Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every morning, Carminia Castillo walks down the hallway to wake up the kids.
When she passes by Atio’s bedroom, the door is open. The lights are on. Everything is exactly where it was on the morning he left, even the chocolate wrappers strewn over the floor. But the bed is empty.
She wakes her daughter up. Sometimes, they have a chat. Nicole comments how it feels like Atio is just in school. They have a good cry. Then Nicole sniffs, “Hay nako, Atio talaga.”
Another day begins. Everyone goes about their work, until the day is done.
“I told myself I’d clean his room one of these days — but the days went to weeks, again, and then weeks into months,” his father says. “It's quite different now. When Atio was still living — you can feel if he already arrived.”
He would grab a snack in the kitchen, then retreat to his room to study, watch a movie, or play DoTA — which he allotted at least an hour for, even if it was past midnight. It cleared his head.
“You’d hear him talking. You’d hear him laughing. Sometimes, you hear him cursing,” Mr. Castillo recalls. “But now? His room is quiet.”
At sundown, his wife fulfills the daily routine of leaving Atio's door ajar and turning the lights on — every day, without fail. If they are spending evening out, she will do it before they leave.
You have seen this Peter Pan ritual before: It is as if Atio is a lost boy, forever young, and his parents still keep a spark of hope that he will fly back in through the window.
“I just want the light on, just to remind me... he’s not there,” says Mrs. Castillo. “Maybe that's the logic behind it. Sometimes you leave the light on in case he comes home.”
It has been a year since Atio was killed in hazing rites to the Aegis Juris fraternity. After he had been missing for a day, an anonymous person told his parents to go to Chinese General Hospital in a text message. A nurse told them in a call that an unidentified boy in a UST political science shirt was picked up by Scene of the Crime Operatives. They found him in a funeral parlor, bruised all over, with candle wax drippings on his skin.
Atio had many plans. He had always been interested in politics and legislation. He was a boy scout, debater, and football goalkeeper on weekends. He was active in recitation, and had interned at the Senate. When his family called him “Attorney,” his face would light up — it was something he truly wanted.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Mr. Castillo says suddenly. “Isang beses, nawala ko si Atio. He was very small.”
It was at a car dealership at a mall. He had not realized Atio slipped right out of his hand.
“I didn’t know what to do. Natakot ako for the first time,” he recalled. “Sabi ko, ‘Nawawala ang anak ko. Patay ako kay Minnie.’”
For half an hour, he hurriedly inspected each of the vehicles. Finally, he found Atio playing behind the wheel of a sports car.
“Siguro my [blood pressure] was very high,” he said with a hint of a smile. “When I looked at him, Atio looked back and he waved with that smile on his face. Nag-hi siya... I composed myself. I just waved back.”
“But for the first time in my life, I experienced how it is to lose your son. Alam ko mahahanap ko siya,” he says. “But the thing is, on Sept. 17 — when I saw him lying there in the morgue, I knew this time, Atio was not coming back.”
Aurelio Servando was never so protective of his other children as he was with Guillo, the youngest. He was a culinary arts sophomore at De La Salle - College of St. Benilde, poised to inherit the family’s food business. He was a big, sweet guy who did pull weights and treated the restaurant staff on his birthdays. His father had a hunch.
“You see, when he was first conceived, it was then we discovered my wife had... gestational diabetes. We were first warned that if we ignored [it], my son could come out without a skull,” says Servando. “That has always been my nightmare. I literally would go on my knees and pray. Sabi ko, 'Lord, ilabas mo lang ang anak ko na buo, you can have him later... He will be your son before he is mine.'”
When Guillo was born a bouncing, healthy baby boy, the family was happy. But — “I had an inkling,” Servando confesses, “that I wouldn't have him for a long time.”
Guillo was only 18 when he died after hazing rites to the Tau Gamma Phi fraternity on June 28, 2014. The case was widely reported as CCTV footage from a condominium building shows Guillo collapsing and being dragged out of the elevator.
“I still think about it 24 hours in every day,” says Servando. “Even when I’m sitting on the table, I would always remember, ‘My son used to sit here.’ Whenever we go to a restaurant, I always remember we used to eat there.”
Today, the Servando residence is stripped bare. Making the decision to move out of Manila after he died was easy. There are three large freezers in the living room and kitchen. What used to be a home is now a commissary. It was difficult to maintain a house Guillo could not live in anymore.
