How contact lenses blew a 2005 murder case wide open and led to a husband serving prison time
Janet Abaroa was found stabbed to death in her Durham, North Carolina, home.
He told police he found his wife, 25-year-old Janet Abaroa, stabbed to death in an upstairs office. Nothing else in the house was disturbed, according to authorities, and the couple’s 6-month-old son, Kaiden, was left unharmed in another room.
"She's been shot or something. There's blood everywhere," Raven Abaroa told a 911 dispatcher at the time.
Who killed Janet Abaroa was a mystery that captivated the Durham, North Carolina, suburbs, and the case remained unsolved for years.
ABC News first aired an investigative report about the cold case in 2009 and has been following the case for the past 10 years. Concurrently, a Durham Police Det. Charles Sole was assigned to review the evidence again.
Love found on the soccer field
Janet Christiansen, the seventh of 10 siblings, grew up in a Mormon family. She met Raven Abaroa, also a Mormon, in 1998 at Southern Virginia University, where she played soccer. He was a fellow soccer player who instantly swept her off her feet.
"She was beautiful, attractive. ... I just felt so much comfort when I was with her," Raven Abaroa said in an interview with the local TV show "NC Wanted" in 2007, and that was later posted online by the Raleigh-based TV station WRAL. "And we started this journey of getting to know each other and it was an amazing journey."
In August 2000, after two years together, Janet and Raven Abaroa married at the Mormon temple in Washington, D.C. They settled in southeastern Virginia, her friends and family thought that life for the newlywed couple was perfect.
Soon after their wedding, a job opportunity moved the couple to Durham, North Carolina, where they both took positions at a sporting goods company. Janet Abaroa's sisters told ABC News that at the time, the couple was beginning to have some marital problems.
The Abaroas welcome a son
"He came to her one day because he wanted to be out of the marriage," said Sonja Flood, Janet Abaroa's sister. "And explained to her that he had been cheating on her with several different people. And very soon after that, she found out that she was pregnant."
It should have been the happiest time of Janet and Raven Abaroa's lives, but instead Janet Abaroa confided in her family that she felt helpless. Her older sister, Dena Kendall, told “20/20” that Janet "didn't want to raise the baby as a single mother."
But, it seemed to friends and family that the young couple worked things out and welcomed their son Kaiden on Oct. 17, 2004.
"He promised, swore up and down, that he would no longer cheat on her, that she was the only one for him. He would make it work," Flood said.
With the birth of their baby boy, the Abaroas' marriage seemed to be on the mend, until they suffered yet another blow: Raven Abaroa was caught stealing from the sports apparel company where they both worked in December 2004.
Mortified, Janet Abaroa resigned from her job. He eventually pleaded guilty to five charges of embezzlement, but would avoid serving any jail time.
911 call: 'My wife Is dead'
On April 26, 2005, Raven Abaroa said his wife had been getting ready for bed around 8 p.m. when he left to play soccer with friends, according to the account he gave police about that night. He said he returned home after 10 p.m. and found Janet Abaroa’s body with multiple stab wounds.
In a 911 call, Raven Abaroa told the operator, "My wife is dead ... She's been shot -- there's blood everywhere," he said. "She's not breathing."
Although Abaroa said his wife had “been shot,” Durham Police quickly realized that she had been stabbed.
Shortly after his wife's death, Raven Abaroa moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, with their son. There, he eventually met Vanessa Pond, a single mother whose daughter was in the same day care program as Abaroa’s son Kaiden.
"He [Raven] seemed very up front ... very honest and genuine,” Vanessa Pond said. “And I found out that he was a single father. And I really, really admired that."
They started dating and Pond told “20/20” that Abaroa mentioned his wife had died. She said she felt "so sorry for him ... and Kaiden." They decided to move in together.
Sisters reach out to new wife: 'We were fearful for her'
Pond went online to find out more about the death of Raven Abaroa's first wife. She told ABC News at the time she wasn't convinced Raven Abaroa was innocent, but after asking him questions, she said he “removed any and every doubt from my mind.”
"He had his stories about how people were trying to frame him, about how horrible the cops were and how he continued to try to contact the police to find out what's going on," said Pond.
In summer 2008, three years after Janet Abaroa’s death was still unsolved, Pond and Raven Abaroa were married in the backyard of her parents' home.
When Janet Abaroa's sisters learned he was engaged, they said they felt they had to reach out to his new fiancee.
"We just wanted her to make sure she was aware of the things that had been in the news about him. That she would know what she was getting into. And that we were fearful for her," said Janet's sister Dena Kendall.
