Girl found dead may have been sexually assaulted

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Rio Rancho police called to a one-story brick house in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood last weekend found 6-year-old Ariana Romeo “not breathing” and lying near a bloody towel in a cluttered, makeshift bedroom of a home that was in “total disarray,” according to recently released court documents.

A search warrant affidavit filed in Sandoval County District Court Monday – and released Tuesday – did not say the little girl had been sexually assaulted, but it did quote the Office of the Medical Investigator as saying there was “damage” to her genitals. It also said she was found without underwear or pants.

The affidavit does not provide her cause of death, and a spokesman for the Rio Rancho Police Department said it was waiting for OMI to complete the autopsy report. The case is being investigated as a homicide.

No arrests have been made.

Investigators filed the search warrant to look for child pornography as well as evidence of sexual assault, drug use or trafficking and information about how Ariana was killed and who did it. The affidavit states that multiple external hard drives, USB drives and tablets were found throughout the home and an external hard drive in a black case was found in the master bedroom.

Although everything else in the bedroom was “layered with dust,” the case was clean.

Investigators were also looking for weapons that could cause blunt force trauma, sharp force trauma or strangulation as well as items that could be used to restrain a person.

According to the affidavit, around 10:20 a.m. Saturday paramedics were called to the home on the 200 block of Moonstone, near NM 528 and Northern NE, because Ariana was “unconscious, unresponsive, not breathing and stiff and cold.” The girl and her mother had not been staying in the home for very long and a neighbor told the Journal the mother was planning on moving them into their own apartment this week.

Preliminary interviews, referenced in the affidavit, gave some insight into what had happened.

Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, found the girl dead on a bed that was actually a thick piece of foam on the floor of a garage that had been converted into a bedroom. She yelled for help and the homeowner, Winston “Ron” Scates, ran inside to help.

“The decedent was removed from the bed by Ron, and placed on the ground,” a detective wrote in the affidavit. “The bed was leaned against a wall of items so Ron could have enough space to perform CPR on the decedent.”

When officers arrived they quickly determined Ariana was dead. There was a blood-stained towel nearby, blood on the bed, on the sheets and on the child’s body.

A glass marijuana pipe with residue in it and prescription medications were found in the room with Ariana.

Although no one has been arrested in the case, captain Ron Vigil, an RRPD spokesman, said Monday that investigators believe they have interviewed everyone who was in the home when Ariana was killed. He said they are continuing to investigate before filing charges.

“We understand the community is looking for an arrest,” he said during a news conference. “We, like everyone else, want to make that arrest and make sure we do it with all due diligence and ensure a successful prosecution.”

Painful parallels

The death of Ariana has tragic similarities to the death in 2016 of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, who was raped and killed in her Albuquerque apartment. But Albuquerque police quickly released details and built that criminal case in large part on an early interview with the girl’s mother, which later turned out be mostly false. Much of the case has since crumbled.

It appeared Rio Rancho authorities were taking a very different approach in this case, releasing very little information early on.

Vigil said the FBI has helped police process the scene and it was taking time to catalog everything they found in the home. The inventory of what they found was not made available Tuesday.

Vigil said the police and the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department had a history with the home where Ariana was killed, but a CYFD spokesman said Monday that the department did not have any prior investigations involving Ariana or her mother. CYFD is working with police to ensure the safety of other, older children, who were at the home when Ariana was killed.

However, CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson did say the department had investigated one person associated with the address in 2012. She declined to confirm whether that person was in the home when Ariana was killed or provide any other details about the investigation per state law.

But according to a police incident report filed in 2011, a woman told police the man who lived at the home on Moonstone – and who still lives there – had inappropriately touched her 4-year-old daughter.

When the girl was interviewed, she told police he had touched her genitals when she was in the bath and another time in a bedroom when nobody else was around, according to the report obtained by KOAT-TV.

However, the man denied the allegations and told investigators that he had never been alone with the 4-year-old.

When asked if he had ever been accused of something like this before, he “hesitantly replied ‘yes,'” a detective wrote in the incident report. “When I asked what the circumstances were he replied that he did not want to talk about it.”

Police say they searched databases for other sex crimes or criminal history involving the man but found nothing.

The case was submitted to the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office for review and prosecution, according to the report. It is unclear where the investigation went from there, but no charges were filed.

Neither Rio Rancho Police nor the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which covers Sandoval, Cibola and Valencia counties, could immediately comment on that case.

Help for transport

As the community is searching for answers, family members across the country are also grieving.

A relative, Angelea Strider, set up a Go Fund Me page asking for help raising money to transport Ariana’s remains to Florida so she can be buried near where her father and three older brothers live.

“Ariana Jade was a beautiful child,” the page reads. “She loved to play and gallop around bringing up the energy in any room. She was very smart, and loved people very much.”

The page says Ariana was “very excited about school, learning, and making friends.”

“Ariana Jade was living with her mother in New Mexico, and her father was fighting to have her come live with him and near the rest of her family,” the page reads. “As you can imagine, laying this Angel to rest was not what he had in mind when he was fighting to bring her home.”

On the first day of school at Ernest Stapleton Elementary School Tuesday, news of Ariana’s death hung in the air.

Many of the parents gathering outside the school Tuesday afternoon had heard of her death – the expressions on their faces turned somber at the very mention of it.

A father said Ariana was supposed to be in his daughter’s first-grade class. He said he was a firefighter who was on call the day of her death but was not one of those who responded to the home.

The school sent a letter to parents Monday, saying they are “extremely saddened” by the loss of one of their students. Ariana, who was known to staff and students as “Jade,” had attended the elementary school since January.

“We extend our heartfelt sympathy to Jade’s family and friends, and are aware some Stapleton Elementary students and staff may be especially affected by this news,” the statement said . “We encourage you to be especially sensitive and prepared to offer support to your child during this time.”

A couple of miles away, the home on Moonstone was quiet.

Trash littered the area around the front entrance, from empty pill and soda bottles to an air compressor and vehicle parts, extending into the driveway and side yard.

Nobody answered the door and the home seemed empty except the large amount of furniture, trash and other items that could be seen from the window piled in the front room.

An older couple who answered the door Monday told the Journal they could not comment due to the ongoing investigation.

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