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How Death Ship killers took two lives then fled the law

AFTER death came for two men aboard a coal ship, police came for their killers.

They had a crew of 22 potential suspects with nowhere to hide, trapped aboard a hulking coal carrier.

Five years on, two suspicious deaths remain unsolved. Australian police likely sat down with the killer or killers, interrogated them, then set them loose.

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Those who brought evil and the "Death Ship" nickname to the Sage Sagittarius did not just take two lives.

They also created a nightmare for investigators featuring four countries, a moving crime scene, and pressure from all sides.

The Australian Federal Police and New South Wales Police - the key authorities investigating the deaths - refuse to answer specific questions about the case.

Most recently, the AFP confirmed it had "no appetite" to discuss it.

This is what we know.

 

TWO DEAD IN OUR WATERS, FIVE YEARS, NO JUSTICE

The Sage Sagittarius or
The Sage Sagittarius or "Death Ship" arrives in the Port of Gladstone in June 2017. Paul Braven

On August 30, 2012, chief cook and father-of-two Cesar Llanto, 42, was either thrown overboard or killed on the ship before later being thrown into the ocean.

His presumed death left a "gaping hole" in the lives of his wife and two children, a coroner would find.

Two weeks later chief engineer and grandfather Hector Collado, 55, was struck on the skull before being thrown, or falling, 11m to his death.

The first reports of the deaths suggest Llanto "fell overboard" and that Collado "fell down a staircase".

BELOW: Explore how tragedies unfolded on the Sage Sagittarius

 

Years of work by police and a NSW Coronial Inquest found the two men likely died of "foul play" but the inquest did not name a culprit or suspect in its findings.

The inquest followed a major investigation by News Corp Australia, which also prompted a Senate Inquiry into the use of foreign shipping in Australia

NSW Deputy Coroner Sharon Freund found the ship's captain Venancio Salas Jr - a man who has admitted to abusing workers and selling guns - likely "caused or authorised" the chef's disappearance, or at least withheld information.

Captain Venancio Salas Jr led the ship when two deaths occurred on board.
Captain Venancio Salas Jr led the ship when two deaths occurred on board.

Capt Salas has consistently denied any involvement in, or further knowledge of the deaths.

She also found that one person was likely responsible for both deaths, saying any other scenario would be an "extraordinary coincidence".

So how did the killer escape prosecution and the families of the slain end up without justice?


ESCAPE FROM A SLOW-MOVING SHIP

To start, initial reports were wrong about the nature of the deaths. Police treated them as potential homicides from day one

Those leading the ocean search and rescue for the missing Llanto told the AFP it was suspicious. To the AFP, it was a murder investigation. 

The ship was heading south along the Queensland coast towards Newcastle. The crime scene and suspects were contained and untainted. But not for long.
 

The railing where chief cook Cesar Llanto disappeared overboard, pictured here during a tour of the ship by the NSW Deputy Coroner.
The railing where chief cook Cesar Llanto disappeared overboard, pictured here during a tour of the ship by the NSW Deputy Coroner.

 

Two days after Llanto's death, the ship was passing the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. The AFP wanted officers on board. 

After calling for help from the Coast's Water Police to help, the plan was called off. They needed staff and good weather - they had neither.

Ship owners NYK Line, however, made do. It dispatched two executives and security guards to the ship by helicopter that same day.

One of those executives was Kosaku Monji, 37, who would become the ship's third victim when he was crushed to death by a conveyor belt at a Japanese port. When his body was discovered, NYK Line failed to tell Japanese authorities there were two other deaths. His death was not a focus of the Australian inquest.

 

The coal ship Sage Sagittarius is guided into Newcastle Harbour by Port Authority.
The coal ship Sage Sagittarius is guided into Newcastle Harbour by Port Authority. Troy Snook


By the time the AFP boarded the ship four days after Mr Monji did, lead investigator Detective Sergeant Nuckhley Succar found "substantial issues in terms of contaminated evidence".

A difficult case just became far more complicated for Det Sgt Succar, who in his five years with the AFP had never led a murder investigation. He knew little of the force's procedures for deaths at sea, and admitted as much to the inquest.

