"Hatched in Hell": The Gruesome Rape-Slay of Mary Eileen Sarmenta
She was a scholar and a few months shy of graduating from a prestigious university. But at 21, Mary Eileen Sarmenta was begging for her life. She had been brutally beaten and raped repeatedly by seven men one evening in 1993.
Despite the real-life horror, she wanted to live. She knelt and begged, but one of the men stuffed a handkerchief into her mouth before shooting her in the face with a baby armalite—the final act of desecration. Then, they left her in the back of a stolen van, naked, cold, and dead.
Earlier that night, the same men fatally shot her schoolmate after torturing him for several hours. Dawn was breaking and they didn’t even try to get rid of the evidence, confident that they could get away with murder.
The seven men were eventually caught, convicted, and incarcerated, but the gruesome 26-year-old crime has come back to haunt the nation in recent days. A new law that increases good conduct time allowance will see over 10,000 convicts freed, including Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez, the convicted mastermind of the killings, and the man the judge called orchestrated a plot that was "seemingly hatched in hell." Of the 360 years Sanchez should be serving in jail, the Laguna mayor has only served 24.
Since news broke of his impending release, Filipinos have made their thoughts about it abundantly clear: the rapist-killer, who is known for his mop top and supposed religious devotion, should be kept behind bars. The wounds from 1993 have been reopened as the entire nation is reliving the tragic events of that night.
A Premeditated Plot
It all started when Mary Eileen Y. Sarmenta, an Agriculture student from the University of the Philippines Los Baños interviewed the mayor for their school paper. At that time, Sanchez was on trial for another crime, the murder of father and son Nelson and Rickson Peñalosa on April 13, 1991. Nelson was a political leader and supported Sanchez’s political opponent. Sanchez began to take interest in the young Sarmenta.
Sarmenta and Allan Gomez were regular college students. They played board games and card games, and hung out with friends. The two met at the College of Agriculture, where Sarmenta was majoring in Food and Nutrition for Large Animals, while Gomez was in Beef Production. Both were also members of a sorority and fraternity, Sigma Delta and Upsilon Sigma Phi, respectively. Some accounts reported them to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but others said they were just friends and schoolmates.
In an interview with TV5’s Crime Klasik, Police Inspector Rizaldy Garcia, who was assigned to the case, said that it was possible Sanchez’s men had been stalking Sarmenta for quite some time. This aligned with the recollections of star witnesses Aurelio Centeno and Vicencio Malabanan, aides of the mayor who took part in the abduction but not in the rape and murder of the victims.
In their testimony, both men said that the group of men responsible for the crime had been preparing for it since the morning of June 28, 1993. These men were then-PNP Calauan Deputy Chief George Medialdea, brothers Luis Corcolon and Rogelio "Boy" Corcolon, Zoilo Ama, Baldwin Brio, and Pepito Kawit.
After picking up the members of their gang from all around Laguna using an ambulance, the group proceeded to Los Baños where Luis revealed the real agenda of the night: to pick up a “gift” for the mayor, a girl who was supposedly so beautiful, she was “guaranteed to make their saliva drip.”
At a little past 7 p.m. the group reached U.P. Los Baños. Eventual witness Centeno was asked by Luis to drive slowly around the campus so they could find the "girl." She wasn't in the university so Luis ordered Centeno to go to a popular hangout spot, Agrix complex.
Luis, Boy, Ama, Brion, and Kawit got out to search for her while Centeno and Malabanan stayed inside the ambulance. Centeno overheard Medialdea inform the "Boss" via radio that they were already in the area. The "Boss" was the Mayor, according to Centeno.
The group eventually found Sarmenta, who was sitting with Gomez in a parked Toyota Tamaraw commuter van that was waiting for more passengers. The two were about to go home. Armed with guns, the men forced the students into the backseat and commandeered the vehicle.
Taking a cue from Luis, both vehicles proceeded to Barangay Curba, to the Erais Farm that was owned by the mayor.
It was here where the horrors began.
"Hatched in Hell"
Upon reaching the farm, the students, gagged and bound, were presented to the mayor.
