Episode 061: Emerita Romero

November 7, 2022

When local bartender Emie Romero vanishes in the wee hours of the morning, the entire island of Saipan sets out to find her. But when the search ends in heartbreak, her family and friends are left desperate for answers. What happened to Emie?

Episode Media
Emerita “Emie” Romero (CNMI Department of Public Safety)
Emie’s government photo (DPS)
Abandoned La Fiesta Mall where Emie’s body was found (Atlas Obscura)
Emie’s route from the bar to her home, then to the La Fiesta Mall in San Roque, on February 5, 2012 (Google Maps)
Joseph A. Crisostomo (DPS)
Crisostomo walks into court (PNC Guam)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. While researching last week’s episode on the disappearance of Faloma and Maleina Luhk, another story caught my eye. It’s a case that took place just miles from where the Luhk sisters vanished, one that investigators originally thought may have been connected in some way. This episode discusses sensitive topics and contains graphic descriptions of violence; listener discretion is advised.

Emerita Relata Romero, known as Emie to her family and friends, lived on the island of Saipan, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Originally from the Philippines, Emie was the third of eight children in a close-knit family. As a teenager, Emie moved to Saipan to live with her brother, and she ended up staying there for the next two decades.

Emie had a very full life on Saipan. She had a close group of friends and loved spending time with her family. Eventually, Emie married a Filipino man and had two daughters, Erica and Francene. At some point, Emie’s husband and children moved back to the Philippines, but Emie stayed on Saipan, working various jobs and sending money back to her family, supporting her children as well as her elderly mother. It was difficult for Emie to be away from her children, but she kept in regular contact with them via phone calls and chat messages.

In 2012, 37-year-old Emie was living in an apartment in the village of Garapan with her brother Eduardo and her sister Estrellita. Although the siblings had busy work schedules, they made sure to spend time with each other as often as possible, carving out time to partake in their favorite activity – karaoke. The siblings were very close, and they looked out for each other.

On the evening of February 4, 2012, Emie headed to Godfather’s Bar, where she worked as a bartender. It was a typical shift for Emie, nothing out of the ordinary. After the last patrons left around 1am, Emie and her coworkers closed the bar down, cleaning and preparing for the next day. By the time they left, it was nearly 3 in the morning.

Emie and her three coworkers decided to share a taxicab home, since they all lived fairly close to each other. They called a local taxi company, and their ride pulled up in front of the bar at 2:43am. Natalie Ocon, the Godfather’s cook, was dropped off first, followed by Emie and then the other two passengers.

But when Natalie got home, she realized that she and Emie had accidentally swapped bags. She called Emie and asked her to meet up so they could swap back, but Emie said she was tired and asked if they could just do it tomorrow. But Natalie insisted, so Emie reluctantly agreed to meet her outside.

As Natalie walked down Chichirica Avenue, she saw Emie coming towards her. She noticed that Emie was still wearing the gray tank top and black shorts from earlier, and she seemed to be in a hurry. Natalie then saw a greenish-blue sedan with tinted windows pull up alongside the road, and Emie told the driver to wait a minute. Natalie asked her what the rush was, and Emie said she had decided to go visit her boyfriend Taj on the southern tip of the island, and she had called another taxi to come pick her up. Natalie thought it was an odd choice at 3am, but the women exchanged bags and then said goodbye. Emie then got into the passenger seat of the sedan and drove off. Natalie returned home and went to bed.

About 12 hours later, Natalie texted Emie to see if she wanted to walk to work together. Emie never responded, so Natalie figured she would meet her at the bar later. However, when she arrived at Godfather’s, Emie wasn’t there.

By 5pm, Emie’s coworkers were getting worried. She was always on time, and would have called someone if she was running late. Scott Dottino, the co-owner of the bar, called around to other staff members to ask if anyone had seen Emie or if she had asked someone to cover her shift. But no one knew where she was. Scott even went to Emie’s apartment to see if she was there, but her brother Eduardo said he hadn’t seen her, and he didn’t remember her coming into the apartment after work that morning.

It was clear that something had happened to Emie, but no one knew what. Scott and Eduardo called the Department of Public Safety and reported her missing.

Immediately, Emie’s name and picture were being broadcast on local news stations, asking if anyone had seen Emie or the green sedan she had last been seen entering. Based on Natalie’s statements about Emie’s actions early that morning, officials called in the FBI for assistance, suspecting that this may have been a kidnapping.