“When he passed, we decided to scale down things,” says Servando. “We really didn’t have much to prepare for anyway, since he was already gone, and we were working very hard for him.”
A month after he passed away, the family bought a dog. Guillo had always wanted a chow chow. They named it Serbs, after his nickname in La Salle. They packed Guillo’s things, stuffed his shoes and suits from school into a suitcase, and brought them back to their home province of Iloilo.
“This used to be a more livable house then, when he was around and when my daughter was still here in Manila,” says Servando. “We had a sofa here... I had a lot of decorations. It looked more like a house before than it does now.”
“Wala na ‘yung gamit. Picture nalang ang alaala niya sa amin,” says Oscar Intia.
His small home is a single room with a divider on the second floor of a compound he shares with his siblings. The mattresses are pushed up against the wall. A picture of EJ Karl, whom they call Bunsoy, from a year before his death is propped up on the same side.
EJ shared the room with his father and four siblings. He was the middle child. His mother left long ago, with two other siblings. His dad, an electrical foreman, was putting them all through school — and EJ was a big help around the house.
When he got up, he studied and did his chores: cleaning, doing the dishes, and sometimes cooking. He also loved tinkering around, like his father. At 19, EJ was an electrical engineering student, and fixed broken appliances. But he also made it a point to raise money, knowing they were hard up. In high school, he sold banana cue he made himself, from ingredients he saved up for.
“Siguro natutunan sa probinsya, ginawa niya dito. Binalot balot niya, dineliver niya sa mga pinsan, tiyahin,” his father recalls. “Pinamigay. Siyempre, may bayad. Pera niya mismo ang ginamit niya.”
Intia says his older children were studying too, and EJ’s initiative was great support. Unbeknownst to him, his son took a job in McDonald’s, which he juggled with school.
“Nalaman ko na lang pagkasweldo. Binigyan ako ng pera,” says Intia. “'Pa... dagdag natin pambili ng bigas.' Sabi ko, 'Sige, itabi mo muna iyan. May suweldo pa naman ako. Pag kailangan natin, bili ka na.'”
When his son did not come home on Aug. 14, 2010, his father was preoccupied with work and the bills, and assumed EJ visited an aunt in Antipolo. On the third day of his absence, his sister told him something felt off. Then they heard of a hazing at the University of Makati, where EJ was studying. An anonymous person, who identified themselves only as a classmate, said something had happened to EJ.
After that, everything happened so fast. By 6 p.m. on the fifth day, they went to a Makati police station to file a missing persons report. They stayed for four hours. Then a cop told him someone matching his son’s description had been found in Laguna.
The chief decided to follow the lead, and the authorities brought Intia with them. By around 3 a.m., they arrived at the morgue.
“Kumpirmado ko — iyon ‘yung anak ko,” he says. He coughs and wipes the sides of his eyes. ‘[Nang] nakita ko ang anak ko, ‘yung nakapaligid — parang gusto kong manakit. Pero natigilan ako.”
It was the fifth day since EJ went missing. He was dumped in a ravine in Laguna. Some kids saw his body, and informed barangay authorities about it. Police traced the crime to a hazing by the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) Philippines Fraternity.
Intia says, “Pinalaki mo, pinag-aral mo, ganyan lang ang mangyayari?”
The Intias made headlines for three days. Police singled out 16 suspects, five of whom surrendered. Then on Aug. 24, 2010, the Luneta hostage crisis happened. By the time they buried Bunsoy, their story was buried too. On the 40th day since he went missing, the Makati Regional Trial Court dismissed the case, and the suspects walked free.
The family still eats, sleeps, and lives in the same space that EJ did. Intia now has grandchildren, and the house is more or less the same, and is even more crowded — but he still refers to it as lacking.
“Medyo nabawas-bawasan ang bahay ko," he says of the time EJ disappeared. "[Dati] kumpleto kami, masaya... kakain, doon lang sa lapag. Pagtulog, sama-sama sa lapag. Biglang tumahimik nang nawala siya.”
It took Gerarda Villa three years before she cleaned her son Lenny's room. She did it gradually.
He had a spacious bedroom, with his own bathroom, just behind the stairs. It was where he would tinker with his camera; he loved taking photos. He and his sister Tina would study in the attic. When they would hear the car park in the garage, he would rush downstairs to greet his parents.
