'Madame Jenny' Napoles, woman in the eye of a storm

'A liar is a sibling of a thief,' Janet Napoles would often tell her employees

Chay F. Hofileña

7:24:27am September 4, 2013

5:48:52am January 12, 2017

CRIMINAL CASE. Janet Lim Napoles turns herself in. Photo provided by the PNP

MANILA, Philippines – Janet “Jenny” Luy Lim had always dreamed of being rich.

The only daughter in a brood of 5, she grew up in Metro Manila until her father Johnny Lim, a Chinese Filipino, died in 1970. The family moved back to Maluso in Basilan, the strife-torn birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf and the hometown of her mother Magdalena “Nelly” Luy.

In Maluso, the widowed Nelly and her children lived in the house of the Luys and helped in the sari-sari store that earned some money for the family. To supplement the family’s modest earnings, they also delivered drinks to the pantalan or port and to nearby islands.

“Doon sa Basilan dati hindi naman p'wede 'yung magbongga ka kasi guerra-guerra eh, recalled one of the witnesses in the pork barrel scam who knew Jenny. (In Basilan, you couldn’t show off because of the war.)

The 6-year-old Jenny completed primary schooling at the Maluso Central Elementary School and high school at the local Claret School. She went off to marry a soldier not long after.

From what those who lived and worked with Jenny remember, she met her future husband in a ferry or a ship that traverses the southern islands. Jenny married Jaime or Jimmy Napoles, then a Marine reservist, when she was 18.

Together, they would later have 4 children – Jo Christine, James Christopher, Christian, and the younger daughter Jeane. She is the only one who lives outside the country, in a multi-million-dollar unit at the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles.

When the Napoles couple lived in Manila, they started out in the Marine barracks, a far cry from their present Pacific Plaza at the upscale Fort Bonifacio.

Nagluto-luto, may karinderya (cooking, having a small eatery)” was how the enterprising Jenny got by. When her mother moved from Basilan to join the family, she lived with her only daughter. It was like Basilan all over again, with the entire family living under one roof.

Jenny’s 4 children would be raised with the help of her mother, a deeply religious woman, who also got married when she was a teenager. Because Jenny would be away for most of the day, returning only at night, the children would be left in the care of their grandmother.

Later, when they were able to afford it, household help were hired. Among them was Gertrudes Luy, a distant relative whose son would turn state witness against Jenny.

In the early years of their marriage, when Jimmy was the primary breadwinner, he was the boss.

Changing fortunes

The Napoleses have been married for 30 years now, celebrating their pearl anniversary in April 2012.

Jimmy, a captain in the Marines, took part in the 1989 coup attempt against the government of Corazon Aquino. He and Janet started making money when they obtained government contracts.

Their big break came in 1998 when, using her husband’s military connections, Jenny obtained a P3.8-million Kevlar helmets contract. Without delivering anything, they managed to get full payment from the Marines.

Highly irregular and graft-ridden, the military contract merited the filing of a graft and malversation case against husband and wife in 2001. Jenny delivered substandard Kevlar helmets but both eventually went scot-free. (READ: How Janet Lim-Napoles got away)

By the time Jimmy availed of optional retirement as a Marine major in December 2004, Jenny had gained sufficient confidence as a shrewd businesswoman with a network she built and nurtured starting in the 1990s.

She said she took pity on her relatives on her mother’s side and gave them the opportunity to have a decent life. Jenny said she sent the children of her daughter’s nanny, Gertrudes Luy, to private schools and paid for their tuition. One of them was Benhur Luy.

Benhur’s lawyer Levito Baligod refuted Jenny’s claims, saying, his client and his siblings were either government or private scholars. Jenny could not have financed their education because she was not yet that financially able at the time of their schooling.

Jenny is charming, generous, and caring, those who know her said, giving them clothes she wore once before. She has a preference for expensive shoes, clothes and bags, shopping for them at a local upscale department store.

On occasion, she would send clothes she had gotten tired of or clothes she didn’t like back to the province for others to wear. Yet she sent a former maid to jail, accusing her of stealing her expensive underwear.

Ang sinungaling, kapatid ng magnanakaw” (a liar is the sibling of a thief) Jenny would often tell those in her employ, intimidating them and making sure they remained loyal to her.

The teenager from Basilan had transformed into the “Madame” they both fear and love.

‘Mamalengke na tayo’

In the Napoles home at the Fort, employees witnessed how cash stashed in locally made Kipling bags were brought in by the family drivers. Easily, they said, the bags would contain millions of pesos.

Whenever “Madame” announced, “Mamalengke na tayo (Let’s go to market),” they knew that cash would soon be on its way.

“Saan 'yung mga bag (Where are the bags)? she would ask. They came in different sizes, some of them having wheels.

