Taxi driver heard Romero, man shouting at each other

Driver’s testimony corroborates victim’s boyfriend’s testimony

A cab driver testified Friday in Superior Court that he overheard on his cell phone Emerita Romero and a man shouting at each other aboard a car that Romero apparently mistook as a taxicab in the early morning hours of Feb. 5, 2012.

Sae Bong Kim’s testimony corroborated Romero’s boyfriend Taj Van Buuren’s statements that the victim texted him earlier that she was on her way to Van Buuren’s house in Chalan Piao that same day.

Kim, speaking through a Korean interpreter, said that Romero and Van Buuren were regular customers of his taxi. He said he would usually drop Romero at least once a day to her regular routes—Godfather’s Bar in Garapan, her house in Garapan, and Van Buuren’s house in a building where Subway is located in Chalan Piao.

Kim said he was driving a white Honda when Romero called him to pick her up from her house in Garapan between 2am and 3am on Feb. 5, 2012.

Shown by interim chief prosecutor Brian Flaherty an aerial photo of the Garapan area, Kim pointed at the exact place of Romero’s house and stated that it’s next to a computer store.

Romero’s house is located next to Softland Computer, which is located along the corner of Chichirica Avenue and Dama Di Noche Street.

Kim said that when he arrived at the house, Romero was not there so he called her. He said at first she did not reply, but later he managed to talk to her on the phone.

Kim said he asked Romero what happened because he was at her house to pick her up, but she was not there. Romero stated that she’s already in another car.

Kim said that Romero then called him, realizing that the car she was on was not a taxi. Kim said Romero asked him what the phone number of the taxi was to confirm so he told her. She replied okay and then hung up.

During their next conversation on the phone, Kim said that Romero sounded like something had happened and asked him to pick her up in the Puerto Rico area. Kim said that Romero was not able to say much and that she appeared to be surprised or in shock.

The driver said he overheard a man’s voice on the phone. He said Romero and the man were shouting at each other and then the phone got disconnected.

Kim said at that time he got a second customer that he needed to drop off. Kim said he asked his co-driver to call Romero back, but apparently she did not answer.

The driver said he later proceeded to Van Buuren’s place in Chalan Piao to check if Romero was there because she earlier told him to drop her there.

Kim said he met Van Buuren and told him that something was happening and that he should contact Romero. He said he stayed for 20 minutes with Van Buuren because he too was worried. Kim said Van Buren kept calling Romero, but there was no response.

Kim said he found out that Romero had been murdered after a few days. He said he told police and Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Haejun Park about what happened.

Kim said he believed that when he talked with Romero, the latter was in a moving car.

Gilbert Gatmaitan, Romero’s first cousin, testified that on Feb. 4, 2012, between 7pm to 8pm he dropped Romero off at Godfather’s Bar, where she works. Gatmaitan said he dropped Romero with his car because her brother was not available at that time. He said at the time he was staying in the same Garapan house where Romero and her brother lived.

Melody Marabe, a cook and co-worker of Romero, testified that she and Romero, together with two other co-workers, boarded a cab on their way to their respective houses on Feb. 5, 2012, at 2:45am.

Marabe said the first one who was dropped off was Natalie Ocon-Thomas, followed by Romero, she, and Jolens Escamilla.

When shown Romero’s photo, Marabe recognized the picture as Romero holding her Blackberry cellphone during their Christmas party on Dec. 18, 2011. Marabe said it was the same phone the victim was using on Feb. 5, 2012, during their ride home.

She said it was Romero who called the taxicab.

Marabe said she stays at a place near Romero’s house, while Escamilla was the last one who was dropped off in San Antonio.

She said Ocon-Thomas later called her that she believed Romero got on a car with someone like a Bangladeshi.

Ocon-Thomas, a cook, said she was already home when she noticed that her plastic bag of bananas had gotten interchanged with Romero’s plastic bag of bananas. Ocon-Thomas said she called Romero so she could get her bananas.

She said Romero told her she was already sleepy and was already wearing house clothes. Romero advised her to just get the bananas the following day.

Ocon-Thomas said she insisted because she was hungry. She said she and Romero later met near Garapan Street Market where they exchanged bags of bananas.

