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Only 6, Ariana Romeo had already faced a tough life

Ariana “Jade” Romeo, 6 (Courtesy of Ramona Tanner)

Upon hearing of Ariana “Jade” Romeo’s death, Ramona Tanner said she opened a cardboard box full of the girl’s belongings – and pulled out her princess dress.

“I just had to hold something of hers, that smelled like her,” Tanner said.

Tanner and her son Billy Hudson – Ariana’s mother’s ex-boyfriend – had packed the box with the child’s belongings after Stephanie Romeo abruptly left Tanner’s Alabama home with the girl last summer.

The mother and daughter eventually moved to New Mexico.

And Saturday morning, Rio Rancho police found the 6-year-old’s “cold and stiff” body in a garage-turned-bedroom on the 250 block of Moonstone NE.

Police say they found blood around the girl’s body and drug paraphernalia scattered throughout the house.

Deeming Romeo’s death an intentional homicide, they executed a search warrant of the home but nobody has been arrested in the case.

“I did everything I could for that little girl,” Tanner told the Journal by phone Wednesday. “I was the only grandmother she ever knew.”

Tanner said Ariana had just turned 3 when she, her mother and Hudson moved in with her in Prattville, Ala.

“I made sure the girl had clothes, shoes, a bed – and love,” Tanner said. “It was an instant bond.”

During those years, Tanner said Romeo had a habit of “sneaking off in the middle of the night” and coming back a few days later, leaving Ariana with Tanner and Hudson.

“I know she loved Jade in her own way,” she said of Romeo. “She always tried to act like a good mother in front of me.”

Last summer, Tanner said Romeo took Ariana without warning and moved into a nearby hotel with another man.

She said she called Alabama Department of Human Resources to check on the family at the hotel, but child service workers said “everything was fine.”

Tanner said the family moved to New Mexico after a few months at the hotel and stayed in touch.

She said Romeo called in June to tell her Ariana missed her and “wanted to hear her voice.”

Tanner said she spoke with Ariana on June 24, after she had graduated from kindergarten.

“She said ‘I haven’t talked to you in years and I love you so much,’ just so sweet,” she said. “That’s the last time I talked to Jade.”

Tanner said Ariana didn’t say much about her life in New Mexico, except that “it was hot.”

“She was willing to accept wherever her mother put her,” she said. “Everything was ‘okay’ with Jade, she learned to adapt. You could say ‘Jade, the sky is falling’ and she’d go ‘that’s okay.’ ”

Tanner said the 6-year-old was a “free spirit” who loved “Frozen,” princesses and her favorite song, which was “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. She said Ariana would sing the song to Hudson often.

Tanner said the child was a survivor.

“I know that night, when they did whatever they did to her, I know she fought. I know she fought for her life that night,” Tanner said, her voice cracking. “Whatever happened to her was just a moment in time – the brutality. She’s in heaven right now and she’ll never have to worry about where she’s going to live again.”