The different angles in Atio Castillo’s hazing case

Lian Buan
The different angles in Atio Castillo’s hazing case
Ventura's testimony is seen as a breakthrough in the hazing case, but Senator Lacson asks: could he be a Trojan horse?

MANILA, Philippines – The death of University of Santo Tomas (UST) freshman law student Horacio Castillo III is again igniting calls to strengthen laws against hazing and other violent activities of organizations, including fraternities.

The Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs certainly wants to keep legislation in check, conducting 3 hearings and poised to do more.

This is what we know so far on this sensational case.

The basics

Castillo informed his parents Horacio II and Carmina that he was going to join the Aegis Juris fraternity. He promised them the fraternity does not do hazing, and that he would come home Sunday, September 17.

Based on the testimony of Aegis Juris Master Initiator 2 Mark Anthony Ventura, the initiation rites started 1 am on September 17, at the fraternity library on Laong Laan Street in Sampaloc, Manila and ended 5 am when Castillo fell unconscious.

He was taken to the Chinese General Hospital where police questioned the guy who was there with him: John Paul Solano. Solano lied and said he was a stranger who saw Castillo dumped in Tondo. He would later retract to say he is a fraternity member who was called to try and revive the neophyte.

Solano has named 6 people whom he saw at the library: Oliver John Audrey “Ojay” Onofre, Axel Munro Hipe, Arvin Balag, Mark Anthony Ventura, Zack Abulencia, and Dan Ragos.

Who did who?

FRATMEN. Ralph Trangia (leftmost) and Arvin Balag (3rd from left) are facing murder complaints for the death of Horacio Castillo III. Photo by Rappler

Ventura named more than 20. Ventura also admitted that he was among those who beat Castillo up. Although he said that when they reached the final stage of paddling, he no longer participated.

Ventura named in his affidavit Grand Praefectus Balag as having hit Castillo the 5th and final time with the, despite the neophyte already collapsing on the 4th.

Ventura also said Master Initiator 1 Hipe called the shots, including the decision to continue Stage 1 of the rites – hitting him on the upper limb – until “pumutok na.” It means waiting until Castillo’s limbs looked like they were already about to explode from the hits.

Ventura said Miguel Salamat tried to stop the assault on Castillo. It wasn’t clear at what stage Salamat did this.

Ventura said he does not know why Castillo was taken to the Chinese General Hospital when the UST Hospital was just across the road. He did say that the fratmen waited 30-40 minutes after Castillo fell unconcious before they finally drove off. (READ: It took fratmen 30-40 minutes to bring Atio Castillo to hospital – witness)

Inquirer‘s look into Ventura’s confidential affidavit revealed that the others present during the rites were: Ralph Trangia, Mhin Wei Chan, Edril Pilapil, Danielle Hans Matthew Rodrigo, Karl Matthew Villanueva, Joshua Joriel Macabali, Marcelino Bagtang, Zimon Pedro, Miguel Salamat, Dave Felix, Sam Cagalingan, Alex Cairo, Luis Kapulong, Leo Lalusis, Kim Cyrill Roque, Alex Bose, Robin Ramos, and Ged Villanueva.

Out of all these people, only Ventura and Solano have admitted to knowledge of the hazing. The police has recovered a paddle from the fraternity library widely believed to have been used on Castillo.

Is Ventura a ‘Trojan horse’?

Ventura’s testimony, which he did in a bid to become state witness and be dropped from the case, is seen as a breakthrough. But Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson does not want to rule out the possibility that Ventura may be a Trojan horse, planted to muddle the truth.

TROJAN HORSE? Could Mark Anthony Ventura been planted by the Aegis Juris fraternity? The Senate committee doesn't want to rule out the possibility. Photo by Rappler

Lacson would backtrack a few hours later, saying that Ventura’s change of lawyers says a lot about him.

“On second thought, the mere fact that he changed lawyers from Aegis Juris members to non-Aegis Juris members, that’s indication enough that he’s already severing ties with the Aegis Juris by testifying against his fellow frat members,” Lacson said.

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri seems to trust him a lot, praising Ventura throughout the hearing on November 6.

“You chose your conscience over misguided loyalty, you chose the law rather than to violate it…. You chose to tell the truth rather than to twist the truth. I salute you for that,” Zubiri said.

One of the complainants, Alex Bose, is moving to block Ventura’s testimony, saying he is the most guilty in the death of Castillo.

Who drove the red pick-up?

The convoy to the Chinese General Hospital Sunday morning was a black Fortuner, a red Strada pickup, and Solano on his motorcycle. The black Fortuner carried Balag and Hipe. Others rode the red pick-up, which was traced to Trangia’s father Antonio.

During the first hearings, the initial name that surfaced was Romeo Laboga. Trangia identified him as their family driver.

But on November 6, Laboga told the Senate he was at an automotive shop in Bulacan morning of September 17.

Senator Grace Poe said it was Balag’s driver who was involved. She asked to subpoena the driver. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II had already said that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is already looking for this driver.

Balag, on the other hand, is still detained inside the Senate for contempt, his detention prolonged because of a petition for certiorari he filed before the Supreme Court.

What is Castillo’s cause of death?

The Manila Police District (MPD) is citing an unpublished “final autopsy report” which states that Castillo died from blunt severe injuries to the upper limb.

Solano, however, released a medico-legal report that diagnosed Castillo as having Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy or HCM, a pre-existing heart condition. He followed it up with a death certificate, prepared by an MPD doctor, which states the “provisional cause of death” as HCM.

