Death of Bree Jonson: What we know so far

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Death of Bree Jonson: What we know so far
Photo shows painter Bree Jonson who was found unconscious in a hostel room in San Juan, La Union.
Bree Jonson on Instagram

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 3:27 p.m., September 23) — Circumstances surrounding the passing of painter Bree Jonson have left the art world in shock and fueled speculation on social media.

Jonson, 30, was found unconscious in a room in San Juan, La Union early Saturday morning and later declared dead on arrival at the Ilocos Training and Regional Medical Center.

Her companion, Julian Ongpin, is the son of former trade minister Roberto Ongpin, who is chair of property developer Alphaland.

Few details have come to light as the investigation plods on days after her death. 

Many questions still remain. How did she die? Why was Ongpin released and where is he now? Why did the autopsy — a routine procedure when bodies are recovered — take this long?

Here's what we know so far. 

What happened, according to official reports

Local police found that Ongpin and Jonson arrived at the hostel at 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

They were fetched by friends at 10 p.m., but a commotion was recorded on camera where the two appeared to be drinking after they got back in the early morning hours.

Police Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, the chief of the Philippine National Police, said the incident was later reported as a suicide. 

However, Police Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Peralta, the regional director of Police Regional Office 1 acknowledged Wednesday that the "suicide" angle is from Ongpin's explanation of what happened. 

Peralta also noted that Jonson had a PWD card for a psychosocial disability. The term "psychosocial disability" covers a wide range of ailments — including epilepsy, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder — and does not mean one is suicidal.

Both Jonson and Ongpin also tested positive for cocaine use after separate tests were conducted. 

Peralta said there was no official conclusion yet as to how Jonson died. 

"We're not totally ruling out foul play [but] there's a high chance that there was none," Peralta said in Filipino in a separate interview aired over DZBB Super Radyo.

Jonson family disputes 'no foul play' claim by PNP 

Sunga Salandanan and Ampuan Law Offices, the Jonson's legal counsel, said in a statement Thursday morning that the NBI would conduct a separate autopsy in Manila.

"Contrary to prior statements circulating on social media, the initial medicolegal report of Ilocos Training and Regional Medical Center showed signs of struggle. There were bruises found in some other parts of Breanna’s body other than her neck," they said.

The law firm also said that they, together with the NBI and the Philippine National Police, viewed the CCTV footage from the hostel.

"Based on what we saw, Breanna and Julian had a heated altercation minutes before she was found unconscious in their hotel room," they said.

At a press briefing before reporters Thursday, though, Eleazar again repeated the claim that there were no signs of struggle on Ongpin but said that the case was not closed yet. 

"According to the result of the autopsy, there are no markings indicating there was a struggle or bruises showing she was hurt besides the ligature around her neck," he said. 

Eleazar said that Ongpin was not listed as a drug personality before this case but reiterated that he tested positive for drug use. 

Asked about the status of Ongpin, Eleazar said: "When the Special Investigation Task Group deemed it necessary to come back for the reenactment and to check his body, they came back immediately."

The PNP chief said police would "re-evaluate" all evidence until the results of other tests come in. 

Why was Ongpin released, and where is he now?

San Juan police filed complaints against Ongpin in connection with the confiscated illegal drugs and the positive drug test, but the La Union Provincial Prosecutors’ Office later ordered his release. 

Police Lt. Col. Abubakar Mangelen, information officer of Police Regional Office 1, confirmed that two counts of violations of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 were filed against Ongpin.

Peralta said the prosecutor's office ruled that Ongpin's arrest "doesn't fall under any of the instances where a warrantless arrest is allowed."

Under the Rules of Court, Rule 113, Section 5, a warrantless arrest, also known as "citizen’s arrest," is lawful under three circumstances:

  • When, in the presence of the policeman, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense. This is the "in flagrante delicto" rule.
  • When an offense has just been committed, and he has probable cause to believe, based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances, that the person to be arrested has committed it. This is the "hot pursuit" arrest rule.
  • When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment.

