5 Pinoy true crime stories that need the docu-series treatment

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With the hope that more local producers will take on these projects, we’ve prepared a list of five true crime stories that we think deserve that prestige docu-series treatment. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For Filipinos, crime stories are a staple of TV viewing. Nightly, we are used to being shown a highlight reel of CCTV footage documenting the latest shooting, robbery, and kidnapping. The more sensational stories find their way to public affairs shows, while the more salacious ones are picked up by the afternoon crime drama anthologies.

If it were the 1990s, Carlo J. Caparas would have already produced a film on the year’s most gruesome massacre. But digital platforms now give creators and audiences more ways to explore these stories in-depth. One just has to go through Netflix's true crime genre for its rich array of hit original documentary series. A few years ago, the podcast series "Serial" infused new life to the format with its investigative reporting and intimate approach to the Hae Min Lee murder case. Local firms are starting to experiment with audio, such as "Super Evil" (which features the murder of Aileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez by then-Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez in its first season), and the independently-produced "Stories After Dark."

These novel ways of storytelling provide fresh perspectives on crime’s multifaceted nature not often seen in the evening news. After all, each crime gives insights not just on the criminal’s mind, but on the society they belong to and the institutions that govern it.

With the hope that more local producers will take on such projects, we’ve prepared a list of five true crime stories that we think deserve that docu-series treatment.

+The House on Zapote Street" and Nick Joaquin’s reporting

The true crime genre finds its roots in New Journalism, a literary movement which “combined journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing.” Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe were among its pioneers in the 1960s and '70s. Here in the Philippines, it was national artist Nick Joaquin who popularized this style in the pages of the Philippines Free Press. Among the most horrifying pieces he wrote was “The House on Zapote Street,” which details the circumstances behind a jealous father’s bloody rampage that ended in his own death and the murder of his daughter and son-in-law.

Filmmaker Mike de Leon would later use the piece as the basis for his award-winning 1981 film “Kisapmata.” Those planning on making a true crime series can learn from Joaquin’s masterful writing and attention to detail. Plus, they can always refer to “Reportage on Crime,” Joaquin’s collection of crime stories from the 1960s, for other possible story ideas.

Angeles City serial killer

FH Batacan’s book "Smaller and Smaller Circles" raised the question of whether serial killers can exist in a tightly-knit society as the Philippines. The case of Mark Dizon proves Filipinos are no exception.

Dizon is accused of robbing and killing at least nine people around Angeles City in 2010, three of whom were expats. He was then a 28-year-old computer technician who “slept with a gun tucked under his pillow.” Police found the same pattern in all of the victims: faces covered and with gunshots in the head and chest. There were also no signs of forced entry, suggesting that the victims knew Dizon. Reports claim that Dizon “befriended many expats” in Angeles, and even courted Czarina Mitchell, daughter of a couple that he also killed. After killing his victims, he would allegedly take their gadgets and pawn them.

The murders had “struck fear” in the “expat paradise” of Angeles City. Despite the evidence, Dizon’s father claims that his son could never commit such heinous crimes. Dizon has himself denied the charges.

The case is recent enough for fresh investigations, and a series tackling the rare instance of a Filipino serial killer is always welcome.

Armando’s lore

Rich scion goes on a killing spree is a common theme among the 1990s’ most sensational crimes. This story also involves one. But unlike the decade’s highly-publicized cases, this story has never been confirmed, but it continues to persist in the locals’ imagination.

Armando, whose last name is not publicly known, is said to be notorious in Negros Oriental for allegedly raping, torturing, and killing multiple women. Aside from a few references by some Negrenses online, no known record verifies his supposed crimes (some allege that his influential family may have managed to keep authorities silent). His abandoned house has become a macabre attraction, where the lore suggests he buried some of his victims alive.

But existing accounts show that Armando indeed lived a dangerous and tragic life. News clippings from local paper Negros Chronicle show how he had been a target of multiple assassination attempts, with one ultimately succeeding in 1997.

Sounds like a story that’s ripe for some good, old-fashioned digging.

Cadiz priest sexual abuse

Scandals involving sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests have rocked the West since the 2000s. This has eroded trust in the church, even in countries where Catholicism was once influential. The film "Spotlight" and the Netflix docu-series "The Keepers" are just some productions that have tackled the issue.

But here in deeply-Catholic Philippines, such cases are almost never heard of — until recently. Aron Buenacosa, a priest from Cadiz City, Negros Occidental, was accused of molesting a five-year-old girl, whose mother worked as a secretary in the parish. The mother recalled how the priest would “frequently ask to 'borrow'” her daughter, who would then come out with chocolate and candy. This happened multiple times, the child says.

Buenacosa’s case is now on trial, a rarity in the Philippines. If convicted, he will be the first Catholic priest to face punishment for any kind of sexual misconduct.

A potential series on the case (or similar ones) could embolden others to speak about their own experiences. But it also has to consider the sensitivities of covering minors involved in sexual abuse, as well as the delicate dynamics between church, family, and community.

Bangladesh money heist

Today, crimes need not be bloody for them to be considered notorious. Sometimes, all it takes is a few clicks.

In February 2016, the Bangladesh Central Bank found $81 million suddenly missing from its account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Hackers have successfully coursed the money into four separate RCBC accounts in Makati City, eventually ending up in the hands of casino operators Kam Sin Wong and Weikang Xu. Both have denied knowledge of the funds’ illicit source, and have been cleared by prosecutors.

If it were not for typographical errors, hackers would have gotten off more than $1 billion from the nation’s coffers. Several Filipinos have already been charged with money laundering. But until now, no one knows the identity of the hackers who initiated the attack, or even its masterminds (the US suspects it was North Korea).

While white collar crimes might not be as flashy, an in-depth look at a real life billion-dollar global money heist might be compelling enough to offer unique insights on the tech-savvy crimes that will surely dominate the 21st century.