Seeking Justice For Alicia

Whitney Fleming

© Copyright 2006 by Whitney Fleming

 A piece that tells the story of a murder investigation that I was intimately involved in and what it forced me to realize about humanities capabilities for cruelty and my own confusion with this acceptance.

 I had been living in Dumaguete City in the Philippines for almost a year. Life had become routine to me: I taught a class in the morning at 8am, went to the soup kitchen to serve food to children at 11am, went to the hospital and visited young patients at 1 or 2pm, and tutored a girl who had cerebral palsy at 4pm. That all changed on December 12, 2002 when I arrived at the soup kitchen to help feed the sixty children that come daily to receive their lunch.

 I climbed out of a pedicab with my friend Melissa, a US Peace Corps volunteer who also worked at the soup kitchen, and instantly we were swallowed by the children’s golden limbs.

 “Alicia dead! Alicia Dead!”

 “Stop. Stop. Calm down. What happened? What are you talking about? Where is Flor?” Two children on each arm guided me to Flor, the woman who runs the Soup Kitchen.

Flor, what is all this confusion about Alicia? I don’t understand.” I was not nervous or even that concerned, the children surely were just playing a new game I didn’t understand. Her gaze remained on the large pot of soup she was preparing over the open fire.

 “They found Alicia Oso’s body yesterday in a field. She has been murdered. We don’t know anything else. Please go to the funeral home. Dande wants you to go.” Her voice was controlled, almost monotone, she had children to feed and could not afford the sadness that she felt. As Melissa and I prepared to climb in another pedicab to go to the funeral home Alicia’s brother and little sister came up and pulled on my arm.

 “We go with you. We see Alicia too.” I tried to say no, thinking that it was not an appropriate place for children but when I looked up at Flor she nodded,

 “Please take them. They need to say goodbye.” I would learn that this was a cultural belief: that one needs to actually see the body in order to let the loved one go. I had no idea what we were heading into, why Melissa and I were needed so urgently there, or what we were about to see. Ten minutes later we pulled up to the funeral home and immediately Dande approached us. Dande was a stocky woman, short hair with rugged mannerisms, she also helped at the soup kitchen so we knew her well. She was quiet most of the time, but never refused a good laugh. She had no words for us, no explanations to offer.

 “Please follow me.”

 We followed Dande into a white walled room with wood floors and light green curtains drawn over the open windows. Alicia’s brother and sister trailed behind. On the ride over I had been trying to place Alicia’s name with a face, having over sixty children to memorize with vibrant smiles can be tricky, I assumed that when I saw her I would recognize her. I was wrong.

 Her body lay naked on a cold medal table, her school uniform, bloody and ripped, was crumpled up in a bucket underneath the table. The right side of her face was so discolored and swollen it left her unrecognizable to me. Her body had been beaten so badly I could not distinguish her natural golden color from the wounds; what once were energetic legs that ran along the beach were now disfigured mounds of skin. Her neck was laced with a fine red line that cut deeply all the way across. I would soon find out that she was strangled to death with her own shoelace. The smell was strong, so strong that my shirt offered no hint of help to guard me against the death that was in front of me. Alicia’s brother, Alex, gripped my leg and shielded his face against my thigh as he began to cry. Her sister gripped Melissa. I knew I shouldn’t be crying, that I should be strong, like Melissa was, for the children. But I couldn’t be. I wasn’t. I cried loud and long, mumbling, “But I don’t understand.”

The next few days were disorientating for me. The crime seemed to fall into place in bits and pieces until 4 days later we were starting to get a full picture: we had a lead suspect, her mother’s best friend who worked at the soup kitchen also. She had a motive, a $20 necklace that her father had saved two years to buy her. There was even an eye witness, a pedicab driver who had passed by during the beating at approximately 11:30 in the morning, and had stopped to see why a child was making such noise. Elizabeth, a 29 year old mother of three, looked at the man and said “This is a family matter, now leave.” And so he did.

 Melissa and I were asked to come because the police laughed at Dande when they found out she was from lo-oc, the poorest community in the small city, saying that the crime would never get solved without money. Dande wanted the police to see our white skin caring; she wanted us to help to pay for a proper burial.

The next four months of my life were devoted entirely to seeking justice for Alicia. I would go to the police station, hire a top lawyer, seek out other witnesses, take pictures of the crime scene, try and secure material for DNA testing, and even come face to face with Elizabeth for questioning. Melissa and I solicited money from friends and family to help with the costs and the police happily accepted our help and enthusiasm. During those four months I tried to think little and wrote even less. When I did surrender to the mirage of anger, confusion, and questions it always ended with me in tears and the words “but I don’t understand.” How does someone beat a child to death; with what rage do they summons the devil? Is that rage in me, the reckless passion that gives way to all reason? And how many others have there been, will there be; how many other Alicia’s are beaten to death, a torture and pain I have never known; how can I save them all? And when I would write in my journal the entries seemed to spiral more into confusion and produce no answer. They did not help me release, they just seemed to bare witness to my tightening frustrations:

 “I can’t let that moment go. That instant that coconut (given to earth to sustain life) was taken against you [Alicia], and driven with the intent of death. Knee to back- rope to throat. And to see you, your body containing no more life, where once those arms wrapped around my hips. Now I sit here shaking, 22 years old and I am completely crippled by injustice. 22, and I am mourning your loss of 12 years not yet experienced [she was 10 when she dies]. I’m letting it flow-so hard- I can no longer stuff it in all the armpits of rationalization. THERE IS NO RATIONAL REASON!!!!! I’m scared I have this heart that yearns to help but I’m too sensitive. Every time I cry it still feels like the first time I’ve released my sorrow.”