AFP officers first boarded the ship on September 7 at Port Kembla. They spent two hours on the ship, postponing a closer look until September 14 when it would arrive at Newcastle.

That would be the day of the second death.

 

UNDER PRESSURE

Hector Collado received a gash to his head "from some kind of weapon" while in a storeroom as the ship arrived into the port.

His head wound left droplets of blood through the door and to the 11m-high walkway railing outside. His bloodied hands left smears on the steel bars. He then fell, or was thrown, to his death.

The impact sounded like a light bulb popping, according to evidence from the crew.
 

Chief engineer Hector Collado was struck on the skull, then fell or was thrown over this railing, top, to his death. When he landed in the engine room below, the impact sounded like a 'lightbulb popping'.
Chief engineer Hector Collado was struck on the skull, then fell or was thrown over this railing, top, to his death. When he landed in the engine room below, the impact sounded like a 'lightbulb popping'.


It would take an estimated 27 hours for the AFP to comb the ship and interrogate the crew. The crew was entirely Filipino and spoke Tagalog and broken English. It was another headache for investigators.

The sailors also knew there was a price for speaking out. They still expected to have to leave the country on the same ship, with much of the same crew. That included a potential killer.

But officers were told 27 hours was too long, they would be given just 17.

NYK Line is an industrial powerhouse that turns over $20.1 billion a year and employs 33,000 staff.

It pressured the AFP to speed up the process because every hour the Sagittarius was delayed was money lost. The AFP agreed.

The entire crew would be interrogated by officers non-stop from 6am to 11pm. Years later, Succar would say it "impeded the investigation" and left officers "extremely tired and exhausted".

He told of officers being hurried up mid-way through interrogations.

 


WHAT THEY MISSED

That rush may have saved NYK Line money, but it took its toll on the case.

The cabins of Capt Salas and his chief mate Solomon Layson were never forensically searched.

An audio file pulled from the ship captured Capt Salas telling a colleague after Llanto's disappearance, "Even if the head office criticises me, I'm still happy, at least he's here now".

When asked in court what he meant, Salas said he didn't know.
 


Layson was recorded threatening crew members who he suspected of being disloyal to the captain and ship.
Of one man, he said he "doesn't know what will happen" if they cross paths.

Layson was also part of a plan with the captain to delete complaints to the International Transport Workers Federation, penned by an abused seafarer. They were saved on the laptop of the chief cook killed at sea.

When Layson left the country, three years of AFP work would not be enough to find him.

 

Sage Sagittarius Solomon Layson's identification card.
Sage Sagittarius Solomon Layson's identification card.

That was not the only missing piece.

Succar and his team never questioned why the missing cook was on the edge of the ship, despite decades of ocean-faring experience.

They did not know the ship's voice recorder - akin to a plane's black box - was missing files at each of the times a crew member was killed. Only the captain and senior crew members knew how to access its files.

AFP officers asked only some crew members if there was conflict aboard. Later it would become clear the ship was riven with fear, suspicion and abuse.

Within days the entire crew had left the country on planes bound for the Philippines. From there they would be scattered across the globe aboard new ships on new routes.

When Ms Freund handed down her findings, she said the investigation was "particularly difficult" and unlike the inquest, police could not see all the evidence that showed links between the three deaths.
 

OPPORTUNITY LOST

When Detective Senior Constable Scott Raven took over from Det Sgt Succar in the months after the deaths, the investigation went global.

The crew were Filipino, the ship was owned by a Japanese firm, registered in Panama and sailing into Australian waters.

Det Snr Const Raven repeatedly visited the Philippines, even teaming up with police in Manila to find Solomon Layson.

But the chief mate had vanished, his house empty and no sign of a trail.

 

Det Snr Const Raven was asked during the inquest how important it was to do a thorough investigation of the crew while they were in Australian waters.

"You definitely need to make the most of your opportunity that you have with the witness in person," he said.

When the inquest began in 2015, it ran for 18 months. It had to pull together evidence and far-flung figures to deliver fresh testimony.

But the Coroner did not hear from Layson and others, which meant an open finding - yes, the deaths were suspicious, but she could not go any further.

"It is abundantly clear from the evidence gathered for this inquest that a number of crew members did not disclose everything they knew to authorities," Ms Freund said in her findings.
 

