Book excerpt: ‘The First Impulse’

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Filipina American author Laurel Fantauzzo’s forthcoming book, “The First Impulse,” is an exploration of the lost lives of film journalists Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, and the questions they left behind. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc were two young film journalists deeply in love. Alexis was the only child of his Filipino Canadian family who chose to stay in the Philippines. He wrote an open letter to Nika asking her to join him in his country. So she did, for love, leaving her own homeland, Slovenia, behind.

On September 1, 2009, four intruders murdered the couple in their Quezon City home. Alexis was 28 and Nika was 29. The couple’s tragedy rippled across the Philippines and the world, leaving devastation and few answers in its wake.

A year later, a young Filipina American author felt haunted by the unsolved case. So she began an investigation of her own.

Alexis Tioseco, his eyes on film, on his long-distance relationship, and on his family business, is careful with his household. He balances his sympathy and his generosity with a cautious eye. He asks that Nika Bohinc be careful, to ride with his staff chauffeur, instead of taking unregulated taxis on her own. Nika balks, sometimes, at the restrictions of her movements, since she is used to the outdoor independence cultivated by her native capital, Ljubljana. She takes her own trips around Manila, and public buses to nearby rural provinces, worrying Alexis all the while. Nika prefers to do her own cooking and cleaning instead of ceding those tasks to Manang.

Alexis interviews Criselda Dayag twice himself. Alexis’ foreman, loyal to the Tioseco family for decades, interviews Criselda twice more himself. They both find her kind, quiet — a little shy, at age 46. She has her local Quezon City Police Department clearance permit to work. But she lacks the required National Bureau of Investigation clearance.

“Sorry po,” Criselda says, smiling apologetically. “I have no money.”

Had Criselda Dayag applied, under her real name, for an official NBI clearance, agents at the Bureau would have found an outstanding warrant for her arrest from a decade before. In 1999, Criselda was implicated in the robbery of her wealthy employer in the southern Manila region of Pasay City. She and two accomplices had allegedly hogtied and robbed a Chinese Filipino businessman. The man was otherwise unharmed.

In the ensuing years, Criselda had worked, undetected, for several households in Quezon City, 23 kilometers away from the site of her original, alleged robbery in Pasay City.

Criselda began to work for the Tioseco household on July 1. Her Quezon City employment clearance said, after all, “NO DEROGATORY RECORD.”

Still. Alexis said to Manang, “Test her. Watch her.”

Manang did. Nothing small went missing. Nothing was destroyed. Criselda was an efficient, obedient, reliable cleaner.

A few days before September 1, 2009, Criselda asked Manang if Alexis might advance her 3,000 peso salary for a sick relative. Manang assures Criselda that Alexis is a kind amo: has never hesitated to help her in the past. Alexis will agree to the advance. And he does.

*

alexis_and_nika_1.jpg In this photo taken in 2009, Alexis and Nika are young film journalists who were deeply in love. They were murdered by four intruders in their home on September 1, 2009. Photo by TAMMY DAVID  

In the early evening of September 1, 2009, Manang watched Alexis and Nika leave for dinner. She joined Criselda in the maids’ room they shared near the kitchen. They settled on their respective twin beds to watch “TV Patrol” on the national network ABS-CBN. Live-action news streamed in from all regions of the Philippines — weather, crime, trouble, celebrities, dances, music, commercials.

Criselda was short and round. She had a broad face and a slow walk. She was self-conscious about her left ear; it was a little mangled, an untreated birth complication from her infancy. She raised her hand to cup her ear every now and then, a lifelong tic.

Manang was 58 now, on her sixth year in the Tioseco household. She did not mind Criselda. The woman, on her sixth week in the household, had proven herself a good cleaner and an amiable presence. Manang knew the secret places where Alexis stored extra cash from the fuel and trucking business. Criselda had not breached any of them.

“TV Patrol” continued into its fashion and gossip segments. It was past seven now. Criselda checked her cell phone. She texted quickly. She excused herself and left the room. To call her father in Cebu, Criselda said. Manang nodded. Sige.

