
It was his uncle Nicholas Cabusas and cousins Romeo Ercilla and Charlie Cabusas who had allegedly thrown the aging matriarch to the fire earlier upon Cresanto’s orders while other clan members watched while taking part in the cult ritual.
Jonathan said when the old woman collapsed, the cultists washed her like it was the final part of the ritual to purge her of her sins.
Realizing what was happening, neighbors rushed to the scene of the ritual, stopped the cultists, and took the badly burned Teofila to the town hospital where she died of third-degree burns hours later.
“Jonathan was helpless. Had he complained, Cresanto would have ordered him thrown into the fire, too,” said Staff Sergeant Robert John Galdo, the Balingasag police investigator tasked to handle the case.
Police said the horrific incident came as a shock because the Cabusases and their clan, Cresanto and his family included, were known to be “good and clean-living people.”
Police said Cresanto had aspired to become a policeman, but his newfound status as a cult leader who was addressed as “general,” and spiritual beliefs that morphed from the PBCM dogma, made him forgo his plans to pursue a police career.
His friends and classmates said the young cult leader dressed smart and was known to be a “nice guy” in the town and school.
Until the brutal cult ritual, Galdo said, “No one talked ill of Cresanto and his family in their village.”
Cresanto’s aunt Erlinda, who lives in a neighboring village, said she regretted ignoring red flags that she saw, saying she didn’t anticipate that Cresanto and his followers’ rituals would lead to murder.
Erlinda told the police that she had sensed something wrong in the way her siblings, nephews, and nieces behaved, and in their thought processes.
For instance, Cresanto’s followers would do push-ups without complaining whenever the cult leader commanded them to.
Erlinda said she also found it strange to see her siblings, nephews, and nieces frequently collecting unused clothes, pieces of dry wood, and anything dry for burning.
She said the cultists told her these were “unclean and sources of negative vibes.”
“Erlinda regrets that she did not bring the matter to the attention of the village chief. She says the killing would not have happened had she sought the help of authorities right away,” Galdo said.
No drugs involved
Police said they found it baffling until now that Cresanto’s followers, who were mostly much older than him, would turn meek in the presence of the young cult leader.
Galdo said Cresanto had beaten them up from time to time, and yet, they remained submissive.
“It’s like he had a power they can’t resist,” Galdo told Rappler after he led a police team in bringing the suspects to the Misamis Oriental Provincial Prosecutor’s Office last week.
Police said the cult members have continued to chant using words that sounded Latin.
“Their religious beliefs practically made them insane. This is not a drug-related case. None of them were in the police list of people suspected as drug users or peddlers,” Galdo said.
Investigators noted that Cresanto was depressed after a recent breakup with his girlfriend from another Misamis Oriental town.
“The heartbreak and cult-like worship could have been a deadly combination. It may have aggravated the situation, influenced his behavior, and resulted in the brutal cult ritual,” Galdo said.
Back to their senses
Until late last week, the detained cult members weren’t showing any signs of regret, maintaining that the matriarch had her fate coming because of her “great sins,” said Balingasag police chief Major Teodoro de Oro.
But the realization of what they did slowly sank in and by the weekend, some of them were already back to their senses and were observed to be teary-eyed from time to time, according to Galdo.
“They started to eat, and Cresanto has ceased behaving violently and loudly. We can now talk to them. They seem repentant,” he said.
The cultists had refused to eat and bathe, and stayed awake till the wee hours during the first few days of their detention at the Balingasag police station.
Cresanto had been hitting his submissive followers behind bars, prompting the police to handcuff him in detention and when they brought him to the prosecutor’s office.
Police subsequently took his cuffs off when he started behaving rationally, Galdo said.
“Cresanto is still very young, and we do not want to judge him. The case was already filed. Their fate depends on our courts. I am praying for them,” Galdo said. – Rappler.com