By: Zeidrick-J Cudilla

FERNANDO LOPEZ, the younger brother of Ilonggo transport tycoon Eugenio Lopez, held the reins of the local government of the city of Iloilo as an appointed mayor in September 1945—a jumpstart to his political career. He used his position to resuscitate the city from the shambles brought about by the war. As a senator, he found favor in Elpidio Quirino who offered him to be his running mate in the 1949 national elections. Cutting short the story, the tandem successfully won the bid for the two highest positions of the land.

Married to Maria Salvacion Javellana (to whom the classic Casa Mariquit in Jaro was named), Fernando Lopez, known also as Nanding, fathered two daughters and four sons. History was once unkind to this Lopez brood. I am referring to the unfortunate “kidnapping” incident in 1950 that involved one of Nanding’s daughters, Yolanda Lopez. The only way of averting the case from becoming an overnight sensation at that time was by removing the political and entrepreneurial spotlights from the family. It was not easy, if not impossible.

Yolanda Lopez tied the knot with James Robert Puckett, an American agent in Nanding’s automobile enterprise, in late May 1946 in a ceremony attended by the cultured dames, damsels, and gentlemen of Iloilo and Manila. Problems and indifferences immediately plagued the marriage that in mid-December 1949, they were already divorced “on grounds of cruelty”. The court in Reno, Nevada, where the separation papers were processed, did not name a custodian to their only child, Robert, who was about two years of age. With the toddler in Manila during the proceedings, the Nevada court could not award the custody to any of the parents because of jurisdiction issues.

Newspaper accounts at that time reported of an agreement allegedly made by the couple dated October 17, 1949. The written accord, provided by Yolanda to the press, stated that James agreed to place his son under her care. James could not think of a better way of bringing the child with him in the United States than by boarding a plane to New Mexico to settle down once and for all. Upon arrival, James made sure that he would be guarded by New Mexico’s laws by seeking custody rights to the child. He even demanded $15,000 of back pays from the business of his father-in-law in exchange for Robert.

Of course, the double-cross did not sit well with Yolanda. To her frustration, she hatched a plan to take away the child from her ex-husband. Accompanying her on the journey to New Mexico was a family friend named Theodore Lewin, a former American soldier and sports bigwig in the Philippines. At 1 p.m. of Friday the 13th January 1950, Mrs. Hester Puckett, the mother of James, put Robert into bed when Lewin and Yolanda barged in to the residence and took the child. The three drove immediately in a green car for a flight in San Francisco, California. Knowing that the authorities were catching up with them, they proceeded into a limousine owned by the Philippine consulate and turned up at Seattle, Washington.

James, together with police officers and detectives, sought to detain the “abductors” in a movie-style car chase which ended without success. He charged them for kidnapping. Meanwhile, Robert, assisted by a nurse, was flown to the Philippines. Theodore and Yolanda boarded a flight from New York to London and from the British capital to Manila.

I have pondered on this topic: Was it really a case of kidnapping? Yolanda’s lawyer in Reno, Melvin Jepson, called the fracas “ridiculous”. Atty. Gen. Joe Martinez, and Governor Edwin Mechem, both from New Mexico, believed no kidnapping crime was committed, quoting the statement of Theodore who was arrested in San Francisco in 1952 but had paid $2,500 for his temporary freedom.

This being an incomplete story, I have placed my faith to the scholars who might be interested in revisiting this controversial incident. History is never a static study, hence, the need for rewriting and retelling it as factual evidences come to light.

(The columnist will be on hiatus for hissabbatical until November. He wishes to thank his readers for joining him in his travails of unearthing the unknown stories in history. #FromThePast will be published again upon his return.)