OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines - The Philippines said Tuesday it would seek custody of a US Marine currently detained on a war ship under suspicion of the murder of a local transgender person as police readied murder charges against him.
The body of Jeffrey Laude, also known as Jennifer, was found by hotel staff in the northern port city of Olongapo on Sunday, less than an hour after the victim checked into a room with an unidentified blonde male.
The suspect was part of the 3,500-member US contingent in the Philippines to conduct joint military exercises, which ended last week.
A police statement issued Tuesday said the US serviceman had been identified by a witness and that a murder charge was being prepared against him.
Earlier the American embassy had confirmed: "A US Marine has been identified as a possible suspect in the ongoing investigation. The suspected Marine is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina." It added that the soldier was being held onboard USS Peleliu while a joint Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Philippine National Police investigation is conducted.
Eduardo Oban, executive director of a commission overseeing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, said the USS Peleliu would remain in the country while the investigation is going on.
He said charges against the American would be filed "very soon," but would not give details.
Asked if the Philippines would seek custody of the suspect, Oban said: "The Philippine government should exert that position: that we would like to take custody of the US serviceman." The United States could turn down this request but Oban stressed: "It's an extraordinary case, yes. That's why we are asserting Philippine jurisdiction over this case".
The city of Olongapo, which had once teemed with US servicemen fresh from the recent exercises, was now silent and gloomy, much to the disappointment of local businesses.
"The Americans disappeared from red light district on Sunday, hours after the killing," said Elvira Medrano, an attendant in a pay parking area.
Laude, who arrived at the hotel dressed as a woman and checked in with a "foreign man", was found lifeless on the bathroom floor with marks on the neck police said Monday, adding that initial investigations suggested the victim had been strangled.
Leftist and nationalist groups have seized the issue and condemned the country's alliance with the United States. About 60 protesters staged a rally at the US embassy on Tuesday, burning a makeshift US flag as they condemned the murder and the presence of American troops.
At Laude's wake in an Olongapo funeral home, a photograph of the victim, dressed as a woman with make-up, long hair and tank-top lay upon the white coffin.
A wreath from local feminist group, Kaisa Ka also lay upon the coffin, saying: "Transgenders are people. Justice for Jeffrey".
US Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear expressed his "regrets" over the incident, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Gregorio Catapang told reporters.
The case is a fresh test for the VFA, an accord signed by the two allies in 1998 covering legal liability of US forces in the Philippines.
The VFA gives the Philippines jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes not linked to their official duties but it also says custody of these Americans will remain with the US government.
The agreement does state that in "extraordinary cases," the Philippines can ask for custody.
In 2006, a Philippine court sentenced US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith to 40 years in jail for raping a Filipina a year earlier.
Smith walked free in 2009 after his accuser recanted her statement, prompting the court to acquit him.