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Taguig court finds Cedric Lee, Deniece Cornejo, others guilty of illegal detention

Taguig court finds Cedric Lee, others guilty of illegal detention

A Taguig court on Thursday found businessman Cedric Lee and three others guilty of illegally detaining TV host and actor Vhong Navarro in 2014.

In a 94-page decision, the Taguig Regional Trial Court (RTC)-Branch 153 found Lee, Deniece Cornejo, Ferdinand Guerrero, and Simeon Raz guilty beyond reasonable doubt of serious illegal detention for ransom under Article 267 of the Revised Penal Code.

The court sentenced them to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua or up to 40 years imprisonment.

"It is all too apparent that the accused planned and premeditated to restrain Vhong Navarro to extort money from him. Proof of their agreement is inferred from their conduct before, during, and after the commission of the crime," the court said.

It added that their conduct disclosed "a common understanding between them" on the commission of the crime.

The court also canceled the bail bond of the accused.

Meanwhile, Navaro’s legal counsel, Atty. Alma Mallonga, said Raz and Cornejo, who personally attended the promulgation, were committed immediately by the court.

"They asked for consideration. Ang sabi ng court, my ruling stands. And ang ruling ng court is for Ms. Cornejo and Mr. Simeon Raz who were there to already be committed," Mallonga said in an interview.

Cornejo was committed to the Correctional Institution for Women and Raz to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

"As far as Mr. Cedric Lee and Ferdinand Guerrero were concerned, they were ordered arrested and they will also be committed as soon as they are found," she added.

Speaking to reporters, Philippine National Police spokesperson Police Colonel Jean Fajardo urged Lee and Guerrero to surrender to the authorities.

“Mag-voluntary surrender na lang po sila doon sa pinakamalapit na istasyon sa kanila o they can get through their lawyers, so that they could arrange po yung possible voluntary surrender po nila,” Fajardo said.

(They should just voluntarily surrender at the nearest police station or they can get through their lawyers to arrange their possible voluntary surrender.)

“Nonetheless po, yung ating mga akusado naman po ay they have the right to exercise and exhaust all legal remedies available to them to file a motion for reconsideration or even appeal this case po to the proper forum,” she added.

(Nonetheless, they have the right to exercise and exhaust all legal remedies available to them, to file a motion for reconsideration or even appeal this case to the proper forum.)

The RTC also ordered the accused to pay Navarro P100,000 in civil indemnity, P100,000 as moral damages, and P100,000 as exemplary damages.

"All monetary awards shall earn legal interest rate of 6% per annum from the finality of the judgment until fully paid," the court said.

In 2014, Lee and his group were accused of holding Navarro captive and inflicting serious physical injuries against him.

In finding Lee and his group guilty, the RTC said it found it unusual that the accused gathered in one place with a police officer a few hours before Navarro and Cornejo intended to meet up.

It said that the accused initially concealed that their meeting place was in Ritz Towers and changed their testimonies after seeing the CCTV footage from the tower.

Further, the Court said that the alleged rape of Cornejo was also part of the scheme.

In March 2023, the Supreme Court dismissed the charges of rape and acts of lasciviousness against Navarro due to lack of probable cause.

"Deniece Cornejo lured Vhong Navarro to her condo unit so that his co-accused attained their purpose of restraining Vhong Navarro and later on extort money from Vhong before dropping the blotter," the RTC said.

"Also her BDO bank account was seen in the text message of Cedric to Vhong, which [was] used where to send the extorted money," it added.

Meanwhile, though Navarro did not attend the hearing, Atty. Bon Arcilla, one of Navarro's lawyers, said the actor was "very happy."

"He was very happy na this 10-year struggle is finally—has closure and that justice was served. We're very happy," Arcilla said.

Asked why Navarro did not attend the hearing, Mallonga said that the actor was aware that there would be a promulgation but that he and his team were not sure about the court's decision.

"Hindi din kasi kami sigurado kung anong mangyayari kahit na sabi ko panatag kami sa aming kaso (because we weren't sure what would happen even though I said we were confident about our case)," she said.

"So I think kahit na masayang-masaya si Mr. Vhong Navarro, hanggang ngayon naaalala niya yung paghihirap niya na nadanas, hindi lamang nu'ng [panahon na] the crime was committed against him, pero 'yung journey niya towards getting justice," she added.

(I think that even if Mr. Vhong Navarro is very happy, even now he remembers the hardship he has endured, not only when the crime was committed but his journey towards getting justice.)

Mallonga said she believed that the other camp would appeal the court's decision.

Cornejo's granduncle, Rod Cornejo, said in a statement, "As her granduncle, a member of the Cornejo clan, I am both shocked and sad with the verdict. But Deniece, my grandniece (her late paternal grandfather was my first cousin) and I received the verdict calmly. Deniece did not cry out loud or showed disdain. We maintain our composure and integrity, having faith in God who will correct the wrong in His perfect timing."

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) said Lee has an active hold departure order since 2014 and an active warrant of arrest since 2015. His name is also on the Immigration Lookout Bulletin (ILBO) since 2014.

The Bureau said Guerrero also has a standing warrant of arrest and has been on the ILBO since 2014.

"The BI is committed to implement said orders if subjects are encountered in any ports of entry or exit," Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said in a message to reporters. — VAL/VDV/VBL/BAP, GMA Integrated News