There will be no seventh judge to handle the six-year-old parricide case against cult leader Ruben Ecleo Jr. in connection with the killing of his wife Alona in 2002.
Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Fortunato de Gracia yesterday rejected the bid of Judge Geraldine Faith Econg to inhibit herself from the case and instead ordered her to speed up the trial and come to a resolution in 60 days.
Econg, the presiding judge of RTC Branch 9, had asked to be inhibited from the case after private prosecutors Alfredo Sipalay and Fritz Quinanola suggested that Econg is no longer impartial in her handling of the case.
The judge denied the allegation but nevertheless sought to inhibit herself.
Sipalay and Quinanola said they will ask Judge de Gracia to reconsider.
In light of the de Gracia order, Econg said she will call the prosecution and defense panels for a conference on Tuesday to thresh out the issue which has snagged the case yet one more time.
Five other judges — Galicano Arriesgado, Olegario Sarmiento, Generosa Labra, Anacleto Caminade and Ireneo Gako Jr. — have one after the other inhibited themselves from the case, all on allegations by private prosecutors of having become partial to the accused, allegations they all denied.
Arriesgado was the judge who issued the warrant for Ecleo’s arrest. Sarmiento was the one who denied the motion to quash the warrant. Labra was the one who allowed Ecleo to enjoy temporary liberty on being convinced the cult leader suffered some severe illness.
Caminade was the judge who signed Ecleo’s release order while Gako did not stay with the case for long before also asking to be inhibited.
Ecleo, the supreme leader of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association and a former mayor of San Jose town in Dinagat Island in Surigao del Norte, is on trial in connection with the killing of his wife, at the time a medical student at one of the local universities in Cebu.
Her badly mutilated body was found in a plastic bag dumped in a ravine in the southern Cebu town of Dalaguete.
Ecleo and Alona had a house in Cebu but when the wife went missing, the cult leader went back to Surigao without bothering to look for her.
Ecleo was later charged, mainly on the testimony of Alona’s brother who claimed to have seen him load something in the trunk of his car the day before she went missing.
Most of the members of her family were later massacred in their home in Mandaue City by a man believed to be a follower of Ecleo.
The massacre happened on the same day that scores of heavily-armed police, backed by dozens of troops, stormed the Ecleo enclave in Surigao, forcing his surrender after a firefight that resulted in the death of a number of his followers.
Brought to Cebu to face trial, Ecleo soon landed in more controversy when he was discovered to have enjoyed the company of a woman inside his jail cell, apparently with the consent of jail authorities who lent him some privacy by allowing him to line his cell with curtains and cardboard slabs.
He was also allowed to make musical instruments using power tools that normally are not allowed inside jails.
Ecleo eventually got let out of jail after he supposedly got sick and the case has dragged on since then as judge after judge let go off the case.
Orlando Salatandre Jr., the main counsel of Ecleo, claims to oppose the move of the private prosecutors to have Econg inhibit herself, describing it as another ploy to delay the proceedings.
But with Econg now ordered not just to stay on but to wind up in 60 days, the Ecleo lawyer may yet get his wish for a ” speedy trial. “