She points out the dinner table where Lenny had asked for permission to join Aquila Legis, a fraternity in Ateneo de Manila University Law School. His father had been a fratman from the University of the Philippines, and the family saw nothing wrong with the idea. They assumed they would make him run errands, or pick on him in front of girls — nothing he could not bounce back from.
It was a weekend, and she and her husband were on a sailboat in Cavite when they received the news. The night before Lenny was killed, Villa says, she was very jittery. “For the first time, I felt — kinakabahan ako masyado. I didn't know why. It's as if I wanted to vomit.” Perhaps it was mother’s instinct.
In the early morning, a boat from Manila approached theirs. Villa thought something had happened to her father. Her sister-in-law called out, “Ate, ate, wala na si Leonard!”
“What?” Mrs. Villa cried. She was hysterical, but her husband was in shock and could not speak.
It was a quiet ride back to Manila. Their daughter, who had been at a retreat in Laguna, had gone ahead and seen the body, all black and blue. The rest of their relatives had seen Lenny too. Mr. and Mrs. Villa did not. She was afraid her husband would get an attack, as he had gone very red. She stayed with him, and said they would see Lenny when he was ready for the funeral.
But she also buckled down to work. While the wake was taking place, she visited one of the neophytes who survived in the hospital and asked him to be a witness. The boy’s mother, who was a judge, was afraid. But he stayed true to his word to speak up, and the other survivors followed suit. Villa started what would become a lifelong campaign, founding and chairing the Crusade Against Violence — an organization for the families of hazing victims — speaking in schools across the country, and pushing for an anti-hazing law, which was signed in 1995.
Lenny Villa died on Feb. 10, 1991. He was buried on Valentine's Day. Two years later, a Caloocan Regional Trial Court found 26 fratmen guilty of homicide. But in 2002, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision — deciding only two of the 26 were guilty. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2012 found five fratmen guilty of a lesser crime, reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.
“Not one of them are in jail. Not even for one day,” says Villa. Homicide is a bailable crime, and the Anti-Hazing Law was not around in 1991. “[It was] as if nothing happened. As if I did not fight for my case.”
Now, her granddaughters share her son’s old room. Most of his things are gone, although she keeps his old camera. A framed graduation photo and two albums are in the living room.
Villa says that she no longer dwells on the negative, but she continues to carry on fighting for justice. Apart from the initial accused, the Villa family is still after nine additional suspects. Twenty-seven years after the killing, hearings are still ongoing.
If there is one thing that the families of hazing victims will tell you, it is that the pain never goes away. The news cycle spins on, but their lives will never be the same.
“Marami nang nangyari… but for us, what happened to Atio is still very fresh,” says Mr. Castillo. “A lot of people have moved on, but not us.”
As everything in Atio’s bedroom is intact, so do his parents intend to preserve everything in the case. They are determined to go after everyone who was present the night of Atio’s death.
Manila police revealed a damning Facebook thread where Aegis Juris members and alumni spoke about covering up the crime. The lawyers are being probed for disbarment, and will soon face charges for obstruction of justice. Ten initial suspects are detained in Manila City Jail.
“Tigilan niyo na ‘yung mentality na aaregluhin, babayaran, makakalusot... No,” says Mrs. Castillo. “We are here to defend our son... I’ll see to it all of you will be brought to justice.”
For Servando, justice is negotiable in the Philippines. His own case was junked by a Makati Regional Trial Court in 2016. It was not until this year that the Court of Appeals ordered a trial for the accused.
“It was like déjà vu for us, when I first saw the picture of Atio Castillo,” he says. “I immediately recognized that he was also big like my son. I could see his very warm personality from his picture.”
As most of Guillo’s belongings have been moved, so has the case moved from one court to another and back again. Servando admits he has forgiven some of those who personally apologized, although he will not appeal to La Salle to readmit them as students, even as one family had pleaded with him to do. He says he owes it to students to make sure lessons are learned. But the Servandos, who have already spent hundreds of thousands on the case, have decided to focus on the conviction of the primary perpetrators.
For Intia, who keeps a single photo of his son, a single conviction would be enough for him at this point. They would be lucky if the case is reopened.