There is also a histopathological report which is yet to be released.

Did hazing aggravate Castillo’s condition?

Castillo’s parents have already denied that their son has a heart condition, saying he’s a healthy and active athlete.

Nevertheless, if Castillo did have a heart condition, was that not aggravated by the torture he suffered from the hazing? This would have to be answered by expert witnesses in the course of the investigation and later on, the trial.

Solano has submitted affidavits of expert witnesses, but the witnesses are his own relatives. (READ: What different documents say on Atio Castillo’s cause of death)

Because of this pre-existing heart condition argument, Solano has fallen off the good graces of the senators. Who was once touted as the key to solving the case is now seen as one of the enemies.

PADDLE. The Manila Police District or MPD's sweep of the fraternity library yields a paddle widely believed to have been used on Castillo. Photo sourced by Rappler

Zubiri said: “Hindi mo lang ginagago ang Senado, ginagago mo ang bansa.” (You’re not only making a fool out of the Senate, you’re making a fool out of the country.)

Lacson asked him“Kung mayroon siyang pre-existing heart condition – not you, but the others who participated – hindi ba lalong masama ‘yun? Kung alam mo na ‘yung pre-existing heart condition, sinubject mo pa sa extreme pain?” (If indeed he had a pre-existing heart condition – not you, but the others who participated – isn’t that worse – if you knew he had a pre-existing heart condition, yet you still subjected him to extreme pain?)

Is UST at fault?

For Poe, Zubiri, and Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, yes. (READ: ‘Negligence’ of UST officials partly led to Castillo’s death – senators)

It turned out that Aegis Juris fraternity was not recognized as an organization for school year 2017. The final determination of the fraternity’s status came “sometime in September.” The rites were conducted September 17.

But a month before, in August, Aegis Juris was still able to join the freshmen orientation where organizations encouraged the students to join them. 

UST Faculty of Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina pointed to the Office for Student Affairs (OSA), whom he said, approved the list of groups to join the orientation. OSA Director Socorro Guan Hing said Aegis Juris was allowed because at that point, their status was still not final and there was a presumption of regularity due to their good standing the year before.

JUSTICE FOR HORACIO. The University of Santo Tomas holds a prayer vigil for Horacio Castillo III on October 27, 2017. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

Poe pushed it some more: why was Aegis Juris allowed to post on the bulletin board, and why was the fraternity on the Civil Law website? For this, she pointed to Divina whose law firm Divina Law “powers” the website.

Poe asked the UST Rector to explain in a letter to the committee the functions of both Divina and Guan Hing’s offices and whether they are accountable.

For the senators, they are. “This is really incompetence, negligence. Ang talagang naging kapalit dito ay buhay ng isang bata (The cost was the life of a young man),” Gatchalian said.

Asked whether UST has made proactive efforts to detect if hazing was being done in their backyard, Guan Hing said it’s the organization adviser who should know. Aegis Juris’ adviser from 2010-2016 is fraternity alumnus Irvin Joseph Fabella who claimed he did not have any knowledge.

Organizations who wish to conduct initiation rites must seek approval from the University, and the school must send a representative to the activity. Aegis Juris did not make such an application.

Did Divina and Castillo meet?

Divina, who claims his membership at Aegis Juris has been inactive for many years, said he does not know Castillo and that a hazing rite would be held. He even said that because of his non-active status, he does not know who the officers are. 

The Castillos’ lawyer, Lorna Kapunan, doesn’t believe this. They included Divina in the murder complaint because they claim Divina and Castillo met 5 days before the hazing.

Castillo texted his mother on September 12 saying he was at the “Buendia Petron gas area” to visit the “law firm.” It would later be established that this was the Pacific Star Building in Makati which houses offices, including the Divina Law Firm.

Senators also presented a CCTV footage of a man in blue jacket inside the Pacific Star Building on September 12. The parents swore the man was their son.

Divina inisisted Castillo never set foot inside his law office, and he has CCTV footage of his office to prove it. There are 3 other law firms in the building, and Poe said they would ask these other law firms.

THE DEAN. The UST Faculty of Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina is also accused of being complicit in Castillo's hazing done by his own fraternity, Aegis Juris. Photo by Rappler

Ventura confirmed that fraternity members would visit the Pacific Star Building from time to time to confer with their elders. He said the elders he met inside the building are not from Divina Law.

Poe seems determined to link Divina to the case, even prodding whether he could be the “Big Brother” being referred to in one message circulated among alumni after Castillo’s death.

Poe also pointed out that Pacific Star is owned by Century Properties, whose corporate secretary is a partner at Divina Law. Century Properties owns Novotel in Cubao, where elders met in what police called an attempt at a coverup.

“The reason why I’m asking here is because there are just a few connections here that we need to seriously note,” Poe said.

Divina’s lawyer in this case, and also a senior partner at the Divina Law, is Estrella Elamparo, the same lawyer who tried to disqualify Poe from the 2016 presidential elections.

The committee will also recommend disbarment for the elders who participated in the “cover-up,” said Lacson.

All of these are being done in the hope of finally getting rid of hazing, a known secret among fraternities.

Because 22 years since the enactment of the Anti-Hazing Law, and 15 deaths later, how many convictions has our justice system managed? One. – with reports from Jee Geronimo, Camille Elemia, and Rambo Talabong/



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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.