Inquirer Super

The birth of ‘Super Evil,’ Inquirer’s true crime podcast

For an entire year, Inquirer Podcasts and PumaPodcast worked on a seven-part series about the 1993 murders of UPLB students Allan Gomez and Eileen Sarmenta and the case against former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez and his henchmen. Now, you can finally listen to it

Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of true crime podcasts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other parts of the world, thanks to “Serial,” the groundbreaking series by “This American Life.” (The New York Times actually bought Serial Productions in July 2020.)

At a brainstorming session early last year, Pam Pastor brought up the idea of the Inquirer doing a true crime podcast. “I was speaking as a massive true crime podcast fan. I felt that the Philippines was more than ready for local stories to be told. And it made perfect sense for the Inquirer to be telling those stories,” she said.

Pastor, the newspaper’s Super editor and assistant Lifestyle editor, remembers sending an impassioned email after that meeting. “I put together a list of international media organizations that had produced their own true crime podcasts and I quoted some Reddit guy who said, ‘Newspapers are in a very good position to make excellent true crime podcasts.’ I told them if they decided to do it, I’d love to offer assistance in any way that I can. I just wanted to help make it happen.”

Unlikely host

Pastor was hoping that somebody from the news team, someone well versed in covering hard news, would take on the challenge. “But as it often happens, when you pitch something, you end up doing it, so yup, I’ve become the unlikely host of this true crime podcast,” Pastor said. “When the project was announced at an editorial meeting, all these heads swiveled toward me, their faces confused. ‘You?! Crime?!’ It made no sense to them and I can’t blame them because I’ve spent 22 years covering lifestyle and pop culture.”

But Pastor has been obsessed with true crime since she was a kid. “I’ve always been fascinated with crime, justice and forensics. I can spend an entire weekend just watching crime documentaries. I stay up all night watching livestreams of trials. My original plan was to be a lawyer with a focus on crime but my newspaper life derailed that plan.”

That obsession came in handy when she started working on “Super Evil,” Inquirer’s true crime podcast, which is the result of the partnership between Inquirer Podcasts and pioneering podcast network PumaPodcast. The first episode of “Super Evil’s” first season, “Hatched in Hell,” was released on Oct. 2.

Inquirer Podcasts and PumaPodcast also collaborate on “Aux Lang,” the OPM podcast hosted by Inquirer Business features editor Tina Arceo-Dumlao; Super K queen Ruth Navarra’s “Let’s Talk Oppa,” which teaches listeners the Korean language through K-pop and K-dramas; and “Super Random,” a Pinoy pop culture podcast hosted by Inquirer’s new Arts and Books editor Ruel De Vera.

GCTA controversy

Pastor had a different case she wanted the podcast to cover when the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) controversy made headlines last year after news spread that former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez was about to be set free. Sanchez, along with six other men, had been convicted of the rape and murder of University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) students Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez in the ’90s and was serving multiple life sentences.

Antonio Sanchez on the grounds of New Bilibid Prison during the time of the GCTA controversy last year. Photo by Grig Montegrande.

“I realized that there’s an entire generation of people who had not heard of the case before and so we switched gears and decided to tell this story instead,” said Pastor.

Tricia Aquino, who is chief content officer of PumaPodcast and is “Super Evil’s” producer, said, “As journalists, we try to preserve history and make sure that each new generation is armed with this knowledge. The hope is that we learn from lessons of the past.”

Aquino previously covered politics and human rights issues among other topics as a reporter for Interaksyon.

Pastor added, “The GCTA mess was a lesson that we really cannot keep our eyes closed, that we need to be vigilant even about stories that we thought were over because justice and years of work can be taken away in the blink of an eye.”

Pastor, Aquino and Marc Casillan, PumaPodcast’s head of audio and “Super Evil’s” audio editor, dove into the case. Pastor said, “I knew it was going to be a complex case but I didn’t realize how complex until we really dove into it. There are multiple perpetrators and so many government agencies involved in the investigation. Our research spans a period of almost 30 years.”

One thing was a priority for the team: making sure they showed Eileen and Allan respect and care throughout the whole process. “We wanted to honor them and their memory. I just think it’s so unfair that their names will forever be linked to this despicable crime and to Antonio Sanchez and his henchmen and I wanted to be able to paint a picture of who they were. They were more than just victims. They were a son, a daughter, they were deeply loved and they had dreams and plans for the future that were cut short by these horrible men,” said Pastor.

Aquino hopes that while listening to the podcast, people would “remember the very human lives lost because of the people who, in the first place, were supposed to serve and protect them.”

A beast of a project

Aquino and Casillan, who have worked on multiple podcasts, knew that “Super Evil” was a beast of a project.

“‘Super Evil’ is on a totally different scale compared to our other podcasts. We did more interviews than usual, combed through the Inquirer archives, and were constantly revisiting our storyline,” said Aquino. “There was definitely a lot of research to be done, and distilling such a huge amount of information from the Inquirer archives and our interviews into 40-minute episodes was a daunting task!”

Former Inquirer reporter Raymond Burgos, Tricia Aquino and Marc Casillan

Casillan, who was a producer, anchor and writer for dzUP, the AM radio station of UP, said, “The sheer number of layers involved in the editing of the first episode was a big challenge. This is the first podcast I have worked on that had at least 13 voices. I could only imagine what Pam and Tricia had to go through to weave a cohesive story together with all of those voices.”