In a statement to the press, authorities revealed that shortly after 3am on February 5th, 911 dispatchers received a call they believe was made from Emie’s cell phone. A woman’s frantic voice was heard saying “Marianas Resort” before the call was cut off.

But other than that, authorities were remaining tight-lipped about their investigation. For two days, Emie’s family and friends agonized over her disappearance, desperate for answers. They conducted their own searches and begged the public for help. Scott Dottino spoke with local reporters, saying, “Please help us in any way. We are all family here. We need everybody’s help. We’re begging everybody to help us with this search.”

On February 7th, a group of volunteers made up of Emie’s family, friends, and co-workers, met at Godfather’s Bar to conduct another search. Joined by federal agents and local police officers, the volunteers broke into small groups and headed in different directions to search. For several hours, they combed the island, determined to leave no stone unturned.

Around 3pm, two federal agents searching the northern part of the island decided to investigate the old La Fiesta Mall in San Roque. The abandoned shopping center had closed in 2004, and was now overgrown with foliage and covered in trash and graffiti. But Emie’s cell phone had pinged on a tower nearby the morning she disappeared, so the agents decided to take a look. Not long into their search, they discovered footprints and what looked like drag marks leading down a corridor towards the bathrooms. There, they discovered the body of a woman. Next to her lay a purse containing multiple items, including keys, a cell phone battery, and a paycheck from Godfather’s Bar.

Word that a body had been found quickly spread among the volunteers. When Scott heard what had happened, he immediately called Eduardo and broke the news to him. Eduardo and Estrellita rushed to the La Fiesta Mall, but authorities would not allow them to see the body, most likely to protect them from what was surely a disturbing scene. However, Eduardo was the one to identify the body at the morgue that evening, later telling reporters that he knew it was his sister when he saw the silver bracelet on her ankle. He would not go into further details about the state of her body, though, only stating that he believed for sure that Emie had been murdered.

Emie’s family and friends gathered together that night to light candles and pray. Godfather’s Bar closed early so her co-workers could join, and everyone shared tears and memories of the beautiful, kindhearted woman they had known and loved.

In the days and weeks after Emie was found, her family waited desperately for answers. Authorities would not reveal details about their investigation, and the autopsy results were sealed. Eduardo and Estrellita also had to wait for Emie’s body to be released to them so they could bring her remains to the Philippines.

Finally, on February 18th, Emie’s family was able to take her home. After a public Mass at the Kristo Rai Church, Eduardo and Estrellita boarded a flight to Manila with Emie’s remains. Eduardo thanked everyone for their support. “What happened to my sister, Emie, was really tragic and heartbreaking for all of us who loved and cared for her. We are still hopeful and praying that justice will prevail.”

But the wheels of justice turn slowly, and Emie’s family continued to wait for answers. Investigators explored various leads and interviewed multiple people they believed could have been involved. Federal agents spoke with Emie’s boyfriend Taj Van Buuren, who Emie had supposedly been going to visit on the morning of February 5th. Ultimately, they determined that Emie never made it to Taj’s house, and he was ruled out as a suspect.

Investigators also tried to track down the green sedan that Natalie had seen Emie get into, and they pulled surveillance video from local businesses in the area where the car had picked her up. There was even speculation that Emie’s murder was connected to the assault of another woman on the island. On January 29th, the woman was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange man in her bedroom. He sexually assaulted her at knifepoint, then attempted to kidnap her and force her into his vehicle, an older-model gold sedan, but she managed to escape. Her apartment was located just a few blocks away from Godfather’s Bar. Authorities searched for the vehicle and the suspect, but he was never found, and they weren’t able to officially connect the two cases.

On February 25th, the Department of Public Safety announced that they had identified a person of interest in Emie’s case. According to statements made by Commissioner Ramon Mafnas, authorities didn’t believe that Emie knew this person, but they did think they were still on the island, and that investigators would continue following their movements and gathering evidence to build a strong case.

With this news, Emie’s family had renewed hope, but as the months passed and no arrest was made, they began to wonder if they would ever see justice.

Finally, in February of 2013, one year after Emie was murdered, authorities announced that they had arrested Joseph Acosta Crisostomo and charged him with first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, and robbery.

