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CNMI Police Make Arrest In Emerita Romero Murder Case
Ex-convict identified with physical evidence, 911 phone call

By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 26, 2013) – Northern Marianas Police served Friday an arrest warrant on ex-convict Joseph Acosta Crisostomo for the kidnapping and murder of bartender Emerita Relata Romero in February 2012.

Police brought the 39-year-old Crisostomo to the Office of the Attorney General's (OAG) Criminal Division Office in Susupe where he was served at 11:25am with the arrest warrant on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual assault in the first degree, robbery, theft, assault and battery, and disturbing the peace.

Shortly after Crisostomo's arrest, Attorney General Joey San Nicolas held a news briefing at the Office of the Attorney General's Criminal Division to announce the development of their year-long investigation that led to the filing of charges against the suspect, who has an extensive rap sheet.

Crisostomo has been detained due to a previous arrest on illegal drug charges.

San Nicolas said the filing of charges against Crisostomo is welcome news to Romero's family and friends, and the community in general.

San Nicolas praised the joint efforts by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), OAG, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Assistant attorney general Shelli Neal, who will prosecute the case, disclosed that Crisostomo was identified due a combination of things such as a tip received by a detective, physical evidence, and phone records analysis. However, it was Romero's 911 call that played a key role in the investigation, she added.

Neal said that based on the investigation, Romero did not know Crisostomo. Investigators learned that the victim called a taxi and mistakenly got into a rental car being driven by Crisostomo.

"We have credible evidence," the prosecutor stressed.

Neal said they included the robbery charge because the victim's cell phone was not recovered.

Priority

DPS Commissioner James Deleon Guerrero said the investigation into the Romero murder case has been a priority at the department and that he is grateful to DPS investigators, the AG Investigative Unit, and the FBI for their efforts.

Also present at the briefing were FBI special agent Haejun Park, detectives, and Romero's brother Eduardo Relata and sister Estrellita "Lhet" Relata.

Superior Court Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo issued the arrest warrant and set no bail.

Crisostomo was later taken Friday afternoon before Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho for his initial court appearance. Camacho retained no bail. Preliminary hearing will be on Feb. 26 at 1:30pm. Arraignment will be on March 4 at 9am.

Acting chief public defender Douglas Hartig appeared as counsel for the defendant only for that hearing. He said their office may have a conflict of interest as they are representing a possible witness in the case.

Phone call

Police detective Simon T. Manacop stated in his report that Godfather's Bar co-owner Scott Dottino had reported on Feb. 5, 2012, at 5:49pm, that one of his bartenders, Romero, was missing.

Dotino indicated that Romero was supposed to work at 5pm but did not show up. The employer said it was very unusual as Romero had not responded to his repeated calls on her cell phone.

Police investigation showed that the then 37-year-old Romero was last seen alive by a co-worker getting aboard a green or blue colored car along Chichirica Avenue sometime past 2:40am.

At about 3am that same day, DPS dispatch received an emergency call from Romero's cell phone. The dispatcher could hear a woman in the background. The woman, later identified as Romero, was crying but not responding to the dispatcher. A male's voice could also be heard in the background. The call lasted about a minute.

The dispatcher overheard the woman crying and begging, "Please let me go. My neck hurts." The man calmly spoke, "Relax. Relax. I'm gonna take you home."

The man then asked Romero's name and she replied, "Emie" (her nickname).

The man repeatedly stated he was going to take her home. The dispatcher then transferred the call to police officer Sandy Hambros, who answered and monitored the call from thereon.

Hambros indicated that when he began monitoring the call, Romero was begging for help and gave the location "Marianas Resort."

A static sound followed and the call was cut off. At one point Romero was overheard asking the man to wait so she could pick up her pants.

Hambros and two other police officers responded, but failed to find any disturbance or person within Marianas Resort.

Body found

On Feb. 7, 2012, at 2:24pm, FBI special agents reported to DPS that they have located the lifeless body of a woman at the abandoned La Fiesta Mall in As Matuis.

FBI special agent Joe Auther stated that he and special agent Park found the corpse inside a small room that was possibly a restroom.

Manacop said that Park escorted him to the location where he saw the female corpse inside a small room on the northeastern corner of the abandoned building, formerly the La Fiesta 1. Manacop said the body was fully clothed with black short pants and gray tank top. The corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition. It was later brought to the Commonwealth Health Center.

Manacop said there was a black T-shirt looped tightly around the body's neck.

Manacop said that drag marks were found, starting from the southwest corner of the building toward where the body was found.

Other physical evidence such as a palm print with possible bloodstain was also recovered on a metal door.

That same night, Dr. Aurelio Espinola did an autopsy on the victim at CHC's morgue. Espinola ruled that the victim died as a result of asphyxia due to strangulation.

FBI special agent Auther later advised Manacop that the palm prints collected from the victim was a positive match for Romero.

Rented car

Manacop said that, on Feb. 8, a detective informed him that a confidential source disclosed that the evening on Feb. 4, Crisostomo was seen driving a dark Toyota Yaris or Corolla.

The confidential source disclosed that the vehicle appeared to be tinted and was a rental car. Crisostomo was allegedly accompanied by two persons.

Later that same day, Criminal Investigation Bureau operatives seized a Toyota Corolla with license plate ACG-246 from Islander Rent A Car, which was rented out on Feb. 3, 2012, and was returned on Feb. 5, 2012.

Manacop said that when the maintenance personnel cleaned the returned vehicle, he noticed that the front passenger floor mat was missing.

Familiar voice

On Feb. 10, 2012, a technician from Motorola Guam extracted Romero's 911 call that lasted four minutes.

On Feb. 17, 2012, a detective brought to CIB Crisostomo's former girlfriend and her current boyfriend to listen to the 911 recording.

Upon hearing the male's voice, Manacop said the woman became upset, her eyes became watery and without hesitation identified the voice as Crisostomo's.

The woman claimed that she and the suspect lived together for 17 years and that whenever Crisostomo beat her up, he would later speak softly to her to try and calm her.

DNA samples

On Feb. 12, 2012, Manacop said two FBI special agents interviewed Crisostomo at the Department of Corrections following his arrest in a criminal case.

After completing the interview, the agents were able to obtain a water bottle that was used and later discarded by Crisostomo. This bottle was sent to the FBI laboratory in Virginia for analysis.

On May 18, 2012, FBI special agent Park provided Manacop a report of examination done by the FBI Lab. Based on the report, nuclear DNA examinations were conducted on the swab samples obtained from Romero during the autopsy.

Manacop said the results indicate the presence of DNA from two or more individuals. DNA samples that were obtained from the water bottle that Crisostomo used were then compared to the DNA from Romero and the results indicate that Crisostomo's DNA was potentially a major contributor.

On June 4, 2012, a search warrant was obtained for an oral DNA saliva swab from Crisostomo. The detective said evidence collected from this search confirmed Crisostomo as being a major donor of DNA that were found in the swab samples taken from Romero.

Manacop said that, on June 1, 2012, an FBI Lab analysis on a hair strand collected from inside the car with license plate ACG-246 matched the hair strands taken from Romero during autopsy.

Manacop also disclosed that, on June 18, 2012, an FBI Lab analysis on evidence procured from the vehicle found that black cotton fibers found in vacuum sweepings were consistent with the black clothing found around Romero's neck that were apparently used to strangle her.

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