"I was heartbroken," Pond said. "I [did] not want to believe at all ... that he had done this."
Not long after, Pond said Raven Abaroa began acting in ways she didn't understand.
"Within moments, he could switch. He could say the most horrible things," Pond said. "And then moments later, he would apologize."
The outbursts, Pond said, became physical.
"He grabbed me from the door and threw me up against the wall, and then I fell," Pond said. "Later, he tried to convince me that I had tripped."
A new detective is assigned to Janet Abaroa’s case
Just four months into their marriage, Pond said she feared for her safety. The couple separated and the marriage was annulled. Pond went public in spring 2009 with her fears that he killed his first wife.
The Durham Police assigned a new detective to Janet Abaroa's case – Sole.
"Raven never kept the lies straight," Sole told "20/20.” "His statements to law enforcement, initially, they were contradictory."
Then, as he was reviewing the crime scene photos, Sole said something stuck out to him as odd.
“I noticed the contact case on the counter with the top off of it indicating to me that the like-, likelihood that the contacts were probably not in there, which would be contrary to her going to bed or, as Raven said, in the bed going to sleep,” Sole said.
When police interviewed Janet Abaroa’s family and friends, Sole said they told them Janet Abaroa was “consistent” with removing her contacts before going to sleep. He said he found this detail “suspicious.”
“Then the next thing,” Sole said, “is not seeing any disturbance based on the manner of her death. A stabbing. I mean, is not immediate. It’s usually violent, [with] struggling, [a] disturbance.”
Raven Abaroa was arrested on Feb. 1, 2010, and charged with first-degree murder in the death of his first wife.
In July 2010, Janet Abaroa’s body was exhumed and authorities determined that she had been wearing contacts when she was buried.
“After I received … these fragments and I then cleaned them — I think washed them with sterile water to get a better view,” said Dr. Charles Zwerling, an ophthalmologist, who examined the remains. “The material actually swelled from the water and — resumed a convex shape typical of your contact lens. But, the key finding was finding the numbers 123 on sample A. This was conclusive evidence that this was an Acuvue contact lens.”
In order to demonstrate how a contact lens decays over a period of time — if it were buried with a body — Zwerling conducted a recreation using sets of pig eyes in three separate boxes.“I applied the contact lens,” said Zwerling. “I applied a lens cap, which is done at your funeral home. I used the same solutions — even the same linen. And I got these little caskets, these wooden boxes. And I put the pig eyes in them and buried them actually in my backyard. … And then after six months, I exhumed the first box, and so forth.
“The final analysis showed that the contact lenses did change just like the one we discovered,” he added. “Apparently, this evidence was crucial in determining a flaw in Raven Abaroa's story.”
Raven Abaroa goes to trial and faces his second wife in court
During his trial, which began in 2013, prosecutors presented Raven Abaroa as a controlling husband.
Pond, who testified as a witness for the prosecution, detailed how she saw Raven Abaroa become violent on the soccer field and how his aggression turned on her.
"When he sees weakness, he just comes at you harder and harder," Pond said in court. "He told me how much he hated me and how much it didn't matter if I died."
Abaroa’s defense team argued that the prosecution’s evidence against their client was mostly circumstantial and police had ignored evidence, including a bloody shoe print, that they said could have pointed to a different killer.
In May 2013, the jury failed to reach a verdict, deadlocking 11-1 on a guilty verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.
Before Raven Abaroa’s second trial was supposed to begin in March 2014, he entered an Alford plea for voluntary manslaughter, acknowledging that there was evidence to convict, him but not admitting guilt.
"I was shocked. But ... more than that, I was shocked at what the plea deal turned out to be," Pond said. "That's not justice at all. It's not justice."
A judge sentenced him to between 95 and 123 months in jail, but he was granted credit for the four years he had spent behind bars before and during his trial, which was applied as time-served.
Raven Abaroa did not testify at his trial, but he spoke in court in 2014 after being sentenced.
"I would just like to state that I didn't receive a fair trial the first time. I don't think I'll receive a fair trial a second time," he told the court at the time. "I don't think it's worth risking the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for something I didn't do. I take this plea to ensure that doesn't happen, and that's the only reason. I didn't kill my wife."
Abaroa, now 39, was released from prison on Christmas Day 2017. He now lives in Utah.
Abaroa and his defense attorney declined to comment for this report.
Pond said her advice for other women who might meet Abaroa is to stay away.
"Please listen to what's out there, what's available on the Internet," she said. "Please don't be drawn in, and please get away ... as fast as you can."
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