Immediately, everyone wanted to know who this man was and how he was connected to Emie. It turned out that Joseph Crisostomo had a long, violent history, and investigators had suspected him from the beginning.

Crisostomo had been in and out of jail for years. In 2000, he assaulted a police officer at a routine traffic stop. In 2003, he was arrested for robbing tourists. In 2006, he hit a child with his car, then threatened to kill the entire family. And it didn’t stop there. Between 1996 and 2012, he was charged in at least ten separate cases for crimes such as burglary, criminal mischief, assault with a dangerous weapon, possession of a controlled substance, and conspiracy.

In fact, he was released from prison in December of 2011, placed on probation, then caught again with methamphetamines in January of 2012. However, he wasn’t arrested until February 14th. During that short few weeks of freedom, investigators believed that Crisostomo murdered Emie.

Investigators also believed that Crisostomo was possibly involved in several other murders in the area. In 1995, Zhao Ming Hou and Yu Hua Huang, a couple who owned a store in the village of Dandan, were kidnapped and murdered. In 2006, the body of Bao Ying Chen was found on Laulau Beach, and her death was determined to be the result of asphyxiation by drowning. The circumstances in these murders were strikingly similar to Emie’s story. In particular, Bao Ying Chen got into a vehicle that she thought was a taxi, much like investigators believe Emie did.

But despite the similarities, authorities could never officially connect Crisostomo to those murders. However, they could connect him to Emie, and in January of 2014, his murder trial began.

During the four-month trial, prosecutors laid out the timeline of Emie’s last moments, presenting all the evidence that authorities had kept private during the investigation.

On the morning of February 5, 2012, after she had been dropped off at her apartment, Emie placed a call to a taxi service, requesting that a particular taxi driver – a Mr. Kim – pick her up near Garapan Market. Emie had used this driver’s services before, and she trusted him. When Emie went out to swap bags with Natalie, she must have assumed that the green sedan that pulled up was driven by Mr. Kim; Natalie had said that Emie appeared to be in a rush, and she may not have noticed who the driver really was in the dark. However, once she got in the car, Emie realized her mistake. She immediately called Mr. Kim and told him that she had gotten into the wrong car and asked him if he could pick her up. Mr. Kim testified that Emie sounded shocked, then he heard Emie and a man shouting before the call disconnected.

Mr. Kim knew something was wrong. He drove to Taj Van Buuren’s house, where he often took Emie, and told him what was going on. The two men tried calling and texting Emie’s cell phone repeatedly, but there was no response.

At 3:02am, the Department of Public Safety received a call to 911. The dispatcher heard a woman crying, telling someone that her neck hurt and begging him to let her go. A male voice in the background told her he would take her home and asked her name, to which she responded, “Emie.” The woman again pleaded for help before saying that she was at Marianas Resort, then the call ended. The dispatcher immediately sent officers to the area where she believed the call had come from, but they were unable to find Emie.

After Emie was officially reported missing that evening, investigators interviewed multiple people, including her boyfriend Taj, one of her neighbors, and a man who frequently hung out alone at Godfather’s Bar. But each of them were eventually cleared. When Emie’s body was found on February 7th, investigators could then gather evidence from the crime scene and from Emie herself.

Emie’s autopsy revealed that she had valiantly fought against her attacker. Bruises covered her arms and legs, and there was significant pre-mortem hemorrhaging. When her body was found, all of her clothes were intact, but the medical examiner said he could not rule out a sexual assault. A black pair of leggings were tied tightly around Emie’s neck, causing asphyxiation that ultimately resulted in her death.

Near Emie’s body, investigators found her purse, which held many of her personal items. However, her cell phone – a Blackberry Torch – was missing. Only the battery had been left behind. Considering that Emie had made multiple calls from her cell phone after being abducted, investigators suspected that her killer had removed the battery to stop the phone from pinging local towers, then had disposed of the phone.

The federal agents who discovered Emie’s body had seen footprints and drag marks at the scene. What made the prints unique is that they were not made by shoes, but by someone’s bare feet. Crime scene investigators made gel molds of five footprints, which were then sent to the FBI lab for analysis. Now they just needed a suspect to match them to.

On February 8th, they got a major break in the case. A woman named Joanne Castro called the Department of Public Safety and said that she had seen her ex-partner driving a car that matched the description broadcast on the news. Her ex was someone well-known to police: Joseph Crisostomo.

