An Idyllic Surf Town Grapples With the Mysterious Death of an Artist

The previous 18 months have seen the browsing city of San Juan within the Philippines return to the silence of sleepy years previous, earlier than social media and new highways turned it into a vacation mecca for city dwellers.

Caught up in lockdowns in a rustic ranked as amongst the worst to live in the course of the pandemic, the once-packed bars and cafés of San Juan, some 270km north of Manila in La Union province, are actually usually empty. The resorts and hostels the place company used to squeeze in, at all times absolutely booked, now promote vacancies. Many institutions that opened and flourished in recent times have been shuttered, some for good.

The city’s surfers have the waves all to themselves once more, whereas some nonetheless wait on the seaside for the few vacationers who nonetheless come and pay good cash to take classes. 

It was on this ambiance that internationally acclaimed Filipino visible artist Bree Jonson and her boyfriend Julian Ongpin moved to San Juan on September 17. However earlier than daybreak the following day, she was discovered unconscious of their hostel room and later declared lifeless on arrival at a close-by hospital. She was 30 years previous.


“The timing of all this is a bit more painful as a result of she’s been wanting to maneuver there for a very long time, and on her first night time of the particular transfer, this occurred,” artist and activist Cian Dayrit, Jonson’s good friend, informed VICE World Information.

The main points round her loss of life stay mysterious. 

Ongpin informed native authorities that Jonson died by suicide, and he had tried to save lots of her. 

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Jonson’s mom Sally disputes Ongpin’s claim. The household’s attorneys level to the medico-legal report that mentioned Jonson’s physique “showed signs of struggle” and had bruises apart from what the alleged technique of suicide would have brought about.

CCTV footage from the hostel launched by police confirmed Jonson and Ongpin apparently arguing outdoors their room shortly earlier than her loss of life. Showing earlier than the Nationwide Bureau of Investigation, Ongpin denied that he and Jonson argued that night time.

Additional complicating the incident have been the medicine discovered on the scene. 

An post-mortem revealed Jonson died of asphyxia, and medicines have been present in her system, police mentioned. Investigators discovered 12.6 grams of suspected cocaine within the room and arrested Ongpin, who was additionally discovered to have medicine in his system. 

Underneath present President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has engaged in a drug war since 2016 that has seen the widespread killing of drug suspects—some 6,000 individuals in line with the official physique rely, or as many as 30,000 in line with activists and rights watchdogs—by the hands of authorities. Majority of these are poor Filipinos.


Regardless of the unlawful medicine, Ongpin, a billionaire’s son, was later launched from detention, pending an investigation, with the federal government placing him on a watchlist in case he tries to go away the nation.

Whether or not tragic accident or foul play, Jonson’s loss of life has touched a uncooked nerve throughout the nation and, significantly, within the tight-knit San Juan surf city neighborhood. 

Whereas particulars of what occurred that night are murky, one factor that’s sure is Ongpin stays free regardless of having examined optimistic for medicine and unlawful substances being discovered within the room. This, amid the federal government’s bloody warfare on medicine that has in any other case been carried out with ruthless effectivity, has led locals to query what they see as impunity surrounding the incident.

“I believed they have been strict in regards to the warfare on medicine. What’s the explanation [Ongpin] was let go, and what’s the follow-up on that?” San Juan resident Airwind Bautista, a consultant from the Association of Tourism Industries and Networks in La Union, informed VICE World Information. “Will it go away an impression that in the event you belong to excessive society, you’ll be able to escape accountability?”

Though the incident was not the primary time medicine have been found in a San Juan institution, the high-profile nature of the incident and the obvious preferential therapy afforded to Ongpin has affected the morale of some native residents, and has enterprise house owners anxious in regards to the financial affect on their tourism-dependent neighborhood, particularly towards the backdrop of Duterte’s drug warfare.

“Its unfavourable affect is the tarnishing of our picture as individuals may say, ‘Oh my gosh, La Union has change into a haven for influential individuals to do some unlawful actions,’ proper?” Bautista mentioned. 

That is of specific concern in La Union, because it was native police that permit Ongpin go, and now it’s the Division of Justice that’s pursuing additional investigation after Jonson’s household expressed doubts in regards to the police probe.


“{That a} well-known billionaire might so shortly evade consequence for possession of unlawful medicine is offensive, complicated, and a betrayal of public belief. The dealing with of the incident provides to the suspicion individuals already really feel towards authorities, however are afraid to say for worry of backlash,” one member of the surf city neighborhood informed VICE World Information on situation of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

The neighborhood member famous how, in distinction to Ongpin, atypical individuals in La Union who got here beneath suspicion of drug possession have been “unjustly incarcerated” in recent times.

