A former military chief accused of embezzling at least $1 million from the armed forces died of a gunshot wound Tuesday in what witnesses described as an apparent suicide at his mother’s grave.
Retired Gen. Angelo Reyes, 65, was pronounced dead on arrival at a Manila hospital from a single gunshot wound in the chest after visiting the grave, Health Secretary Enrique Ona said in a news conference broadcast nationwide.
Ona refused to immediately confirm that Reyes had committed suicide, saying he was awaiting autopsy results.
Witnesses interviewed by DZBB radio station at the cemetery said they saw Reyes send his children to his car before a single shot rang out.
Reyes headed the military from 2001 to 2003 and was recently accused in a high-profile congressional hearing of pocketing money from the armed forces. Corruption is an explosive issue in the inadequately equipped and poorly paid 120,000-strong military that has sparked several insurrections in the last two decades by disgruntled soldiers.
In startling testimony that started last month, retired military budget officer Col. George Rabusa claimed that huge amounts had been diverted from key military units into a kitty for all kinds of illegal payoffs.
Among the recipients of the unaudited payoffs were past military chiefs of staff who each month collected millions of pesos (tens of thousands of dollars) for personal use plus huge “send-off” payments when they retired, he said.
Rabusa alleged that Reyes, who had attended the hearings, was among the recipients of the payoffs, which had to be converted into dollars because the peso equivalent was too bulky.
Rabusa said under oath he was among the officers who delivered money to Reyes — including more than $1 million when he stepped down. A stunned Reyes denied the accusations and later filed graft charges against Rabusa and a senator whom he accused of conspiring to malign him.
Emotions ran high when Reyes tried to confront Rabusa at the January 27 hearing but was restrained by senators, including Antonio Trillanes IV, a former navy officer who was detained for more than seven years for alleged involvement in failed coups against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Reyes was among Arroyo’s most loyal backers.
“I’m just trying to protect my reputation here,” Reyes said. “I have served this government for 48 years,” he said during the Senate hearing in what would be his last public appearance.
“No, no, no, you don’t have any reputation to protect,” Trillanes responded. “I believe this is the time of reckoning…. You better find very good lawyers.”
A House of Representatives committee resumed its investigation into military corruption Tuesday, with lawmakers and witnesses pausing briefly to pray for Reyes. A lawmaker read a letter from Reyes, apologising because he could not attend the nationally televised hearing. The letter was written early this week.
The government of President Benigno Aquino III, who was elected last year on the promise of prosecuting corrupt officials, supported the investigations into military graft.
The magnitude of the accusations against Reyes and two other retired Philippine military chiefs shocked many in this Southeast Asian nation, which has grappled with government corruption scandals for decades but produced few convictions.
Reyes was among the country’s most prominent generals. He had led counterinsurgency battles and headed the defense, environment, energy, interior and local government affairs and other top posts under several presidents. He was known for his temper but revealed a lighter side too, as part of a three-member soprano group in which the macho general sang and danced in charity shows.
Reyes’ accuser Rabusa grieved over his death, saying they were close friends until the congressional investigation. Rabusa also said he feared for his life.
“I’m really sad and I don’t know why he did that,” Rabusa told DZBB radio, his voice cracking. “I know his children, they treated me like a second father…. We ate together. He served me meals.”