Luis said, “Mayor, this is our gift to you, the girl you’ve been longing for.” After remarking about the beauty of his gift, the mayor asked the men about Gomez. Medialdea replied that he was Sarmenta's companion and they brought him along to avoid complications.
Sarmenta was brought to the mayor's room where she was abused for hours. Outside, to pass the time, Gomez was physically tortured by Luis, Boy, Ama, and Medialdea. Kawit also joined the other men in beating up Gomez by striking his diaphragm with the butt of an armalite. The strike caused Gomez to fall against a cement box. Brion thought Gomez was already dead, but Kawit said "his death will come later."
At 1 a.m. the mayor emerged from the room and thanked Luis and Medialdea for the “gift.”
"I am through with her. She’s all yours," the witnesses recalled him saying. The crying girl was dragged out of the resthouse, naked from the waist down. Together with a badly beaten Gomez, they were loaded again into the van. They were headed back to Calauan and to Centeno; the ambulance trailing behind them.
On the way, in Barangay Imok, Centeno, who was still driving the ambulance, saw the van sway from side to side, as if a commotion was taking place. Then, he heard a gunshot. It wasn’t long before the van stopped and he saw Kawit drag a bloodied Gomez to the ground. Kawit then shot the boy in the head to make sure he was dead. The convoy continued.
They stopped again in a sugarcane field in Sitio Paputok, Kilometro 74 of Barangay Mabacan. Luis announced that they were finally getting their turn with Sarmenta. The men then took turns raping her. First Luis, then Medialdea, Boy, Ama, Brion and finally, Kawit. Kawit invited Centeno to join them but the latter refused. Just when they were about to kill her, Sarmenta cried and knelt to beg for her life. Luis gagged her and shot her in the face. Centeno was then ordered to get rid of the body, which he left inside the back of the van.
Aboard the ambulance on the way back to their houses, Centeno and the other witness Malabanan said that the rapists reminisced about the murder and “savored the night’s escapade, to their sickening delight.”
The group decided to cover up their grisly deeds hours later—ironically by returning to the scene of the crime. As a high-ranking police officer, Medialdea assigned Centeno, Malabanan, Luis, and Ama to conduct a bogus "search operation" in Barangay Imok, where they earlier dumped Gomez’s body. Boy was tasked to inspect Barangay Mabacan where they had left Sarmenta’s body. Both bodies were "discovered" in the operations.
Reports mentioned that when Medialdea saw Sarmenta’s naked body, he rolled down her shirt to cover her chest area and placed a sackcloth (a cardboard, in other accounts), to cover her private parts. The medico-legal report stated that Sarmenta’s body had enough semen to fill a sardines can, indicating that she was raped by several men.
Sarmenta's body was brought to the UP Los Baños police station where other students identified her. Her body, together with Gomez’s, were then delivered to the Calauan municipal hall. There, Centeno saw a man named Arnold cleaning the van, possibly to remove evidence.
According to Malabanan’s testimony, that same day, he, Ama, and Medialdea, carried on with their fake investigation in Barangay Imok. Unfortunately, the news was becoming a big deal. People from the press, the National Bureau of Investigation and the PNP Criminal Information Service (the precursor of today's Criminal Investigation and Detection Group) had descended upon the small town after hearing about the horrific crime.
The men had no choice but to report to Sanchez, who reprimanded them for not dealing with the situation. The mayor, however, assured them that he could "fix the problem in less the amount of a brand new car."
A Blame Game
In the same interview with TV5, 17 years after the crime, Garcia said that he remembered how the local police did not seem to be interested in solving the crime. On June 30, Centeno disappeared. He had been getting paranoid that the authorities were making the connection that he was the driver connected with the case. According to Centeno’s testimony, Sanchez gave him P2,000 to lay low and get out of town for a while.
The same day, PNP Chief of Calauan Major Caño received a pair of white shorts from Sanchez. The shorts were allegedly the ones Sarmenta was wearing when she disappeared and were found, Sanchez said, near the national highway in Barangay Balayhangin by a card gambler, who then turned it over to the mayor. According to the TV5 report, Sanchez sent the piece of evidence to throw the police off the trail. But the police's suspicions were further aroused because the shorts were found far from where Sarmenta's body was actually found.