“There was so much material to wade through,” Pastor said. “The Inquirer archives, the court documents plus our new interviews—it was a lot. We would hold writers’ room sessions and discuss the direction we were going. Each episode took me about two weeks to write. Some of my scripts were so long they had to be broken down into two episodes.”

Layer of reality

Casillan added, “This is the longest podcast that I had ever worked on… This is also the podcast that I was most involved in the legwork of gathering interviews. Visiting the sites in Laguna that were related to the crime will always stay with me. It was so eerie knowing that so much happened in those places that I only heard of from stories. It punched a layer of reality into me,” said Casillan.

Marc Casillan (left) with Inquirer photographer Niño Jesus Orbeta

“It was our first time to travel outside of Manila to do research for a podcast,” said Aquino. “Turns out, Calauan and Los Baños, Laguna, would be the only out of town trips I’d make in 2020.”

For Pastor, the biggest challenge was working on the podcast on top of her actual duties at the Inquirer. “My challenge for the past year has been carving out chunks of time to be able to do everything needed to bring ‘Super Evil’ to life. It meant a lot of sleepless nights. And then to have the pandemic happen in the middle of it just made things crazier. But I have zero complaints. And I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done.”

Years’ worth of newspapers

Pastor’s “Super Evil” journey started at the Inquirer library, where she pored over years’ worth of newspapers, starting with July 1993, when the crime took place. “I spent more time in the library in those months than I have in all the years that I’ve been with the paper,” she said. “I went through issue after issue until my hands turned black from the ink to make sure we didn’t miss a single story about the case.”

It was a slow, painstaking process but an important one, she said. “We needed to see how the story played out in our pages so we can present a complete picture and also honor the work of the Inquirer reporters who covered the case over the years.”

She added, “I had initial ideas of how I wanted the podcast to be but now I know that you can’t go into something like this too attached to your plans because the story takes a life of its own and goes where it needs to go in order to be told.”

For Aquino, the main challenge was “making sure that the narrative gave listeners the information they needed, when they needed it.” “I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with a deluge of details. Writing for the ear is different from writing for print. When we’re reading something, we can easily return to parts we weren’t immediately able to absorb the first time around. But when we’re listening to something, a confusing tidbit will force you to rewind, and you lose your place in the story. I don’t want to interrupt the listening experience. I want to take our listeners on a journey that’s smooth-sailing.”

Sound design

Pastor said working on “Super Evil” renewed her appreciation for all the in-depth, investigative true crime podcasts she’s listened to in the past. Those podcasts actually set the bar for the team.

The team interviews Sen. Franklin Drilon who was Justice Secretary at the time of the murders

Aquino said, “I really wanted it to be on the same level as the foreign pods that got me into true crime, I wanted to replicate that experience, so with each new listen, I was finding more things to trim, cut out, or add music to. Wondery and the Los Angeles Times make some of the best, and I hope the work we put into the sound design, the research, the storytelling and the tight edit was able to accomplish that.”

Casillan hopes the listeners will find “Super Evil” “an incredible and satisfying audio experience. A viable entry point for podcast newbies and a worthy addition to the lists of pod enthusiasts.”

The team thinks the podcast has something to offer even those who are already familiar with the case. “Those who think they know the case well can revisit it in a new way with ‘Super Evil.’ I think they’re going to find some surprises along the way, things they’ve never heard about it before.”

Casillan said, “It is a story of justice that many of us badly need to hear. It reminds us that there will always be justice if good people tirelessly fight for it.”

Atty. Filemon Nolasco, lawyer of the Gomez family, in his office in Los Baños

Pastor, Aquino and Casillan learned lessons while working on “Super Evil,” lessons they hope listeners would walk away with too after finishing the seven-part series.

Casillan’s favorite lesson? “Harriet Demetriou (the judge who handled the case) is a real badass.”

Aquino said, “Justice isn’t something that’s handed to us on a silver platter. It takes ordinary Filipinos, media and government, among other sectors, working together to ensure that criminals are held accountable for their wrongdoing. Especially if those criminals are rich and powerful ones.”

Horrible story

Pastor said, “I hope that while listening to this horrible, horrible story, people would get the chance to think about the country that we live in and continue to love despite its terrible flaws. I’m hoping they’d ask the questions we were asking too as we worked on ‘Super Evil’: What is it about the Philippines that breeds impunity? Why do we keep electing this type of leader? What can we do to make this country a better place?”

Aquino said, “We each have a part to play. It may be tiring to constantly be fighting for something, but hopefully our belief in what is right will keep us going. As they said during the days of the Marcos dictatorship, ’di ba, ‘Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino ang kikilos? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?’ We are gearing up for the elections, and we should remember to hold our leaders to a high standard. No crooks in power in 2022, please?”

The first episode may be out, with new episodes coming out every Friday, but the work of the Inquirer Podcasts and PumaPodcast team is far from over. “We’re already working on Season 2,” said Pastor. “We started working on it before we even finished Season 1 which is a little crazy. But we can’t stop. There are so many more stories to tell.”

Listen to “Super Evil” Season 1: “Hatched in Hell,” on Spotify (bit.ly/SuperEvil), Apple Podcasts (podcasts.apple.com/ph/podcast/super-evilhatched-in-hell/id1532013184), Stitcher (stitcher.com/podcast/pumapodcast/super-evilhatched-in-hell), or Anchor (anchor.fm/superevil). A new episode will be out every week.