Police unit involved in death of Jesse Phinney now under investigation

Jesse Phinney. Picture via his Facebook account

The police unit that claimed American filmmaker Jesse Phinney hanged himself with a belt in a Cebu jail cell are now being investigated.

Yesterday, we reported how a US pathologist, privately hired by the 42-year-old’s grieving family, had cast doubt on the official account of his death.


Dr Elizabeth Laposata, from Rhode Island, said her autopsy found evidence of blunt force trauma and other marks on Jesse’s body that suggested he did not take his own life.

The police said they found him hanging in his cell after he had been arrested under suspicion of human trafficking and child abuse on December 5 last year.

However, shortly after his death, a friend of Jesse contacted PLN to dispute this account. They said that, for one thing, he never wore a belt. They also clarified that the minors he was accused of photographing in his Talisay City home were the children of his girlfriend, to whom he was a father figure.


Today, the Sun Star Cebu contacted Patricio Bernales, the director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) unit involved in Jesse’s arrest, for comment.

In a text message reply to the newspaper, he refused to elaborate on the case, saying: “Sorry. Can’t comment. We are under probe. Hope you understand.”

Furthermore, a Reuters report yesterday quoted Superintendent Royina Garma, chief of the local Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, saying the national headquarters had ordered a probe into the death in custody.

The NBI began monitoring Jesse following a complaint from Cebu Vice Governor Agnes Magpale, who also co-chairs the Provincial Women’s Commission.

After raiding his home, officers announced that they had seized high-end camera equipment, electrical devices, toys and children’s bikinis — with a clear implication that this amounted to damning evidence against him.

However, they conspicuously failed to mention that Jesse was an eminent cinematographer and filmmaker, and that the children were his girlfriend’s.

Jesse just wanted to help

Jesse, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, was a cinematographer on documentaries, television series and reality shows. Most recently he worked on National Geographic’s series Life Below Zero. Earlier in his career he worked with Donald Trump as a cameraman on The Apprentice.

Towards the end of his life he had been winding down his media career and was planning to start a new life building low-cost housing for poverty stricken people in the Philippines.

Commenting on an earlier PLN story about Jesse’s death, another friend called ‘Brett’ wrote: “Jesse was a documentary filmmaker who cared deeply for the communities he documented. He was a kind, loving person who would not harm anyone. Especially children.”

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