Based on this tip, investigators reached out to local rental companies to see if Joseph Crisostomo showed up on any of their records. What they found was that Joseph’s sister Annie had rented a turquoise sedan from Islander Rent-a-Car on February 3rd, and she was scheduled to keep it through February 8th. However, at 9:30am on February 5th, she returned the vehicle to the rental agency and asked for a different one, claiming that she needed one with tinted windows. Employees found the request strange, since the original car did have tinted windows, but they honored her request and exchanged the car for a similar model.

Investigators began to interview friends of Joseph Crisostomo, hoping to create a definitive timeline of his movements. According to a woman named Alice, she had been with Crisostomo on the night of February 4th, playing poker at a local bar in Garapan. At some point, Crisostomo had asked Alice to borrow her cell phone since he didn’t have one of his own. He then left the bar with her phone, and Alice didn’t hear from him until 6am on February 5th, when he called her at home to ask her to pick up his sister from the bar because he was busy. Investigators began to suspect that he had been busy disposing of Emie’s body. Their suspicions were bolstered by cell phone records that showed Crisostomo’s call to Alice pinged off a tower right across from La Fiesta Mall.

On February 14th, investigators finally got the chance to speak with Joseph Crisostomo in person. He confirmed that he had driven Annie’s rental car on February 4th, and he said he knew that Annie had taken it back to the rental company on the 5th, but he claimed that he didn’t know why. He also claimed that he had no idea who Emie was or who had killed her. During the interview, detectives offered Crisostomo a bottle of water, which he drank and then discarded. After he left the station, they retrieved the bottle from the trash and sent it to the lab for DNA analysis.

At that point, investigators still didn’t have enough to arrest Crisostomo, but they continued to build their case. They found a witness who said they had seen Crisostomo trying to sell a used Blackberry Torch on February 5th, the same model as Emie’s missing cell phone. They also played Emie’s 911 call for Joanne Castro, Crisostomo’s former partner of 17 years, and she confirmed that the male voice on the call belonged to her ex.

Of course, investigators knew that they couldn’t just rely on Joanne’s word, so they played the 911 recordings for 25 different detectives in the Department of Public Safety. Individually, half of those detectives identified the male voice as belonging to Joseph Crisostomo, whom they had become very familiar with over the years. While not the strongest piece of evidence, it did confirm to investigators that they were on the right track.

Federal agents managed to track down the green sedan rented by Annie and seized it for forensic analysis. Although the car had since been cleaned, analysts were able to find hair and fibers in the front and back of the vehicle. The hair found in the passenger seat showed the same microscopic characteristics as Emie’s hair, and the black cotton fibers found in the driver’s seat were microscopically similar to the black leggings used to strangle her. There were also fibers found on the bottom of Emie’s shoes that matched the fabric from the interior of the vehicle.

The FBI forensic lab also analyzed the footprint impressions taken at the crime scene. According to their experts, the impressions left at the scene had a high level of association to Crisostomo’s feet, which were described as being shaped like hockey sticks. Although the prints couldn’t be matched to his feet with 100% certainty, Crisostomo couldn’t be excluded from the results.

Perhaps the most significant piece of evidence was the DNA taken from Emie’s rape kit. It was tested against Crisostomo’s DNA as well as that of her boyfriend Taj and two other persons of interest. Forensic analysts at the FBI concluded that Joseph Crisostomo was likely the major contributor of the DNA with a certainty of one in 960 million.

After a year of investigation, the Department of Public Safety was finally able to obtain an arrest warrant for Joseph Crisostomo. At trial, all of the evidence, combined with eyewitness statements and expert testimony, proved to be insurmountable for the defense. On April 24, 2014, the jury unanimously found Joseph Crisostomo guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In the years since, Crisostomo has appealed his conviction, but in 2018, the court upheld the decision and he remains in prison.

Emie Romero’s family has not forgotten her, and we shouldn’t either. She was a kindhearted, gentle woman who loved her children and worked hard to support her family. She did not deserve her fate. In the words of prosecutor Margo Brown-Badawy, Emie was, “at the wrong place, in the wrong car, at the wrong time.” A simple mistake led to her death at the hands of a violent criminal, one who should have been behind bars rather than roaming the streets of Saipan, looking for someone to kill. We can only take solace in the fact that her killer is behind bars.

Please share Emie’s story. She deserves to be remembered.