Everything, however, crumbled for the suspects when CIS apprehended Centeno in Divisoria on August 10. Centeno agreed to be a witness. Malabanan followed. However, according to Medialdea’s testimony, the two were just tortured into giving a false narrative against the other men. However, evidence and the pressure to close the case were against their side.
A belt loop from Sarmenta's shorts and a cigarette butt said to have been used to burn Sarmenta were later dug up in the mayor’s farm. The mayor vehemently denied this, saying he was framed and that evidence was planted against him. He denied his involvement in the rape and killing of the students and said that he was at his mistress’ house in another part of Laguna during the night of the crime.
Sanchez even brought forward the results of his own private investigation, which reportedly led him to Teofilo “Kit” Alqueza, SK Chairperson in Laguna and Gomez's frat brother. Alqueza was the son of General Dictador Alqueza, a well-known and influential personality in the area.
According to Medialdea, Alqueza was seen with bloody knuckles the day after the crime. The student, however, clarified that he had punched a wall. According to Luis, who had a more detailed story for the court, it was Alqueza who had been planning to kill Gomez over another girl named Rose.
The morning when the bodies were found, Luis even said that Alqueza asked for his help in disposing Sarmenta’s body. However, the M16 empty bullet shell recovered at the site where Gomez’s body was found matched the gun registered to Luis.
Among those who got involved in the case then-Vice President and Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC) Chief Joseph Estrada, who was allegedly linked to Sanchez because of jueteng payolas. There were even reports that the mayor was giving away as much as P10,000 to the media and some people in power just so suspicion could be taken away from him.
Sanchez was arrested on August 13, three days after Centeno was caught and three days after the mayor supposedly received an anonymous tip to get out of the country. Sanchez did not heed the advice of this mysterious caller because he said he had a clean conscience. In fact, whenever Sanchez would be seen in the news, he was always praying or bringing along with him an image of Mary, ironically Sarmenta’s namesake.
On September 12, 1993, the court formally read the case against Sanchez, Medialdea, Luis, and Rogelio Corcolon, Ama, Kawit, and Brion. The men all had different alibis. Medialdea said he played mahjong with his wife’s friends that night. They also contested several points of Centeno’s story, including the fact that they were able to rape Sarmenta inside the van which “has very limited space, while appellants could have chosen a far more comfortable or remote place to do the crime.” His story about Kawit hitting Gomez with the butt of an armalite in the diaphragm also did not match with the medico-legal finding.
Four months later, in a hearing, Sanchez denied the allegations against him. "Nakaderetso po ang mukha ko sa kanilang lahat. Kahit tadtarin kami nila nang pinung-pino, wala po kaming mga kasalanan sa kanila at wala po kaming ginagahasa sa kanila at wala po kaming pinapatay na tao sa kanila," he said.
On the same day, June 25th, Sanchez's lawyers Mario Ongkiko, Antonio Bucoy, and Ernesto Brion quit following a "serious professional disagreement." Those who were left included Salvador Panelo, who is now the country’s chief presidential legal adviser.
By this time, the case had caught the attention of the entire nation. Sanchez’s private life was reported and dissected, including his eccentricity, his love of imported perfumes, and even his collagen treatments for his skin.
Then, on March 11, 1995, after 16 months of trial, the mayor and his men were each sentenced to seven terms of reclusion perpetua or a maximum of 40 years of imprisonment. They were also asked to pay millions in pesos to the families of the victims as additional indemnity. The mayor’s calm and religious persona suddenly disappeared when the verdict was read. He was described to have been raging and shouting expletives, giving the audience and the media a completely different side to him.
A year later, Sanchez and three others, including Luis Corcolon, were also convicted in the Peñalosa case. The rulings for the two murder cases were affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1999. In total, Sanchez was to serve nine reclusion perpetua sentences.
Years later, Sanchez is still insisting on his innocence.
“Naaawa ako sa kanila kasi hindi pa nila nakukuha yung tamang hustisya,” Sanchez said about the students’ parents. The former mayor said that he was framed because of politics, because of his ambitions to be a governor.
Fast forward to 2019 and Sanchez is in the headlines again.
