Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of rape and murder.
In this article:
- The Chiong sisters’ murder case is full of inconsistencies and suspicious coincidences, particularly the apparent suicide of a judge presiding over the case.
- 24 years after the incident, there are still questions left unanswered regarding what actually happened during the night that Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong were murdered.
- A documentary about the case, Give Up Tomorrow, tried to answer some of these questions, but only generated more speculation.
- The documentary’s popularity drew attention back to the case, leading some people to discover photos of two women who appear to be the Chiong sisters. Alive.
When it comes to gruesome rape and murder cases, few can hold a candle to the harrowing torture that Junko Furuta went through. But some cases, unfortunately, come close.
One such case is the rape and murder of the Chiong sisters. In 1997, sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong were waiting for a ride at a waiting shed when a group of young men, allegedly led by Paco Larrañaga, in a white car abducted them.
This marked the start of the most harrowing night of the sisters’ lives — and their last one.
But there’s more to this case than a simple rape and murder because how else do you get rumors about drug lords and a dead judge?
Prologue: Larrañaga V Chiong
The story starts like this: Two households, Chiong and Larrañaga, both alike in dignity, in fair Cebu City where we lay our scene.
Okay, maybe not alike, but neither of them was exactly your average Cebuano family either.
If you haven’t heard of Cebu City, it’s one of the major urban centers in the Philippines, rivaling the capital of Manila. Aside from its dazzling beaches, the city is also known for being home to scions of prominent families.
One of those was the Larrañaga family. Paco Larrañaga’s mother comes from the Osmeña clan, making them relatives of former president Sergio Osmeña.
Though the family insists in the documentary Give Up Tomorrow that they weren’t a wealthy clan, and as such wouldn’t have the means to “help” Paco, this is immediately contradicted by facts that the family provides to the interviewer and a quick observation of the family members.
For one, they could afford to send Paco to a culinary school in Manila. Second, the family owned vast tracts of land in Cebu, a place known for high property prices.
Third, you don’t get English accents as crisp as the Larrañaga siblings have in the Philippines without being at least somewhat well off. Lastly, Paco had a string of previous offenses that the common Filipino doesn’t get off as easily from.
From this, we can get an idea that the Larrañagas were a family of some means and some connections.
Meanwhile, the Chiong family were Chinese-Filipinos with friends in high places. Dionisio Chiong, the father of the Chiong sisters, was said to have worked for a trucking company that was allegedly owned by a drug lord.
Thelma Chiong, their mother, had a sister who was serving as the personal secretary to then-President Estrada who assigned four different government agencies to aid in the investigation.
The Chiongs and Larrañagas seem to be the kind of people who knew people. Keep that in mind as we go through the case.
Act 1: The Chiong Sisters Are Abducted, Raped, and Murdered
It was raining heavily on July 16, 1997. July in the Philippines is the height of the monsoon season, a time when storms and landslides level entire towns and kill hundreds. And it may have been the reason why the Chiong sisters didn’t get home early enough to avoid misfortune.
Mrs. Thelma Chiong worried her daughters were having a hard time catching a ride home because of the rain. Unbeknownst to her, the Marijoy and Jacqueline had been abducted from a waiting shed by a group of men riding a white car.
By the time her sons came to fetch their sisters, Marijoy and Jacqueline were gone.
The next morning, Mrs. Chiong and her family reported the girls missing to the police who immediately set out to look for them.
On July 18, 1997, the police receive another report from Rudy Lasaga who said he found the dead body of a woman at the foot of a cliff about two hours outside Cebu City.
The body was in a gruesome state. She had a handcuff still attached to her left wrist, her pants had been torn, and her orange shirt was lifted to expose her breasts. Someone had covered her face and neck with a thick layer of masking tape.
Marijoy Chiong was wearing an orange shirt and pants when she disappeared. There was no sign of Jacqueline’s whereabouts or her body.
For the first ten months after Marijoy was found, it looked like the Chiongs would never know what happened to their daughters.
Until Dennis Rusia, one of the men involved in Marijoy and Jacqueline’s murder, stepped forward to confess on May 8, 1998 — a full ten months after the incident.
Act 2: Rusia Rats Out Paco Larrañaga and Rest of the Chiong Seven
What the group of men allegedly did to the Chiong sisters apparently haunted Rusia so much that he had recurring nightmares about the incident which he took as a call of conscience to turn himself over to the police and testify against the other suspects.
The group of young men, many of them from other well-off families that shared social circles with Paco, would be known as the Chiong Seven.
Rusia testified that he was invited by Rowen Adlawan to meet up at 2:00 PM on July 16, 1997.
Rowen had told him that there would be a “big happening” that evening which he thought was a party. At 10:30 that evening, they met with Josman Aznar at the back of a shopping mall where Rusia was told to get in a white car.
The three men rode together until Josman stopped the car in front of a waiting shed where the sisters were standing. Rowen invited the two to go with them but they said no. A furious Rowen, together with Josman, dragged the two women into the car.
Jacqueline Chiong manages to get out of the car and runs, only to be caught by Josman. Once she was back in the car, Rowen beats up the two sisters to make sure they pass out before handcuffing them together.
Josman drives the car to a drugstore and asks the locals if there are vans around that he can rent. But since there was no van available, Josman was forced to drive the same car to a safe house where they met up with Paco Larrañaga, James Anthony Uy and James Andrew Uy.
Rusia claims they separated the sisters. Larrañaga, James Anthony, and Rowen took Marijoy to one of the rooms while Josman and Rusia brought Jacqueline to another. Rusia says Josman told him to leave the room so he waited in the living room with James Andrew.