“Marami kaming sizes, depende sa magkano. Ang P3 million puwede sa paper bag,” one of the witnesses said. (We have different sizes, depending on how much. P3 million can fit in a paper bag.) Their largest collection amounted to at least P100 million in cash, they said.

“Ano 'yung PDAF [Priority Development Assistance Fund], ano 'yung NGO? Tutukan 'nyo 'yan para makasingil na tayo,” Jenny would bark. (Which PDAF, which NGO? Focus on that so we can collect already.)

The household had 4-5 maids, some of them also helping in the counting of the money. When the cash came, “nagkakamada kami ng pera,” piling them up like hollow blocks, one of the witnesses said. The money was kept in bags stored in Jenny’s room. They ranged from “P50, 75, 5, 4, 3 million.”

Jenny took care of her mother financially. Whatever she bought for herself, she made sure her mother had, too. Whenever there were collections, her mother would always have a share, sometimes as much as P500,000 in cash. Jenny’s mother would keep her money stored in vaults in her own room.

She never asked her daughter where the money was coming from.

“Ang mama niya di alam na di maayos ang negosyo…. Hindi siya nasho-shock kung saan galing ang pera…. Alam ng mommy na nagta-transact sa gobyerno. Sabay sa agos ang nanay. Walang reaction ang nanay, basta tinatanggap,” the witnesses said.

(Her mother did not know about the irregularities of her business. She was not shocked about where the money was coming from. What she knew is that it came from government transactions. She just went with the flow. There was no reaction from the mother who just accepted everything.)

Whatever she had, Magdalena reportedly shared with religious causes. A priest who was said to be a beneficiary of the Napoles family’s money said Magdalena Luy Lim helped in the feeding programs for the poor and malnourished. She also contributed to projects for the elderly and inmates of the New Bilibid Prisons, now retired Monsignor Josefino Ramirez said. In 2007, she helped poor priests and seminarians in China, a task she had asked her daughter to continue.

As they became richer, Jenny took firm control, making all decisions pertaining to their business and their money – eclipsing her husband Jimmy. “Basta sa pera, 'yung nasusunod ang babae.” (Anything involving money, the woman would take charge.)

Private meetings

On February 28, 2008, Jenny’s 72-year-old mother passed away. She is said to have suffered from diabetes, lung problems, and other illnesses. But it was only in 2010 that monthly Masses were celebrated in her honor at the Napoles family mausoleum inside Heritage Park. Jenny required all her staff to attend but if they were able to, they tried to get away.

The mausoleum stands on a 250-300-square-meter lot inside the sprawling cemetery. Today that property is said to be valued at about P30 million.

Jenny hosts parties there, inviting VIPs from both political and entertainment circles. It is also where she meets in private with government officials.

It was in the mausoleum where she met with officials like former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes who committed suicide after he was accused of receiving millions of pesos in unaudited monthly allowances. It was also there where she met with Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda in the evening of August 28 to negotiate her surrender to no less than the President.

Omen

In the early hours of Sunday, September 1, Janet Napoles was whisked by police officers from Makati City Jail to Fort Sto Domingo in Sta Rosa, Laguna, training ground of the Special Action Forces.

In her 82.4-square-meter bungalow, she no longer has the luxury of having assistants stroking her hair and massaging her until she drifts off to sleep. Her employees said she has trouble sleeping.

Diabetic, claustrophobic, and suffering from hypertension or what they call “nerbiyos,” they said she has an innate fear of being left alone, even in her sleep. She wants someone else to watch over her even when she sleeps with her husband. She is paranoid about being killed, either through suffocation or through strangulation.

Just last year, a feng shui expert who came to their office told her she would lose her wealth and that misfortune would strike in 2012 and be with her until 2014. Incensed by the prediction, she told her employees they should all work hard and well to prevent the prophecy from coming true.

But in December 2012, Benhur Luy, her cousin and Gertrudes’ son whom she trusted to do errands for her, was accused by Jenny of pocketing P300,000. The amount was supposed to be deposited in her bank account. She also accused him of taking out a P5.5 million loan without her authorization, prompting Jenny to file a qualified theft complaint against Luy in early 2013.

The National Bureau of Investigation, whose agents rescued Luy at Jenny's condominium in Taguig, has filed charges of serious illegal detention against her and her brother Reynald "Jojo" Lim.

Reports quoting Jenny have alleged that Luy was only on a voluntary spiritual retreat, having been a “habitual user” of the drug Ecstasy. He was said to have engaged in “sexual indiscretions,” too – charges which his lawyer hastily dismissed.

Coincidence or not, the falling out with Luy, who has been admitted to the Witness Protection Program, signaled the start of Jenny’s declining fortunes. 

Mugshots taken after the 49-year-old's surrender showed her holding up a tablet that reads: “Janet Napoles y Lim. Criminal Case No. 13-1992. Aug 28, 2013. PNP-CIDG.” – with reports from Aries Rufo/Rappler.com