VIRAC, Catanduanes—New Zealand native Vernon Wayne Gardiner walked away from jail last Friday after his compatriots back home pitched in via a TV program to raise over US$4,000 needed to restitute the amount he had gypped from a Filipino jobseeker in 2011.
Judge Lelu P. Contreras, presiding judge of the Virac Regional Trial Court Branch 42, ordered the dismissal of the twin cases for estafa and illegal recruitment against Gardiner, 66, and his former Filipina girlfriend Marisol Nazareno after disgruntled job applicant Joseph Diwata, 30, of Barangay (village) Calampong, Virac, decided not to pursue the cases.
Gardiner and girlfriend would have faced 20 years in jail had the cases been decided.
A hard-hitting program on TV3 station in New Zealand sent reporter Sarah Hall, producer Natasha Utting and cameraman George Murahidy to Virac last month to document the travails of Gardiner after learning of Contreras’ effort to persuade the New Zealand government to help Gardiner, who had staged two hunger strikes late in 2012.
The program was reportedly able to raise US$4,800 in less than 12 hours from viewers.
“(Gardiner) is not a hardened criminal and it is better to free and rehabilitate him than impose punitive action,” Contreras earlier told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, months before TV3 station responded to her appeal for help for Gardiner.
During the hearing proper in Virac on April 5, Hall gave the cash to Diwata, who agreed in January 2012 to give ample time for Gardiner to come up with P166,000, which represented the amount Diwata had paid for a job in New Zealand that never materialized.
Saying he was no longer interested in prosecuting the cases, Diwata also admitted he failed to secure the required certification from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) that Gardiner was not licensed to recruit him. At the time, he said, he was securing documents needed for his departure for Japan.
Prosecutor Rizalina Velasco-Tañon manifested that as Diwata was the only witness in both cases, she could no longer prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt without his participation. The court had no recourse but to grant the manifestation of Gardiner’s defense counsel to have both cases dismissed.
After Judge Contreras ordered the dismissal of the case, she asked Gardiner to speak and to promise he would no longer do something illegal, wherever he would be.
Gardiner did and thanked the judge for her kindness and mercy in contacting NZ officials. “You brought me back my life and my freedom,” he told Diwata and Contreras, as well as TV3 and his compatriots in New Zealand.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer outside the court, Gardiner said he was glad both cases against him and Nazareno were dismissed, as his live-in partner was just included by the Virac police in the charge sheet.
“She didn’t have anything to do with it, it was me all along,” he said.
Nazareno, who hails from San Andres, Catanduanes, abandoned Gardiner shortly after the case was filed and is reportedly in Malaysia as a domestic helper.
The estafa charge alone, Gardiner’s lawyer told him, would earn him a maximum of 20 years in prison. “If it goes to trial, I don’t want to be alive. No way. I would probably die in jail, so I thought I might as well die now if I would have to serve 20 years in jail,” Gardiner told the Inquirer two months ago.
Gardiner was arrested in October 2011 after charges were filed by Diwata whom he had promised a job at a nursing home in Christchurch in April 2010. A massive earthquake struck the city that August, prompting the supposed employer to withdraw Diwata’s visa application three months later.
Due to his frustration at his government’s failure to lend him help, Gardiner staged two hunger strikes inside the jail late last year and was only persuaded to resume eating after Judge Contreras promised to contact his government’s officials.
Embassy and government officials in New Zealand, however, informed Gardiner that his family members and friends declined to assist him and that he would have to be in New Zealand if he was to avail of his pension benefit. One official said Gardiner could not expect assistance as there were other NZ citizens in jails overseas worse off than he.
Judge Contreras’ efforts, however, paid off as The Press of Christchurch picked up the prisoner’s story and TV3’s 3rd Degree program launched a special coverage and raised around $30,000, which was more than enough to pay off Diwata and buy Gardiner his way home.
Despite his countrymen’s help, Gardiner was not keen on going home, a decision that probably left the TV3 crew a bit disappointed.
“I’m staying in the Philippines. I like it here,” he told the Inquirer after the hearing last Friday. He said he did not have anyone to go home to in New Zealand after being away for 34 years and would have to live out on the street for two weeks while waiting for his benefits.
“I would rather stay with someone who can give me a place to stay,” he said, referring to a controversial rape suspect Regino “Nonie” Evasco, with whom he stayed in a small cell at the Virac district jail for over two months recently.
Gardiner said Evasco offered him a job as an English teacher specializing in students taking the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination.
His decision to stay in the country, however, may have other reasons. New Zealand media has reported Gardiner owes money to other would-be migrants.
Quoting netizens who posted comments on their show, NZ media said Gardiner had done similar things in New Zealand before, acting illegally as an immigration consultant.
A netizen, Alyssa Smith, who claimed to be Gardiner’s niece, described the latter as a con artist who knew what he was doing.
“He’s my uncle and we used to care for him but he just turned his back on his family, had lots of wives and cheated on every one of them,” said Smith in her posted comment to the NZ television show.
Smith alleged that Gardiner tried to con thousands of dollars from her mother, claiming he needed a life-saving operation in America that turned out to be a lie.
“He is nothing more than a scam artist and he shouldn’t get any special treatment,” fumed Smith.
TV3 is reportedly unsure whether the extra money raised should go to charity and whether some of it should be paid to those owed by Gardiner.
As for Diwata, the wizened Calampong resident is weighing his options, whether to go back to Japan where he worked on the broccoli farm of the Japanese husband of his sister in Kagoshima Prefecture using a temporary visitor’s visa for a total of nine months, or to look for a job in Catanduanes.