They stared there for around 20 minutes during which Rusia says he kept hearing the men laughing.
They brought the sisters back to the car and headed for a bus terminal where they were able to rent a white van. Alberto Caño drove it for them Ariel Balansag joined them here, making the two the 6th and 7th members of the group, not counting Rusia.
They stopped to buy barbeque and rum which they later drank and ate near a cliff while smoking marijuana. Sometime after this, they dragged Jacqueline out of the car and forced her to dance as they tore her clothes off her.
Meanwhile, Larrañaga was raping Marijoy inside the car. When he was done, he exited the vehicle and asked the other men: “Who’s next?”
The men took turns raping Marijoy. When they were finished with her, Josman ordered Rowen and Ariel to push Marijoy off the cliff and into a ravine.
They then dragged Jacqueline out of the van again, giving her a chance to escape. When she started running, they followed her with the van and made fun of her, telling her to “Run some more!” but a passing vehicle forced them to bring Jacqueline back in the van. Rowen started beating her again until she passed out.
Cruel, but not subtle.
The vendor they bought their barbeque from testified that he did see the men on the night of the crime and worse, that he could hear a woman’s muffled crying coming from the van. The vendor assumed it was just a regular quarrel.
The driver of the vehicle that passed while Jacqueline was running away testified that he did see a woman with a torn blouse running along the Carcar-Mantalongon route. Another man testified that he saw the van parked at the cliff on the morning of July 17, 1997 and that he saw them throw “garbage” off the cliff.
He thought they were dumping garbage and wanted to report it. That’s why he wrote down their plate number.
Numerous other witnesses corroborated bits and pieces of Rusia’s testimony that formed a solid timeline of the events starting from the waiting shed where they abducted the Chiong sisters all the way to the cliff at Carcar.
Except there’s one problem: Paco Larrañaga had 45 witnesses who said he was with them all day until 3:00 A.M. of the following day.
515.5 miles away from Cebu City.
Act 3: A Curious Turn of Events
Paco Larrañaga and His 45 Witnesses
Rusia claimed that Larrañaga was the mastermind of the sisters’ rape and murder, but his classmates at the Center for Culinary Arts in Manila begged to disagree.
July 16, 1997 was the date of their midterm exam and according to them, he was there to take it. The class attendance taken by a professor for that day showed that Larrañaga was present.
A dozen of his friends claimed he couldn’t have caught a quick flight back to Cebu after the exam because Larrañaga was at a bar with them until 3 in the morning of the following day. In fact, the celebration was for Larrañaga’s departure to his hometown of Cebu on July 18.
And even if they all lied for him, that doesn’t explain how four different airline companies showed proof that no Francisco Juan Larrañaga took a flight from Manila to Cebu and back again from July 15 to July 17.
Mrs. Chiong Is Suspiciously Friendly to Rusia
Rusia wasn’t counted as one of the Chiong Seven despite his obvious involvement because of he testified against the rest of the men. While he was in prison, Mrs. Thelma Chiong would declare Rusia a “gift from God” and bring him gifts for his birthday.
Mr. Chiong isn’t free of suspicion either. He was supposed to testify against his employer, an alleged drug lord, before the crime happened. He backed out at the last minute.
Judge Ocampo Commits Suicide
Judge Martin Ocampo’s handling of the case is riddled with odd decisions. For one, he didn’t allow Paco’s witnesses to testify, claiming there were too many of them. Second, he allowed Rusia to serve as a witness in the case and upheld his testimony despite him having previous criminal convictions that should have eliminated him as a witness.
But the third and most suspicious of all is that Judge Ocampo took three months to write his decision before allegedly committing suicide in Room 503 of the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu City.
The police insist it was a suicide. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines’ Cebu City chapter suspected otherwise.
A report by the investigation team said the judge had a “suicidal mind”, but Javana, his sister, said her brother explicitly told her over the phone that he wanted to serve as a judge until he was 70.
Judge Ocampo was 67 years old when he died. His supposed suicide note said he didn’t want to die of old age.
Act 4: A Strange Disappearance, a Stranger Reappearance
Paco Larrañaga Leaves for Spain
The Larrañagas were able to drum up international attention to the case, especially from the government of Spain of which Paco’s father was a citizen.
This made Paco a dual citizen of Spain and the Philippines which allowed his family to ask for him to be transferred to Spain in accordance with the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Agreement between Spain and the Philippines.
As of 2015, the last time anyone has heard of his whereabouts, he was working as a chef in San Sebastian, Spain. The restaurant he works at is near his apartment.
In the Give Up Tomorrow documentary, Paco’s mother tearfully told the media about his son’s lack of freedom.
The Chiong Sisters Reemerge on Facebook
Only Marijoy’s body was found. The whereabouts of Jacqueline’s body are still unknown.
For a time, it seemed that would be the last anyone would hear about the Chiong sisters’ case. But in 2018, photos began circulating online that showed Marijoy and Jacqueline alive and well in Canada.
A Facebook user by the name of Kristine Ang capitalized on the fame of the Give Up Tomorrow documentary to draw attention to the photos. In her post, she asked the public “Are the Chiong sisters really alive, married, and living in Canada?”
“#FreePacoNow #21YearsOfInjustice.” Kristine Ang wrote.
Perhaps the siblings just look like these women. But that doesn’t explain why Mrs. Thelma Chiong, the woman on the left, changed her Facebook cover photo to this image.