The former mayor had only served a fraction of his sentence since his arrest in 1993 but in a report by CNN, the Bureau of Corrections said the convicted ex-mayor had already served 49 years based on the computation of his good conduct time allowance under Republic Act 10592, which was enacted in May 2013.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled that the law shall be applied retroactively. With this law, 11,000 other inmates may qualify for it. Sanchez's evaluation may start in September but whether he is eligible for it is still in question.
“Conditional ‘yong grant ng deductions na ito. The most telling na requirement ng law is good behavior. The second is may mga exclusions, so 'yong recidivist, those repeat offenders are excluded from the benefit of the law. If he's found to fall under that category, then he might be ineligible to avail of the benefits of the law,” Department of Justice spokesperson Markk Perete told CNN.
Was Sanchez exhibiting good behavior? In 2006, Sanchez was charged with possession of illegal drugs after a prison guard found him to be allegedly keeping a packet of shabu and marijuana, along with drug paraphernalia. In 2010, Sanchez was caught again with P1.5 million worth of shabu concealed in a statue of his beloved Virgin Mary. In 2015, an airconditioning unit and a flat-screen TV were also seized from his room during a raid.
In April 2018, the Office of the Ombudsman also completed the confiscation of ill-gotten wealth from Sanchez and his wife, Editha. The month before, titles to 19 pieces of real estate property were registered back to the state.
The recovery was according to the Sandiganbayan’s decision on July 18, 2016, ordering the seizure of the Sanchezes’ assets, including a house, two Mercedes-Benzes, a Dodge Caravan, shares in a lending company, and cash in the bank.
It was only in 2019 that the tide seemed to have turned in favor of Sanchez. With the announcement of his possible release, personalities in power have given their say. On the hot seat is former corrections chief and current Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa who said on August 21 that Sanchez “deserves a second chance.” He even joked that Sanchez is a changed man: "Pwede na rin na masabi mo na mabait na ito naka-palda na."
When public opinion did not agree with the senator’s sentiment, he started to sing a different tune just a day later.
"Did you know, ako mismo gusto kong bitayin yang Sanchez na yan? I am for death penalty! Kung may death penalty noon dapat nabitay na yang Sanchez na yan,” Dela Rosa reportedly said during an event.
With rumors floating about in social media that the former mayor had actually already been released, the New Bilibid Prison allowed journalists to take photos of Sanchez clad in full orange. It was noticeable, however, that the mayor is still getting preferential treatment, as footage showed someone shielding him from the sun with an umbrella.
The public, including an entire generation of people born after the crime, has rediscovered a villain to crucify. For once, it seems commenters on social media agree on one thing: that Sanchez should not be released. Aside from posts being shared on Facebook and Twitter, rallies have been staged and a petition was also launched to stop Sanchez’s release.
Gomez’s mother, Lumen, attended a rally organized by her son’s schoolmates. The mother recalled that her son knew karate and could have fought back if he hadn't been bound.
Sarmenta’s mother was also interviewed by different media outlets, saying her pain from years ago came back. She expressed suspicions that money was involved in these talks of Antonio's early release. The rightfully angry mother said she agrees with the death penalty for cases like her daughter’s.
Up to this day, the families of Sarmenta and Gomez said that they have not received a single centavo of indemnity from the mayor and his men.
“We are not after the money, but he has to make good on the damages set by the court. We didn’t even see any remorse from him. What we’re asking is for him to show us that he was sorry for what he did," Sarmenta's mother told Philstar.
UPDATE, August 23, 2019, 3:36 p.m. Panelo, spokesperson and chief legal counsel to President Rodrigo Duterte, told the press on the president will not allow convicted rapist-murderer Antonio Sanchez to be released from prison. "All those convicted of a heinous crime, including Mr. Antonio Sanchez, would be ineligible and disqualified from availing the benefits of the GCTA,” he announced.
It is now up to the Filipino people to remain vigilant if the palace will make good on this statement.
In the '90s, Sanchez's conviction was assurance for Filipinos that justice was not exclusive for the rich and wealthy. With still the possibility of Sanchez’s release and reports that the convicted rapist and murderer is enjoying preferential treatment behind bars, it seems that might have been just a temporary illusion.