Murder Mystery

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I stand on the iron stairs leading from an air bridge to the tarmac of Manila airport. This is where Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. spent the last seconds of his life. The steep, paint-worn stairs shake under my 65 kilos. I imagine how they must have rocked when Aquino, wearing a bulletproof vest beneath an off-white leisure suit, was hustled down them by six soldiers on the afternoon of Aug. 21, 1983—and then fatally shot in the head.

The murder of the 50-year-old Aquino, who was returning from exile in Boston to challenge dictator Ferdinand Marcos, led to the People Power revolt 30 months later. His widow, Corazon, replaced Marcos as President and renamed the airport after her slain husband. The 14 soldiers accused of killing him—eight more were on the tarmac—were tried twice. A court convened by Marcos acquitted them and blamed the killing on a seemingly hapless stooge named Rolando Galman, a purported communist assassin who was shot on the tarmac seconds after Aquino. Following People Power, the soldiers were retried and given double life sentences for the killings of both Aquino and Galman. They protested their innocence, but the court ruled they were part of a conspiracy run by two officers, one of whom was a general reporting to the military's top commander at the time, Fabian Ver, Marcos's cousin. Ver wasn't charged or tried because he fled the Philippines after People Power, dying in exile in Bangkok in 1998.

The mastermind has never been conclusively identified, although many assume it was Marcos, who also died in exile, in Honolulu in 1989. The search for an eyewitness to the broad-daylight killing—someone watching from the terminal or from an adjacent aircraft—ended years ago.

But in 2004, on the 21st anniversary of Aquino's murder, Persida Rueda-Acosta, the Philippines' top public defender, received a letter from the convicts asking for help. "I advised them to admit to the crime and ask for a pardon," she recalls. "They said: 'We'd rather die in prison.'" Intrigued, Acosta assembled a forensic team to re-examine the evidence. They bought pigs' heads from a slaughterhouse and shot bullets into them, and did their own re-enactment of Aquino's final march down the iron stairs. Acosta and her team are convinced that the soldiers assigned to escort Aquino safely off the plane did their job and got him alive to the tarmac, where Galman was waiting.

I accompany Acosta to Manila's Muntinlupa prison to meet the soldiers convicted of conspiring to kill Aquino. The men are waiting in a bow-ceilinged assembly hall. They wear bright orange T shirts stamped with the words "Inmate Maximum." I feel obliged to shake hands, although it makes me uncomfortable, especially when I reach Corporal Rogelio Moreno, whom the second trial determined shot Aquino on the stairs.

I start my questioning with Moreno: Did he kill Aquino?

"No, sir," he replies. "I'm really innocent. If I were the one who killed Ninoy, I would have been shot dead."

Is he a victim of a conspiracy, then?

"It's possible."

Acosta says her re-enactment absolves Moreno, who was behind Aquino and a step or two above him, because it shows that the fatal shot came from the side. The soldiers did shoot Galman, says Acosta, but as part of their duty to protect Aquino.

Another convict, Master Sergeant Pablo Martinez, who became a born-again Christian in 1994, then tells his story. Martinez, who was on the tarmac, says he brought Galman to the airport and positioned him to kill Aquino. The murder plot didn't involve any of the other soldiers. "Galman did the shooting," he says. "The reason I could keep the secret is that I'm a soldier. I was trained that way." But after Martinez found God in 1994, he confessed to his fellow prisoners. "I didn't want to lie anymore," he says. According to Martinez, Galman told him that the plot was ordered by a Marcos associate, tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco, who is Chairman of San Miguel Corp., Southeast Asia's biggest listed food, beverage and packaging company. This claim was submitted to the Supreme Court as a deposition by Acosta and has been widely reported in the Philippine press. Cojuangco has denied the accusation and his spokesman, Ramon Santiago, told TIME it's "old, old hogwash."

Acosta says she's "not after the mastermind. My concern is the soldiers languishing in jail. This evidence is compelling enough to make the Supreme Court reopen the case. That's why we have courts—to find out the truth." The Court ruled last July, however, that Acosta's sleuthing didn't qualify as "newly found evidence" and declined to retry the soldiers. Acosta has filed a motion for reconsideration, but for now, the Philippines is no closer to knowing the truth about Ninoy Aquino's murder than it was nearly 23 years ago.