Anaheim man found guilty of strangling woman amid police missteps

When Anaheim police officers arrived at Aaron Romo's door in March 2023, they knocked and announced their presence. A security guard had summoned them after seeing the muscular Romo violently drag Mirelle Mateus, 24, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, into his apartment. She had been screaming for help.

Mateus had an active restraining order against Romo, who was facing a felony charge for allegedly throwing her over the railing in his yard four months earlier. Officers heard muffled voices inside the apartment, but no one answered the door. They soon left and Mateus was found dead, battered and strangled, in Romo's bathroom.

Details of the La Palma woman's last night alive, and of the botched police response to her calls for help, emerged during Romo's trial this month in Orange County Superior Court, which ended Wednesday. with his conviction for first degree murder.

On the night of March 16, 2023, Romo, portrayed in court as a hard-drinking, weight-lifting, hard-partying lothario, went to an Orange County bar, where he was slapped by a woman he insulted and thrown out by bouncers. and beaten. in a tumult.

He called Mateus to take him home. Although a judge had ordered him not to contact her, he had called her 616 times in the previous month.

“Stop calling me and stop trying to be in my life,” he had texted her. “I don't want to have any part in yours. Discover your own life… I will no longer help you at the expense of mine. Now be an adult for once in your life. “No contact means no contact.”

But the night of the bar fight, she answered his call and came to pick him up. She took him to his home at the Edge Apartments on Union Street, where a security guard, Rudy Ruelas, called 911 to say Mateus needed help.

Aaron Romo, right, listens to Orange County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mark Birney deliver opening statements during Romo's murder trial earlier this month.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Ruelas said he saw her standing in Romo's yard and that Romo had violently pushed her into his apartment.

“There's a man hitting his girlfriend,” Ruelas told a dispatcher. “She was screaming for help right now and now she's quiet.” Seconds later, she said, “She's screaming again…”

Two Anaheim police officers arrived within minutes and announced themselves at Romo's door. One of the officers, Rapheal Borjon, testified at trial that he pressed his ear to the wall and heard what he thought was muffled conversation inside. He said they knocked for five minutes and got no response.

“We didn't hear any active screaming,” Borjon testified. “We discussed whether we had a requirement” to enter the apartment by force. They decided not to.

Borjón said a second security guard appeared and explained that he had seen Mateus in the courtyard. Borjón said he misunderstood this to mean that the guard had just seen her there, unrestrained, giving the impression that she was not in immediate danger.

“The officers didn't believe it was an emergency,” prosecutor Mark Birney told jurors at Romo's trial. “And that is unfortunate.”

Birney said there were “a lot of things we wish had happened” in the case, including that police had kicked down Romo's door.

Mateus' family is suing Orange County and the Anaheim Police Department for negligence, alleging that officers should have known Romo had a prior arrest and restraining order against him. According to the lawsuit, the medical examiner determined that Romo did not kill her until half an hour after police left her.

After strangling her, according to trial testimony, Romo drove to the Temecula home of another woman he had dated, Stephanie Rodriguez, who told police she confessed to the murder.

Defense attorney Staycie Sena told jurors that Romo did not believe he was capable of killing because he “simply loved Mirelle too much.” However, she told jurors that if they concluded that Romo killed her, it was not with the premeditation required for first-degree murder.

“It's much more complicated,” Sena said, suggesting that jurors should consider “the rage of a drunk, provoked by jealousy and aggravated by a serious head injury.” She said Romo had been knocked unconscious in the bar fight hours earlier and that he had suffered head injuries earlier.

Birney, the prosecutor, said Mateus and Romo had “the outward appearance of a very attractive and happy couple,” although privately Romo was possessive and violent, following a long-standing pattern.

Birney invoked a litany of women whom he claimed Romo had beaten and terrorized. Romo had scared five of them enough that they issued restraining orders against him, Birney said. Some spoke of being strangled, beaten and harassed.

Aaron Romo, right, is escorted out of the courthouse by an Orange County sheriff's deputy.

Aaron Romo, right, is escorted out of the courthouse by an Orange County sheriff's deputy.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“That's who he is,” Birney said. “It's not a concussion. …he has been abusing women for 15 years. Now are we going to say it was because of his fight at the bar?

Romo, 37, ran a family auto upholstery business before his arrest. Testifying in his own defense, he said that he was very drunk the night Mateus died and that he did not remember her being in his apartment. He had a “cloudy brain” from the fight at the bar.

“We were in love with each other,” she said, describing their relationship as “an emotional rollercoaster.”

He admitted that he had once broken Mateus's phone, jealous that she had spoken to another man. “We were arguing and I was drunk and I broke his cell phone.”

The prosecutor showed him a photograph of Mateus, taken at the end of 2022, in which he had a black eye.

“I couldn't tell you if I gave him that black eye,” Romo said.

“Did he punch himself?” the prosecutor asked.

“I suppose not”.

“That black eye is yours, isn't it, Mr. Romo?”

“I couldn't tell you that.”

Romo, who faces 25 years to life in prison, will be sentenced June 24 by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Paer.

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