Marine accused in murder of transgender Filipino tests U.S.-Philippine ties

Jennifer Laude murder

In this Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 photo, Julita Cabillana, mother of Filipino transgender Jennifer Laude, grieves beside her casket at a funeral parlor in Olongapo, Zambales province, northern Philippines, on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. The killing of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender, has sparked public anger in the Philippines and revived a debate over the U.S. military presence in a country seen by Washington as a major ally in Southeast Asia. Aaron Favila, AP

Jennifer Laude murderAaron Favila, AP

In this Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 photo, Julita Cabillana, mother of Filipino transgender Jennifer Laude, grieves beside her casket at a funeral parlor in Olongapo, Zambales province, northern Philippines, on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. The killing of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender, has sparked public anger in the Philippines and revived a debate over the U.S. military presence in a country seen by Washington as a major ally in Southeast Asia.

OLONGAPO, Philippines — Inside a funeral parlor, a Filipino mother sits and weeps next to a coffin containing the body of her daughter and demands answers. On a hulking American assault ship moored at a nearby port sits a man who might have them – a U.S. Marine authorities suspect in the brutal slaying at a cheap hotel more than a week ago.

“We don’t eat without praying first. We don’t sleep without saying a prayer. Where were you when this happened?” Julita Laude beseeched God. “She had so many dreams and that killer destroyed them all.”

Jennifer Laude

Jennifer Laude

U.S. authorities are cooperating in the investigation, and have ordered the ship to stay at the Subic Bay Freeport, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Manila, until it is completed.

The killing of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender Filipino, has sparked public anger in the Philippines and revived a debate over the U.S. military presence in a country seen by Washington as a major ally in Southeast Asia. The nations signed a new accord in April that allows greater U.S. military access to Philippine military camps, part of Washington’s pivot back to Asia where it wants to counter China’s rising might.

Philippine police have identified the suspect as U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton. He was one of thousands of American and Philippines military personnel who took part in joint exercises earlier this month. He and other U.S. personnel were on leave in Olongapo city when Laude was found dead.

American investigators have worked with local police, but have not made public any details surrounding the case.

Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton

Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton

In interviews with The Associated Press, Philippine police and witnesses said that Laude met Pemberton at the Ambyanz, an Olongapo disco bar, in the late hours of Oct. 11.

At one point, they left friends at the bar and checked in at a nearby motel and got a room beside the reception desk.

About 30 minutes later, Pemberton walked out, leaving the door ajar, according to the motel staff.

A housekeeper entered the room to find Laude’s body, partly wrapped in bedsheet, in the bathroom. She had apparently been drowned in the toilet, according to police Chief Inspector Gil Domingo.

Two witnesses – a friend of Laude who was with them at the disco and the motel housekeeper – identified Pemberton in a gallery of pictures made available by U.S. military authorities as the Caucasian male seen with the victim at the bar and later at the motel, said Olongapo Mayor Rolen Paulino.

DNA tests were being carried out on two condoms recovered from the bathroom, he said.

A housemate of Laude, who identified herself only as Alexis, said the victim was a devout Catholic. In the house they shared, she pointed to a Christmas tree that Laude had only recently erected. There were photos of Laude wearing a bikini on the wall.

Accompanied by local police, Laude’s family filed a murder complaint Wednesday against Pemberton with Olongapo prosecutors.

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On Friday, Philippine authorities served a subpoena at the U.S. Embassy for Pemberton and four other Marines, who were sought as witnesses, to appear Tuesday before prosecutors in Olongapo in a preliminary investigation. The prosecutors will decide if there is enough evidence for charges to be filed in court.

The U.S. Embassy said Sunday that prosecutors have met with the four witnesses. The embassy said it was up to the suspect whether to appear on Tuesday, depending on the advice of his Philippine lawyers. Under local laws, he could be represented by his lawyers at the initial hearing, but any non-appearance might spark more criticism about the government’s inability to gain custody of him.

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