Testimony tells how investigation shifted to Crisostomo

Joan Castro, ex-common-law wife of Crisostomo, also a DPS informant

Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Joseph Auther testified yesterday in Superior Court how their investigation in the kidnapping and murder of bartender Emerita Romero shifted to Joseph A. Crisostomo after the latter’s former common-law wife gave tips about a rented car.

Testifying for the CNMI government in the ongoing jury trial of 40-year-old Cristostomo, Auther also disclosed that when Joan Castro, the former common-law wife of Crisostomo, identified the defendant as the male voice in the 911 call that Romero made in the early morning of Feb. 5, 2012, it confirmed that they were on the right track.

Auther, who is now assigned to the FBI Colorado office, recalled how he and the FBI Saipan office assisted the Department of Public Safety in the investigation into Romero’s case in 2012.

He recalled that he was at home on Feb. 5, 2012, when he received a call about a waitress (Romero) who was reported missing. Auther said he then spoke with Ron Biggers, one of the owners of Godfather’s Bar where Romero worked, the victim’s colleagues, and family members.

Auther said he later spoke on the phone with Taj Van Buuren, who called him and disclosed he was dating Romero and that they exchanged text messages before she went missing. Auther said that Van Buuren seemed very concerned with Romero being missing then.

Auther said he also talked to a Sri Lankan man who lives near Romero’s house in Garapan, after one of Romero’s co-workers stated that before the victim got into a car, she mentioned she was with a Bangladeshi neighbor.

Auther said his colleagues and police also looked into cell phone records and videos of nearby establishments.

Auther said he spoke with then-Department of Public Safety commissioner Ramon Mafnas and told him that they need a written request for the FBI to assist in the investigation.

In the afternoon of Feb. 7, 2012, Auther said that he and FBI special agent Haejun Park decided to search the former La Fiesta Mall, knowing it’s abandoned. At the time, Auther said, DPS also did a search in the Marpi area.

Auther described how they searched the La Fiesta Mall, where they located Romero’s body in a small room at the northern part of the building.

He said that Crisostomo became the primary suspect after police received information on Feb. 8, 2012, from Joan Castro about Crisostomo driving a rented car.

He said the car that Crisostomo’s sister Annie rented was found at Islander Rent A Car and that it was then brought to the DPS Boating Safety Section’s hangar.

Auther said he was in charge of sorting the box that contained trash that was collected for several days from the vehicles of Islander Rent A Car. He said there was a lot of hairs, bottles, food and other items, but he did not find anything of significant value to their investigation.

On Feb. 10, 2012, Auther said he contacted Motorolla in Guam because they were told that Romero made a 911 call on Feb. 5, 2012. Auther considered the possibility that the 911 call may have been recorded and that DPS was just finding it difficult to retrieve the call.

He said the technician from Guam arrived that same day of Feb. 10, and the 911 call was retrieved.

Auther said the 911 call was absolutely critical to the investigation because Romero broadcasted her location and it captured the voice of her assailant.

Auther said he met with Crisostomo at the Department of Corrections on Feb. 14, 2012, to talk about Romero’s murder. Present at the interview was FBI special agent Todd Price. Other investigators were outside the room.

Auther said he offered Crisostomo a bottle of water but he refused to drink. Crisostomo, however, later stood up and took a drink from the bottle of water and then placed the bottle on the counter.

Auther said he took the bottle and threw it into the trash can. After five minutes, he retrieved the bottle from the trash can.

At that point in his testimony, Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho, who is presiding over the trial, excused the eight jurors and Auther and asked them to return at 1:15pm.

Camacho said he is concerned whether the testimony about the water bottle was an intrusion on Crisostomo’s privacy or if it was just a harmless error. He asked the counsels, particularly defense attorney Janet H. King, to research into the issue.

Without the presence of the jury, King and interim chief prosecutor Brian Flaherty argued extensively about the issue. A Corrections officer, who happened to be watching the trial in the courtroom, was called to the witness stand regarding DOC’s policies.

Camacho then ruled that Crisostomo had no reasonable expectation of privacy as to the water bottle.

When he resumed his testimony, Auther related that when Crisostomo was escorted back to his cell, special agent Park told him outside that the water bottle may contain DNA. That’s when Auther went back and retrieved the water bottle from the trash. The bottle was then sent to the FBI Lab in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis.

On Feb. 17, 2012, Auther said, he and several detectives played Romero’s 911 call recordings for Castro, who then identified the male voice as Crisostomo’s. After listening to the recordings, Castro appeared shaken and stated that she was having goose bumps, Auther said.

Auther described the 911 recording as “chilling and horrifying” as Romero could be heard screaming.

Auther said that during their Feb. 14, 2012 interview, he mentioned to Crisostomo that they have his footprints at La Fiesta. He said Crisostomo spontaneously showed the underside of his foot and that it’s not his footprints. Auther said he saw that Crisostomo’s foot appeared similar in size to the footprints found at La Fiesta.

When asked why Van Buuren was eliminated as a suspect, Auther said they established that Van Buuren was not with Romero at 3am on Feb. 5, 2012.

Auther said that based on their interviews and the text messages, they established that the taxicab driver indeed met with Van Buuren after Romero did not show up.

In the continuation of his testimony, police detective Elias Q. Saralu disclosed that Joan Castro is one of their confidential informants.

Saralu, a supervisor at DPS Narcotics Section, said they looked for Castro in order for her to identify the male voice in Romero’s 911 call.

He said it was important for Castro to identify the male voice to corroborate their suspicion because detectives at the time had already recognized Crisostomo’s voice in the 911 call.

Saralu said that Castro went to the DPS Criminal Investigation Bureau on Capital Hill to listen to the recordings. He said that Castro had goose bumps while listening to the recordings and that she recognized Crisostomo’s voice.

Saralu said they asked Castro to identify the voice in the recording to corroborate their findings as she knew Crisostomo well, being her former common-law husband for over 15 years.

On cross examination, Saralu said that before making Castro listen to the 911 recordings, Auther informed her that the purpose of the meeting was about Crisostomo.

Saralu agreed with King that as a confidential informant, Castro got paid by DPS whenever an arrest or conviction is made. He clarified, though, that Castro was not paid for giving information regarding the Romero case.

He said that Castro’s information about the rental car significantly narrowed the investigation to Crisostomo. He pointed out that they have a strong case against Crisostomo.

When asked by Camacho as to why Castro knew the specific colors of the car the investigators were looking, Saralu said it was already out in the media.

FBI forensics specialist on audio recordings David Snyder III also testified via Skype from Virginia.

Snyder said their FBI Lab in Quantico, Virginia, received a disc for enhancement coming from FBI Lab on Saipan. Snyder it was a 911 call and that the request was to make it more intelligible or so it can be understood. Snyder said the designated call lasted about two minutes and five seconds. Using scientific equipment, Snyder said they reduced the noise in the recording.

He said they separated the subject voice and enhanced it so it can be intelligible or can be understood.

He said they received the disc on March 28, 2012, and returned the finished product on April 2, 2012.

He said the male voice lasted for 10 seconds and at times was intelligible.

He said that voice identification is only an investigative tool, such as to narrow down a suspect.

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 ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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