Anaheim man found guilty of strangling woman after police failed to intervene

Santa Ana, CA - May 07: Aaron Romo, right, and Ricardo A. Nicol III, defense attorney, listen to Mark Birney, not pictured, senior deputy district attorney at Orange County District Attorney's Office deliver opening statements during Romo's trial before Judge Gary Paer at the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Romo is accused of killing his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend, Mirelle Mateus, a La Palma woman, in March 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Aaron Romo, right, and defense attorney Ricardo A. Nicol III listen to opening statements on May 7 during Romo's trial. Romo was convicted of killing his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend, Mirelle Mateus, a La Palma woman, in March 2023. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

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 muscle-bound Romo violently yank 24-year-old Mirelle Mateus, his on-and-off girlfriend, into his apartment. She'd been screaming for help.

Mateus had an active restraining order against Romo, who was facing a felony charge for allegedly throwing her over his patio railing four months earlier. The officers heard muffled voices inside the apartment, but no one answered the door. They soon drove away, and Mateus was later 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 culminated Wednesday with his conviction for first-degree murder.

On the night of March 16, 2023, Romo — portrayed at trial as a hard-partying lothario who lifted weights and drank heavily — went to an Orange County bar, where he was slapped by a woman he insulted, thrown out by bouncers and pummeled in a melee.

He called Mateus for a ride home. Though a judge had ordered him not to contact her, he'd called her 616 times over the previous month.

"Stop calling me and stop trying to be in my life," she had texted him. "I don't want any part in yours. Figure out your own life ... I'm done helping you at the expense of mine. Now be an adult for once in your life. No contact means no contact."

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

Mark Birney delivers opening statements during Romo's murder trial.
Aaron Romo, right, listens to Mark Birney, Orange County senior deputy district attorney 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 on Romo's patio and that Romo had pulled her violently inside his apartment.

"There's a man beating up his girlfriend," Ruelas told a dispatcher. "She was screaming right now for help and now she's quiet." Seconds later, he said, "She's screaming again ...."

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

"We didn't hear any active screaming," Borjon testified. "We discussed whether we had exigency" to enter the apartment forcibly. They decided they did not.

Borjon said a second security guard appeared and explained that he'd seen Mateus on the patio. Borjon said he misunderstood this to mean that the guard had just seen her there, unconstrained, which conveyed 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's unfortunate."

Birney said there were "a whole lot of things we wish had happened" in the case, among them that police had kicked down Romo's door.

Mateus' family is suing Orange County and the Anaheim Police Department for negligence, claiming that officers should have known Romo had a prior arrest, and a 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.

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

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

"It's far more complicated," Sena said, suggesting that jurors should consider "drunken rage, provoked by jealousy and compounded by a bad head injury." She said Romo had been knocked unconscious in the bar fight hours earlier and was suffering from prior head injuries.

Birney, the prosecutor, said Mateus and Romo had "the outward appearance of a very attractive, happy couple," though in private Romo was possessive and violent, in keeping with a longtime pattern.

Birney invoked a litany of women whom he alleged Romo had beaten and terrorized. Romo had scared five of them enough that they took out restraining orders against him, Birney said. Some spoke of being choked, punched and stalked.

Aaron Romo, right, is escorted out of court by an Orange County sheriff's deputy.
Aaron Romo, right, is escorted out of court by an Orange County sheriff's deputy. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

"It's who he is," Birney said. "It's not a concussion. ... He's been abusing women for 15 years. We're now going to say it was because of his bar fight?"

Romo, 37, ran a family car upholstery business before his arrest. Testifying in his own defense, he said he was massively drunk on the night Mateus died and didn't remember her being at his apartment. He had "foggy brain" from the bar scuffle.

"We were in love with each other," he said, describing their relationship as "an emotional roller coaster."

He admitted that he had once broken Mateus' phone, jealous that she had talked to another man. "We were arguing and I was drunk and I broke her cellphone."

The prosecutor showed him a photo of Mateus, taken in late 2022, in which she had a black eye.

"I couldn't tell you if I gave her that black eye," Romo said.

"Did she punch herself?" the prosecutor asked.

"I would assume not."

"That black eye is from you, isn't that true, Mr. Romo?"

"I couldn't tell you that."

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

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.