Eleazar said that more than 12 grams of cocaine were recovered from the room Ongpin shared with Jonson. 

But Peralta insisted the release was out of their control. Possession of drugs is a non-bailable offense in the Philippines.

Asked if he agreed with the order for local police to release Ongpin, Peralta told ABS-CBN News Channel: "I won't comment on whether I agree or not. What I will say is let's respect the decision of the prosecutor and let's see what the preliminary investigation yields."

Police Regional Office 1 reported to Eleazar that Ongpin "has been cooperating with the investigation."

Eleazar said he had already tasked all the concerned units to coordinate to ensure the availability of Ongpin as the investigation is still on-going on the death of Jonson

They could not say where he is now. 

Has a cause of death been established?

Jonson's remains were only autopsied on Monday night, more than two days after she passed away. 

No official cause of death has been established. While the autopsy has been completed, Eleazar said that police are still waiting for the final report. 

Peralta, however, said that the initial finding is that Jonson died of asphyxia or loss of oxygen. He could not say what caused this. 

The management of the hostel Jonson was found in was unwilling to talk about the situation further when sought for comment. 

Asked if they reported it as a suicide or an attempted suicide, they said they "don't know about that."

Salome Jonson, Bree's mother, has since questioned claims from the PNP that Bree may have committed suicide. 

The Jonson matriarch pointed to the visible cuts on Ongpin's skin in his mugshot which she received a copy of. 

But according to Peralta, there were no indications that the wounds were due to a struggle with Jonson.

"We invited Julian Ongpin to our provincial headquarters in La Union and we inspected his body," he said in Filipino. 

"We saw that these were wounds caused by nails. It matches his claim that he tried to enter the [comfort room] through a small window in his desire to go in because Brianna was there."

Why did the autopsy take this long?

According to the PNP Investigator's Handbook for the New Normal, autopsies "shall be conducted five hours after embalming the cadaver."

It is unclear when Jonson's remains were embalmed. PRO1 did not respond to Philstar.com's request from more information. 

Days after Jonson's body was found, local police said that no cause of death had yet been concluded because no autopsy had been done on the artist's remains.

Eleazar in his statement said that "the parents [of Jonson] initially told the police that they would let the NBI handle the case but eventually agreed to have the PNP Crime Laboratory perform it."

"The body was brought to the Ilocos Training and Regional Medical Center where it stayed while the PNP was coordinating with her parents for the conduct of the autopsy," he said. 

But Salome Jonson in an interview with Philstar.com on Monday said that no authorities, police or otherwise, reached out to her while she was undergoing quarantine from a hotel room in Pasay City. 

Jonson's mother and cousin claimed they were given the runaround by police and medical personnel alike as authorities coordinated with other relatives on the ground. 

They described it as "paperwork, red tape, doctors suddenly not available, and a lot of miscommunication" as the autopsy was repeatedly pushed back.

Salome said they were given a number of reasons — they were told that resident doctors were sick and that representatives of the National Bureau of Investigation who had to be present at the autopsy were still on their way to the province. 

"It's a public hospital dealing with COVID-19...so it was a little slow. I thought that was really how it is and we have to accept that. I hope there was no cause of the delay besides that, their processes," she said in Filipino. 

"There were so many documents and requirements. It wasn't clear what they needed from us. I was asked for a birth certificate, so I had to wake up my friends in Canada to get them."

The PNP chief said that the body was taken to the Regional Crime Laboratory at the PRO1 Headquarters where the autopsy was finally performed. 

He added that ITRMC management would not allow it to be done inside due to COVID-19 protocols.  

Peralta also said that police are still waiting for the results of a separate histopathology examination.

Philstar.com has sought Jonson's family for comment. They have not responded as of this post. 

This is a developing story. It will be updated as more information becomes available.

— with a report from Kristine Joy Patag

The Department of Health urges people seeking professional mental health support to get in touch with the National Center for Mental Health hotlines at 0917-899-USAP (8727) or 899-USAP (8727); or its Mind Matters hotline at 09189424864

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