Hit man in Bench murder plot pleads guilty in Philippines
ANTIPOLO CITY, Philippines — The murder plot hatched by U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer John Bench continued to unravel Monday in a courtroom in the Philippines.
Dindo Esplana “Dimple” Santos, 30, dropped claims of innocence and pleaded guilty to killing a Filipino taxi driver in 2009 while attempting to carry out a murder contract on Bench’s wife and two children.
The guilty plea caps the saga of a sailor’s greed, betrayal and violence. An investigation by Stars and Stripes discovered Bench, who was stationed on the USS Denver at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan, and his Filipina mistress Lilibeth Eniceo hired Santos to kill his family during a vacation to the Philippines.
The couple fantasized about being together but Bench worried about his wife taking his Navy pension in a divorce. Several months after the failed hit, John Bench — frustrated that his family survived Santos’ attack — took matters into his own hands and murdered his adolescent son, then assaulted his wife and teenage daughter with a baseball bat in their Sasebo base housing.
The Denver master chief would never stand trial; he fled the Sasebo murder scene and died the same day after driving his motorcycle into oncoming traffic on a nearby highway.
With Bench dead, the family of slain taxi driver Peter Turiano has been pressing for justice for nearly four years. Turiano’s widow and eldest sister finally watched Santos file his guilty plea Monday in the Antipolo City courtroom.
“Sorry isn’t enough,” Santos told Stars and Stripes following the new plea.
Santos has been in Philippine police custody since 2010 and had originally pleaded not guilty to murdering Turiano. By admitting to a lesser charge of homicide he will likely receive 17 to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in June – and avoid the possibility of life in prison.
He said Bench’s mistress, Lilibeth Eniceo, paid him 5,000 pesos — about $123 — to kill Agnes Bench and her two children as they toured Antipolo City in a hired taxi driven by Turiano. Police reports at the time show Santos also made off with credit cards and about $2,200 in cash.
Santos hijacked the taxi, led Turiano to a ditch and shot him in the back. But Agnes Bench grabbed the gun, overpowered him and the family was able to escape.
John Bench was in the taxi during the murder attempt and Lilibeth was watching from nearby. The couple planned the hit to look like a robbery, a ruse that Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents in the Philippines accepted after interviewing the family following the incident.
Still, despite the plentiful evidence and detailed confessions, it appears unlikely that Eniceo will ever face criminal charges for her role in the taxi driver’s murder and the plots against the Bench family.
Ruby Ramores, the eldest sister of Peter Turiano, and the driver’s widow Maria Turiano said the family has declined to pursue criminal charges against Eniceo, though the decision has caused conflicted feelings.
“If not for her children, we could have indicted her,” said Ramores, referring to Eniceo’s family of five. “[But] it really bothers me that one person who is responsible is going scot-free.”
Under Philippine law, the family must file and pursue any criminal charges. Meanwhile, NCIS did not provide any indication of any charges in the case despite Stars and Stripes requests since December.
Ramores and Eniceo met early on and have formed an unlikely friendship during the course of the trial. Eniceo’s testimony was transcribed by Ramores and made key evidence for the indictment of Santos.
Santos is unlikely to pursue charges. Eniceo said Monday she agreed to give financial support to Santos’ two children and send him some money in prison. In exchange, he agreed not to implicate her in the murder.
Still, Ramores said her brother would have been satisfied with the outcome.
“Peter, when he was alive, he was a peacemaker,” Ramores said. “He always forgave people.”