Manang heard Astor barking at 7:45. Astor was Leonardo Tioseco’s old Belgian malinois, gray around the muzzle but still strong. Astor only understood commands in Dutch, not Filipino or English. But Astor was used to Manang; he stood just past her waist, and wagged his tail for the leftover rice and scraps she brought him.

Manang looked around at the garage, and past Astor.

Criselda stood near Astor’s small, fenced enclosure. She texted, intent on the small square glow of her television screen. Manang glanced around in the dusk. No reason, really, for Astor to be barking: there were no strangers here, no intruders.

Manang went back inside their bedroom. Criselda followed her. She sat watching “TV Patrol” for a while longer. Then Criselda went back outside. She seemed restless.

Astor barked again. Manang went outside again, too, past the bench in the garage where Criselda now sat. Manang opened the Tiosecos’ green gate. She looked out into the street.

There was no one: only the usual, speeding cars taking Times Street as a shortcut from nearby Quezon Avenue, the sound of diesel engines from EDSA. West Triangle was peaceful. Satisfied, Manang went inside the bathroom next to the maids’ room.

When she emerged from the bathroom, the first man seized her from behind and put his hand over her mouth. “Don’t shout,” he hissed in Filipino. “We’ll kill you.”

 

Criselda stood near Astor’s small, fenced enclosure. She texted, intent on the small square glow of her television screen. Manang glanced around in the dusk. No reason, really, for Astor to be barking: there were no strangers here, no intruders.

 

A second man gripped her arm. A third man — the only man whose face she would see — pointed a handgun at her. She felt the protrusion of something sharp and cold against her back. The men shoved her back into the room she shared with Criselda.

Manang shook. She moaned. She looked, pleadingly, at Criselda. She saw that Criselda was calm, expressionless, silent and inscrutable in her own complicity. Criselda simply sat on her own bed and watched.

“Lie down,” the men ordered. Manang obeyed. They tied her arms back too roughly with rope. They shoved a face towel into her mouth and covered her face with another towel. They circled this towel with brown packing tape around her eyes. In the suffocating dark Manang tried to remember their faces; there was only one she was certain of, the fat man with a light brown vest and a black hat. But three men. Criselda had let in three men.

The men began to speak Visayan, Criselda and Manang’s home dialect.

“If they shout,” one man said, “stab them.”

Then they left Manang there, hogtied on her bed. She heard them turn on the television in the main kitchen, near where Alexis and Nika kept their laptops. “TV Patrol” had ended. There were the ABS-CBN shows now. Manang smelled their cigarette smoke.

The men were waiting, Manang realized. Criselda and the men would not simply loot the house. They would wait for Alexis and Nika to return home. Why?

Manang’s wrists and ankles ached and swelled. She began to weep and pray to herself. “Don’t let them come in,” Manang prayed. “Let me be the one, instead of the two.”

But two hours later, Manang heard the doorbell. Manang should have been the one to let them in. She was always the one. But it would be Criselda this time. Alexis and Nika had returned home.

*

first impulse2.jpg The green-gated home of Alexis and Nika stands at 39 Times Street, in a photo taken in 2011 by the author. Photo by LAUREL FANTAUZZO  

When the officers untie her past midnight, Manang rushes into the kitchen and screams.

Investigators walk in pools of their blood. Red footprints mark the white tile of the first floor kitchen and living room. Investigators are sitting at the kitchen table near them, chatting on their cell phones.

Alexis and Nika are on the floor. They do not belong on the floor. Get them off the floor, Manang thinks; they need help to get up from the floor.

“Take them to the hospital!” Manang cries in Filipino. “They need help!”

The Investigators shrug and shake their heads at her. “Wala na, Manang.” Nothing more to be done for them now.

Manang sees Alexis’ friend Gang Badoy. The Investigators call Gang “Attorney,” to mock her instructions that they be careful.

“We’ve already taken photographs,” the Investigators tell her, when they move things out of place with their bare hands. When they begin to drag Alexis’ and Nika’s bodies. “It’s okay now.”