THE FINAL WORD

The first public allegations of cruelty and abuse on board the Sage Sagittarius were revealed by News Corp Australia in mid-2014, after this reporter contacted sources on the ship at the time of the deaths.

The sources accused Capt Salas of repeatedly punching and abusing a sailor, an allegation the captain later conceded in court.

In the aftermath of the inquest findings, News Corp Australia again contacted its source, who answered on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety.

The inquest had delivered some justice, they wrote, because it found Capt Salas may have been involved in the deaths, or withheld information. Capt Salas has always denied any involvement in the deaths.

"I believe he is involved," the former crew member said.

"As what the story during the incident, I believe that Chief Officer (Solomon Layson) was also involved."

 


TIMELINE

AUGUST 20, 2012:
Sage Sagittarius leaves Japan's Kudamatsu port with 25 crew, including chief cook Cesar Plete Llanto.


AUGUST 30 (The day of Mr Llanto's disappearance)
6.30-7.45am: Cesar Llanto working in the galley/kitchen of the Sagittarius with Jessie Martinez.

7.45am: Martinez leaves the galley and heads to the bridge.

7.55-8am: Llanto heads to the bridge. Stays a short time before leaving. It is the last time he is seen. At this moment, the ship is 900km north-east of Mackay in the Coral Sea.

8.10am-8.30am: Around this time, ship captain Venancio Salas arrives at galley for breakfast. Llanto was gone.

8.30am-9.30am: Crew members search the ship. Llanto is paged through the ship's intercom system. No luck.

9.35am: Captain orders comprehensive search of entire ship.

10.15am: Search finished, no sign of Llanto.

10.20am: Australia's Rescue Coordination Centre is phoned. Distress signal broadcast.

11.02am: Search begins with RCC aircraft and other ships involved.

 

AUGUST 31:
6.22pm: Search is called off, 34 hours after Llanto was last seen.
 

“Death Ship” Sage Sagittarius enters Newcastle Harbour.
“Death Ship” Sage Sagittarius enters Newcastle Harbour. Troy Snook

 

SEPTEMBER 1:
10.40am: Sage Sagittarius dismissed from search, heads to Newcastle. Llanto missing for 50 hours.

 

SEPTEMBER 2:
Australian Maritime Safety Authority contacts Australian Federal Police to report Llanto's death.

AMSA warns the death could be suspicious after ship owners demanded "complete statements" from crew.

 

SEPTEMBER 3:
4.45pm: Ship owners' safety superintendent Kosaku Monji lands in Brisbane from Japan.

He is delivered to the Sagittarius by helicopter with two security guards.

Monji would be killed after the ship arrived back in Japan on October 6.

 

SEPTEMBER 7:
AFP board the Sage Sagittarius at Port Kembla, where it had been diverted, to conduct forensic examinations of vessel and crew.

Workers are interviewed. No evidence of suicide or accidental death.

 

SEPTEMBER 9:
Raul Vercede, Jessie Martinez, Harvey Penoliar and two other crewmen leave the Sagittarius bound for the Philippines.
 

Raul Vercede before he began working aboard the Sage Sagittarius.
Raul Vercede before he began working aboard the Sage Sagittarius.


SEPTEMBER 14: (The day of Hector Collado's death)

Sage Sagittarius arrives at the Port of Newcastle.

As it comes into port at 8am, Hector Collado falls 11m to his death from the second deck of the engine bay to the lower fourth deck.

New South Wales Police comb the ship, examine Collado's remains and interview the crew.

 

SEPTEMBER 18:
Sagittarius departs from the Port of Newcastle bound for southern Japan.
 

OCTOBER 3:
Ship arrives at Kudamatsu port at 7am local time. Begins unloading at 5pm.


OCTOBER 6: (The final death on board)
Safety supervisor Monji, who joined the ship for the first time a month earlier, is found crushed to death in conveyor belt machinery.

He suffocated after parts of his body or clothing were pulled into the moving mechanisms.

Japanese investigators find that his death was not suspicious.
 

The conveyor belt where safety inspector Kosaku Monji was found crushed to death.
The conveyor belt where safety inspector Kosaku Monji was found crushed to death.