SANTA FE, N.M. — A more than two-decades-old cold case involving the rape of a Santa Fe teenager may now be solved thanks to DNA evidence that had literally been put on ice and stored in a Santa Fe Police Department freezer since 1992.
Gilbert L. Romero, 51, was arrested at his home on Vereda Oriente late Tuesday and charged with rape and kidnapping. He is being held in the Santa Fe County jail on a $50,000 bond.
Santa Fe police were ecstatic they were able to crack the case after more than 21 years.
“This suspect thought he got away with one of the most brutal crimes that you can commit, and here 20 years later we were able to arrest him and make sure he faces justice,” said Celina Westervelt, a spokesperson for SFPD.
A woman who answered the phone listed under the victim’s name declined to comment Wednesday.
But Westervelt said the victim, who would now be about 38 years old, was pleased an arrest had been made.
“We talked to the victim and she was apprehensive because now she has to relive it all over again,” Westervelt said. “But she is happy that he won’t be on the streets and she won’t have to worry about running across him or that he’ll be able to hurt any other victims.”
Police say Romero’s DNA was recently matched with a sample that had been held as evidence at the police station since 1992, collected when the 16-year-old victim underwent a rape exam shortly after she was assaulted.
Romero, who was 30 at the time, is accused of raping the girl in a car near a Santa Fe park in October 1992.
According to the affidavit for the arrest warrant, the girl was driving around the city with a friend when the two got into an argument. The victim got out of the car and started walking home when a white van pulled up next to her on Second Street near Berry Avenue and a man offered to give her a ride home.
After switching vehicles at a residence on Hopewell Street, the man drove to a park off Navajo Street and told the victim the car was overheating and he needed to park it. The man then started to hug and kiss the girl, and when she began to cry and struggled to get away, the man allegedly pulled a handgun, pointed it at her chest and told her, “Shut up, the doors are locked and I have a gun.” After the rape, the girl got dressed and ran to a nearby convenience store and called her mother.
The girl was taken to the hospital and submitted to a sexual assault examination and evidence was collected.
In 1992, DNA testing was not available in New Mexico, but the evidence was refrigerated and stored in the SFPD’s evidence room until June of last year. At that time, it was removed and taken to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s forensic laboratory for analysis.
DNA match found
About six weeks later, SFPD was notified that a DNA profile had been obtained. The DNA was then entered into the FBI’s CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) and on Nov. 15, 2013, the department was notified that it matched Romero’s DNA profile.
Westervelt said that for the match to be found, Romero would have had to have provided a DNA sample from an earlier arrest that was entered into the national database. It’s unclear when or where that arrest was made.
But Romero did plead guilty to charges of fraud and embezzlement in the mid-1990s – in part for embezzling “painting hardware,” carpet and other items from the Santa Fe Public Schools – and was sentenced to a year behind bars. His DNA could have been taken at that time.
He was transferred from a jail in Adams County, Colo., to face his Santa Fe charges filed in 1995 and 1996, court records show.
After getting news of the DNA match in November, SFPD obtained a search warrant to collect a new sample of Romero’s DNA, which was accomplished Dec. 30. That DNA sample was then sent to the forensic lab for analysis, and last Friday SFPD was notified that the match had been re-confirmed.
Westervelt said Romero was suicidal at the time of his arrest Tuesday. He was taken to the hospital to be examined before being booked in jail, she said.
Westervelt said SFPD has more than 90 other cold cases – most of them involving rapes, but also including at least one homicide – awaiting return from the state lab that could result in additional arrests. Officers have been working in batches to deliver samples to the lab.
“We have a number of good leads, but no direct links,” Westervelt said.
In September, based on an earlier match of stored DNA from the SFPD’s vault, a Missouri man was arrested and charged with a 1991 Santa Fe rape.