After it was dismissed, he had hoped to appeal it, but his lawyer said they could not do so without witnesses and new evidence. There were several things he found strange. He said the school and EJ's classmates either did not know or refused to speak about it, even to authorities. He also wondered why there had not been enough evidence against the 16 people police narrowed down. He says the National Bureau of Investigation promised to help, but he was not sure what came out of their probe — and he says they did not have a budget.
He still recalls when mothers of the accused approached him to try to settle the case out of court after EJ’s funeral. He was with another member of Crusade Against Violence, which had been assisting him through the ordeal.
“Yung mga magulang ng nakakulong, lumapit sa akin. Humihingi ng areglo,” Intia recalls. He was angry; he says he would never take the bait. “Kung lalaki lang, baka nasuntok ko. Hindi naman sila umiiyak... parang paawa effect lang.”
Intia would not be surprised if authorities slept on his son’s case on purpose. “Siyempre, wala naman akong pera,” he says. “Ano ang ikupkop ko sa kanila? Ano ang mabigay ko?”
“Hindi man namin makuha ang hustisya, pero siguro alam din ng anak ko na pinaglalaban namin. Kung hanggang doon lang kaya namin, wala kaming magagawa,” he says. “Pero kahit saan man siya naroroon, alam niya na pinaglalaban namin siya.”
The Servando and Intia cases were handled by the same judge, Honorio Guanlao Jr.
The Villas, who could afford to sustain the legal battle, faced difficulties too. “They would send friends,” Villa recalls. “Maski magkakaibigan, lawyers to lawyers, sorry... Otherwise, there will be no meaning [to] why Leonard died of hazing.
A newspaper report in 2017 details how the accused in Villa’s case went on to hold powerful positions in government and private practice, with one even sitting as a Sandiganbayan justice. Three have worked as chiefs of staffs for lawmakers. Meanwhile, Caloocan judge Adoracion Angeles, who initially found the 26 fratmen guilty, was denied a promotion and slapped with administrative charges that were eventually dismissed.
“I feel disgusted of course,” says Villa. “It’s really Philippine culture. If you know somebody, you can live a normal life, as if there was no regret.”
In 27 years, no one among the accused apologized. And after over 20 hazing cases after her son’s, Villa no longer watches news reports on hazing. She says it pains her — “You get the same feeling again. You get mad, a little angry.” She no longer dwells on the negatives, she says, but that does not mean she will stop fighting for Lenny. Villa only has one appeal to those who killed her son: to apologize and own up to their mistakes, and join campaign against violence.
“Deep in their heart, they know they did something wrong. And they should accept that,” says Villa. “Did you feel remorse? [Would you] send your children to this kind of fraternity? They should do their part [in] healing the initiation... You can also help, by being man enough to say, ‘We were very young, and our experience is like this... So I would like to apologize to Mrs. Villa, with the promise that I would also talk about [our experience] with others.’”
Lenny Villa's bedroom was perfectly preserved for three years, until they first received a perfect conviction. Since the room was cleared and transformed, so has his case.
Despite this defeat, his mother believes he left a legacy for boys like Guillo, EJ, and Atio. “Leonard died because for something more. He is not just a hazing victim.”
Atio’s family also pushed for the more stringent 2018 version of the law, Republic Act 11053.
She wishes the Castillo family luck. “The Castillo [family] will do it now,” she says. “Hopefully they can improve the justice system in our country.”
Mrs. Castillo says Atio wanted to be a lawyer — but now he is a law, that everyone in his profession will have to study.
“This law will save hundreds… [Atio] wanted change. Little did he know, siya pala ang magiging change,” says Mr. Castillo. “Because of him and other hazing victims, nagkaroon ng pagbabago… No mother or father would go through [what we did].”
There are many parallels between Atio and Guillo: they were both dog lovers, who left behind doting parents and a sister. The wounds Atio and EJ sustained were similar. Atio and Lenny were the same age when they were pronounced dead on arrival at Chinese General Hospital. Defendants in both cases argued they died of cardiac arrest, not hazing.
Whether the bedrooms they occupied in their lives are still intact, or crowded, or transformed, the biggest common denominator among these deaths is the presence of absence. By looking at the spaces they leave behind, we can see the spaces for those who were left behind.
“I believe that we'll win this case. But at the end of the day, wala pa rin siya,” says Mrs. Castillo. “At the end of the day, kulang pa rin kami.”