The son of one of many Philippines’ most influential billionaires, Ongpin is an artwork patron and angel investor. His father is Roberto Ongpin, a property improvement mogul with a internet value of $1.1 billion, in line with Forbes. The older Ongpin was the Philippine commerce minister in the course of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who dominated the nation from 1965 to 1986.

A lawyer for Jonson’s household told local press that the quantity of medication present in his possession ought to have saved Ongpin in jail if the regulation have been adopted. 

Ongpin’s attorneys couldn’t be reached for remark.

La Union province started drawing surfers within the late Nineties and steadily grew in reputation. In 2006, the annual surf and music pageant La Union Surfing Break was launched in San Juan, incomes it the moniker “Browsing Capital of the Northern Philippines.”


Social media and the opening of an expressway that reduce the six-hour drive from Manila by half made San Juan much more in style. Metropolis people craving for different existence moved in, opening institutions that blended rustic and concrete sensibilities. It’s now residence to a tight-knit neighborhood of artists and creatives, all of which attracted Jonson.

Felimon Dines, an area character popularly recognized amongst browsing circles as Lemon Surfstar, had witnessed his city’s evolution, one which’s given him a shot at a extra comfy life. He owns and runs a hostel, however the pandemic hit his enterprise onerous.

“Zero. We’re not getting any enterprise as a result of [people from Manila] can’t come right here these days. They make up 75 % of our clientele,” Dines informed VICE World Information.

Simply when the lockdown in Manila eased in late September, San Juan itself and its neighboring cities have been positioned on lockdown due to an increase in COVID-19 infections within the space. 

Now, the tragic loss of life of Jonson and the languid tempo of the investigation has additional dampened spirits within the struggling surf city neighborhood. The affiliation with impunity shouldn’t be a stigma the neighborhood can afford amid the pandemic and the drug warfare.

“As if issues weren’t dangerous sufficient, this occurred,” Dines mentioned. “That’s an individual’s life that was misplaced, and we don’t actually know what occurred.”


There’s additionally concern from some locals that there would unfairly be nearer scrutiny by authorities on San Juan.

“The neighborhood doesn’t need to undergo backlash from authorities as a result of a well-known billionaire was caught in possession of, and examined optimistic to be used of unlawful medicine,” the neighborhood member mentioned. 

Dines and Bautista are hoping for a speedy and neutral investigation to convey closure for Jonson’s household and the neighborhood. The justice division concluded a preliminary hearing of the drug possession cost towards Ongpin on Oct. 8, however is but to determine whether or not the case will proceed to trial. 

“Individuals are clamoring to dig deeper into the incident in order to clear La Union’s popularity—that it’s not a haven for these actions,” Bautista mentioned.

“We all know {that a} wealthy man is concerned,” Dines mentioned. “However I hope [the case] will get resolved, and I hope it doesn’t occur once more.”

Whereas the neighborhood grapples with the affect of Jonson’s mysterious loss of life, its personal members know the difficulty speaks of a far higher difficulty past simply Jonson and the city of San Juan. 

The hesitancy to detain Ongpin speaks of the broader difficulty of inequality within the nation’s justice system, mentioned the neighborhood member. 

“The problem across the tragic lack of Bree Jonson is much less about the local people, who will keep on, as they need to. The main focus ought to be on the justice system, and its relationship with the rich and highly effective.”


Even Jonson’s mom Sally, on the very least, is asking authorities to pursue the drug case towards Ongpin, conceding in a media interview that “homicide may be very onerous to show” and can imply “the investigation will simply proceed.”

For Dayrit, Jonson’s artist and activist good friend, the incident and the investigation “simply crystallizes the sample of impunity” and different systemic issues plaguing the Philippines.

Systemic points have been one thing Jonson herself was concerned about, and it informed her art.

“She’d at all times form of randomly ask me about systemic issues like surroundings points or peasant points. Fairly actively, really,” Dayrit mentioned.

“What she actually needed to do was provide her personal very uncooked and intimate studying of issues which can be past the private.” 

Observe JC Gotinga on Twitter.

When you or somebody you realize is contemplating suicide, assist is out there. Name 1-800-273-8255 to talk with somebody now or textual content START to 741741 to message with the Disaster Textual content Line.