Manang sees leftover rice in a plastic tub on the kitchen counter. She cannot allow the rice to go stale, to go to waste. She picks it up and goes to open the refrigerator.

Alexis blocks the refrigerator.

Manang leaves the rice on the counter.

She exits to the garage, where Criselda sat waiting only a few hours ago.

Television cameras arrive from ABS-CBN and GMA News.

The Investigators come outside with Gang, and a request for Manang — they have only one body bag. Would Gang and Manang help them get Alexis’ and Nika’s bedsheets from upstairs?

Gang and Manang strip Alexis and Nika’s bed.

The Investigators ask if they have any duct tape.

Manang finds it for them.

Gang tells Manang to gather her things. She will have to stay somewhere else for now.

There are a dozen friends gathered outside the green now. They are all young, the filmmakers and writers and college friends Alexis had introduced to Manang over the years. Manang shouts to them, her eyes dazed and grieving. She shouts a spontaneous prayer in Filipino: this one, for justice.

“God doesn’t sleep! He knows exactly what he’s doing! God doesn’t sleep!”

*

first impulse3.jpg The author, haunted by the unsolved case, began an investigation of her own. Photo by LAUREL FANTAUZZO  

Near midnight on September 1, 2009, a carpenter watches West Avenue. He is 50 years old. Like Manang, like Criselda, he has come to the nation’s capital from a rural province to find higher-paying work. He found his station here, monitoring a construction site into the dark hours of the night.

He is watching and waiting for the delivery of a cement mixer when he sees a small white car turn to West Avenue from EDSA, the main highway that cuts through Metro Manila. It rushes down the wrong lane of West Avenue, and so the carpenter watches it closely. The white car parks hurriedly in the parking lot of the BDO Bank across the street from the construction site the carpenter is monitoring, crashing into a parking barrier. The car reverses abruptly, then lurches forward, bumping the barrier again.

The carpenter watches three men emerge from the car.

“The man from the driver side has long and wavy hair, is about 5’6” to 5’8” in height, thin, brown complexion, around 40 to 50 years old, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans,” he tells investigators later. “The second man who came out from the front passenger side has a rounded build, about 5’3” to 5’5” in height, and the man who came out from the back has a rounded build too, about 5’3” to 5’5” in height, the hair is army cut. He’s wearing an undershirt and camouflage short pants.”

The three men look at the bumped barrier and the car and mutter to each other. They leave behind a polo shirt and a black knit cap.

The carpenter watches a BDO bank security guard approach the men and look at the car. They chat briefly with each other. Then the BDO guard turns away. The carpenter watches the three men walk back in the direction of EDSA, away from the car. They pause at an outdoor food stall.

*

Laurel Fantauzzo - The First Impulse Cover-01.jpg The book examines why, after seven years, there is still no resolution for the murders in the Philippines justice system.  

Why, on foot, divested of Alexis’ car, do the killers feel no urgency to flee? Does murder make them hungry?

Why do they pause to order food less than a mile away from where they murdered, apparently unworried about their imminent capture? What do these men assume about the institution of law enforcement in the Philippines?

Do they know that the police will not pursue them quickly or precisely? Do they know that police will leave Alexis and Nika’s friends to guard the open green gate of 39 Times Street themselves, for the rest of the night, after a they spend a few hours at the house? That the police will lose Alexis and Nika’s bloodied clothes? That they will lose the original crime scene photographs? That the two autopsy reports, which should be novelistic in its medical precision for the complex examination of multiple gunshot wounds, will be less than two pages each? That the medical examiner will, for weeks, refuse to release the autopsy reports to the Tioseco family? That investigators, feeling scrutiny and pressure from the media and a well-off family, will return to Alexis’ foreman two days after the murder, and ask for photographs of Agila’s employees? That the eyewitness carpenter will point to Danilo Jomoc, one of Alexis’ longest-employed workers? That the officers will arrest Danilo Jomoc and decide the case closed, despite Manang’s protests that she did not recognize his voice at the scene?

Are the three killers used to this?

What streetside food do they crave, after they kill?

***

“The First Impulse” will be released by Anvil Publishing in 2016.