Death Ship: No justice for the dead

News Corp Australia
31st August 2017 5:41 PM


WHEN the sun rose on the Sage Sagittarius, hundreds of kilometres off the Queensland coast five years ago today, it lit up a ship riven with fear and confusion.

Chief cook Cesar Llanto, 42, had vanished the morning before.

The crew had by now scoured the ship and surrounding waters for any sign of the veteran seafarer.

If he had gone overboard as suspected, the 26-hour window for survival was about to close.

When the Filipino crew were told that their cook had vanished, suspicion engulfed the vessel.

An equally bizarre death two weeks later would earn the Sagittarius its notorious "Death Ship" nickname.


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The Sage Sagittarius or
The Sage Sagittarius or "Death Ship" arriving in the Port of Gladstone. It will tonight arrive at the Port of Newcastle, the same port where an engineer on board died five years ago. Paul Braven

The last time the cook was seen, he was headed to the bridge. When Mr Llanto never returned, the crew feared foul play.

"They almost all thinking that, because you understand that he was called to the bridge in the early morning. Then the chief cook did not come back to the galley - his area."

This is the first time a crew member on board the Sagittarius at the time of the deaths has spoken in detail about what life was like on the ship. They are speaking anonymously out of concern for their safety.



The former Sagittarius sailor remembers the moment the crew realised the senior cook was gone.

"We check every room and cannot see the chief cook," he said.

"I don't believe the chief cook would go overboard by himself."

The missing chief cook Cesar Llanto, thought to have vanished overboard off the Queensland coast.

The sailor said the cook had been worried, fearing that crew members were frustrated as he served them smaller meals.

He said the cook had complained that he was being ordered to use less food but, "The crew is hungry and angry at me".

During the inquest, the Coroner heard allegations that Sage Sagittarius Captain Venancio Salas Jnr had ordered the cook to cut down on serving sizes to save money.

The cook's death marked the start of a saga that continues to haunt two branches of Australian police and has driven a coronial inquest and Senate Inquiry.

The railing on the Sage Sagittarius where chief cook Cesar Llanto is thought to have vanished overboard.

The seafarer said on-board chatter suggested there was an argument before the cook's disappearance.

In the sailor's telling, the ship's audio recorder was switched off at the height of the argument.

The coronial inquest heard evidence that the ship's Voyage Data Recorder (its black box equivalent) was somehow switched off around the time of Mr Llanto's death.

NSW Deputy Coroner Sharon Freund heard it was also turned off when chief engineer Hector Collado, 55, was killed two weeks after Mr Llanto.

The engineer was struck on the skull, likely with some sort of weapon according to the Coroner, before falling 11m to his death.

The site where chief engineer Hector Collado fell to his death after suffering a blow to his skull.



The crew were instructed to deliver statements on their whereabouts around the time of the cook's disappearance, with detailed notes on time. Their statements would be read by the captain before being handed to a company executive.

This information would later be passed on to the AFP's investigators, who would describe it as "contaminated evidence".

On the day of Mr Collado's death, he was just hours away from heading home after completing his contract.

He had told family members in the Philippines that he was frightened. Mr Collado's wife told how her late husband had instructed family to take a variety of safety precautions when they collected him from the airport.

Hector Collado
Hector Collado

Weeks later after the ship left Australia, safety superintendent Kosaku Monji -- who arrived by helicopter to work alongside the company executive -- was found crushed to death in a conveyor belt. His death was not examined in-depth by the inquest.

Since the 2012 incident no charges have been laid against anyone on board.




Coroner Freund wrote that evidence suggested Captain Salas "caused or authorised the disappearance of Mr Llanto", and knew more than he told the court.

She also wrote that Mr Llanto died as a result of "foul play by a person or persons on the vessel".

His disappearance likely followed him either being thrown off the ship or killed on the ship with his body dumped at a later point.

During the inquest, Capt Salas admitted to physically abusing a gay cook - a colleague of Mr Llanto - and selling guns.

He was also accused by one crew member of threatening those on board by saying "Wherever you hide, I can find you".

Capt Salas has consistently and strenuously denied any wrongdoing, or any connection to the deaths.

Turning to Mr Collado, Coroner Freund wrote that he was likely hit by "some kind of weapon" and was either thrown over the side of the deck to his death, or fell over the railing after being struck.

Sage Sagittarius former captain Venancio Salas Jr leaves the Sydney Coroner's Court on February 18, 2016 after attending a coronial inquest into how two Filipino sailors died on board. PHOTO: OWEN JACQUES
Sage Sagittarius former captain Venancio Salas Jr, pictured in Sydney in 2015.



The NSW Police and Australian Federal Police declined to say whether officers were still investigating the deaths. Both agencies say they are still considering the Coroner's findings, released in May.

Now the Philippines Government has confirmed it is considering launching its own investigation

NSW Consul-General of the Philippines Anne Jalandoon-Louis told News Corp the government was examining the findings of the inquest into the two deaths.

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

Because the two dead men were Filipinos working abroad, such an investigation would likely be led by the government's powerful Department of Labour and Employment.

"We're at the stage where the relevant Philippines agencies are looking at the information that has come out so far regarding the case, including the result of the inquest done by the Coroner's court here," she said.

"We've been monitoring the developments and provided information in coordination with our embassy in Canberra."

Tonight the Sage Sagittarius is due to arrive at the Port of Newcastle, the scene of Mr Collado's death.

But for now, Mr Llanto's wife Nelia and their children now 16 and 12, along with Mr Collado's wife Rebecca and their children and grandchildren, continue to wait. Five years and counting.