Ocon-Thomas said she saw Romero walking toward her as a car coming from the direction of Wild Bill’s came and parked on the grassy shoulder of the road near St. Michael’s Ambulance.

The cook said that Romero signaled the car with her hand and stated “wait, wait” as she walked to her and they exchanged bags of bananas.

Ocon-Thomas said she saw Romero enter the passenger side of the car and overheard a man ask Romero, “What’s that?”

Ocon-Thomas said the car, with blue or green color, backed up fast and traveled toward the the Mobil gas station on Middle Road.

“I did not see the driver,” she said.

Ocon-Thomas said when they exchanged bags, she jokingly asked Romero who was with her and maybe she has a “booking”—which means a date.

She said Romero replied it’s just her Bangladeshi neighbor.

Ocon-Thomas said that at the time, she was not aware that Romero had a boyfriend. She said she knew that Romero had a husband and two daughters in the Philippines.

Shown a bag that was found at La Fiesta Mall, Ocon-Thomas said it was her Christmas gift to Romero.

She said Romero was wearing black short pants and spaghetti type shirt and sandals when she last saw her getting on a car.

When asked by Janet H. King, counsel for Crisostomo, that in her testimonies given to four people, including then Department of Public Safety Commissioner Ramon Mafnas, Ocon-Thomas had stated that the driver of the car had an American-sounding voice. Ocon-Thomas said in her mind what she meant was English language. She explained that her first language is Visayan-Tagalog.

She said the drivers of the taxis they usually ride don’t ask, “What’s that?”

Scott Dottino, co-owner of two Godfather’s Bar, also took the witness stand. He said Romero was a consistent and a reliable employee, that she was an outstanding employee and was never late and never missed work.

Dottino said he called Romero on the phone at 5:10pm on Feb. 5, 2012, but she did not answer.

Dottino said he called his business partner Ron Biggers and other staff. He said he learned from the family that Romero was not at their house.

He said he later called Police Officer Jason Tarkong to ask what they should do. Tarkong told him to file a missing person report with DPS. Dottino said he also asked attorney Mark Hanson for a telephone number of the FBI.

Shown a photo of Romero, Dottino said it was taken during their Christmas party in 2011 and that they kept the photo in the bar in her memory.

He said he was not aware at that time that Van Buuren was Romero’s boyfriend.

Leticia Aquino, accounting manager at Islander Rental Car, testified that Annie Crisostomo rented the Toyota Corolla with license plate ACG-246 on Feb. 3, 2012, and changed it on Feb. 5, 2012, at 12:30pm. Annie Crisostomo is the sister of defendant Joseph A. Crisostomo, who is on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Romero.

Aquino said there was no available car at the time so they gave Annie Crisostomo a Toyota Corolla with license plate ACG-236. She said Annie Crisostomo did not specify any reason for changing the car.

On direct examination by assistant attorney general Margo Brown-Badawy, Aquino said the changed car was almost the same color and same model as the first car.

Aquino said Annie Crisostomo returned the exchanged car on Feb. 8, 2012.

She said the color of the Toyota Corolla ACG-246 is a combination of blue and green and the register’s color is turquoise.

King said five cars went out at the same time that Toyota Corolla ACG-246 was out on the road on Saipan. Aquino agreed.

David Colcol, car washer/maintenance at Islander Rent A Car, said when the Toyota Corolla ACG-246 was returned on Feb. 5, 2012, its floor mat on the passenger side was missing. Colcol said the car had no mechanical issue when it was returned. He said he informed the car agent about the missing floor mat.

Editha Vargas, who used to work as an administrative assistant at Islander Rent A Car, testified she’s the one who entertained Annie Crisostomo when she rented the car and changed it later. Vargas said Annie Crisostomo returned the car in good condition on Feb. 5, 2012, at 12:30pm.

She said Annie Crisostomo requested for a tinted car, but at the time the one available was only the Toyota Corolla with license plate ACG-236.

Vargas said she asked why she had to change it, and Annie Crisostomo did not specify any reason.

The trial of Joseph Crisostomo will continue today, Monday, at 8:30am.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at

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