 I was called down to the police station three weeks after the murder. The police still did not have an arrest warrant for Elizabeth (it took two months to get one) and she had turned up at the station seeking protection. The local community in Lo-oc was accustomed to the police overlooking crimes in the area and having to take matters into their own hands. Within days of the murder a 24-hour man hunt had been launched for Elizabeth, who had reportedly been hiding in the tree tops outside of town. When the search grew in size and intensity she went to the Police station. Since she was still not an official suspect, her paperwork fell into a pile that was literally ceiling high, they were not allowed to interrogate her or ask her any questions. This being the case, they called me and asked me to come and talk with her. I seemed to strike a medium, having known both Elizabeth and Dande from the soup kitchen and having intimate details about the murder.

 Now, here I sit, face to face with Elizabeth, the woman who I am 90% certain had done the brutal beating to the battered body, I realize that I never did really notice her. She always fell into the background with sixty happy children and chatty alive women. Elizabeth is a small woman, much smaller than Dande. She stands around my height, 5’2, and looks to have no body fat and average muscle. She is wearing a dirt stained oversized t-shirt, one that falls to just before her kneecaps and a pair of dirty shorts that end just after them. She is not beautiful, no feature jumps out at me and I see her as a plain simple woman, one that I would walk by a 1,000 times on the street without noticing. But today I notice her- notice every tear that slides down her face and every wrinkle that is just beginning to age her.

As I walk into the room she looks up, not surprised to see me, knowing that the police would probably call someone to talk to her and anticipating that Dande would come to me for help. I am the first one to speak,

 “Do you know why I am here? Do you know what people are saying you have done?”

 “Yes, I know. You have to believe me. I did not do what they say.”

 “Then why did you run from the police when they came to your house the next morning to ask you some questions? Why were you seen with blood on your shirt that day? You were the last one seen with Alicia, riding a bike towards the area that she was murdered, if it was not you, then who? Who killed Alicia?” My tone was not kind, my words not consoling, my posture was rigid and offered no warmth or compassion. Her hands reached out for my leg, to hold her, and I pushed my chair back.

Thoughts ran through my head: ‘You see those Whitney? Those two hands did that to Alicia. Those bones, that flesh, ripped Alicia’s life away, and now you are here- sitting across from the human that killed and I want to know… could you? Could you kill Elizabeth the way she killed Alicia? Come on, Whitney, you saw that helpless little girl’s body, seek avenge. Pretend the police would do nothing, pretend that you had support from all sides, or pretend no one would have to know but you… would you kill her?’

 “Whitney, I tell you the truth. I don’t know who killed Alicia. It not me. You believe me?” Elizabeth is now looking in my eyes, tears streaming down her face; every muscle in her body is begging to be consoled, held tight and loved. As I stare at her, no words being exchanged, it is hard for me to imagine her with a rage that killed a child with a coconut and a shoelace. I force myself to recall the image of Alicia’s battered body to stop me for feeling compassion for Elizabeth. And I knew then, as I know now, that I could not kill her. I could punch her, once- hard, in the face, while imaging the pain that Alicia’s last minutes must have been made of, but not kill.

A line now lay between Elizabeth and me that I knew I could not erase. I was jealous of her rage, of her ability to be anything so completely- be it love or hate- because if there was a moment in life where I might have felt it: it was then. I was ashamed, my inside felt too delicate- my compassion too torn. Why did I not feel rage? Why could I not even imagine giving my rage to Elizabeth as she had given hers to Alicia?

In the end, when I stood up to go, she stood and tried to embrace me and I jumped backed. I looked her in the eye and said ‘good-bye’. My only consolation is that she never once touched my body. I never saw Elizabeth again.

Two months later an arrest warrant was finally issued for her and as I climbed into the pedicab, clutching a copy of the piece of paper, I smiled. As the pedicab pulled away from the police station and started down the road I realized how distant, unfamiliar, that glimpse of joy was. It had been months since I had smiled so honestly and I began to cry. This time the tears did not fall for Alicia- they fell for me. I had lost an innocence and gained a bitterness towards humanity. I had hardened in a way I desperately didn’t want to. When I first saw Alicia’s body and exclaimed “but I don’t understand” I didn’t; and now, months later after meeting her killer and fighting for justice, I understood a bit more. Humanity can be that cruel. Humans can be that vindictive. And I, after this hardening, am forced to wonder if I could now summons that rage that once divided Elizabeth and I. Seeking justice for Alicia demanded that I confront the worst that humanity has to offer within myself.

Eventually, there was a trial and she was found guilty. It turns out she was pregnant at the time of the murder and ended up drinking poison in prison to kill her unborn child. She will serve 15 years for killing Alicia.

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