DURHAM, N.C. — Nearly nine years after a pregnant Janet Christiansen Abaroa was found dead in her Durham home, her husband, Raven Abaroa, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge of voluntary manslaughter in her stabbing death, avoiding a potential life prison sentence for the crime.
The 34-year-old was set to be retried next week on a first-degree murder charge after a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict in his five-week trial in May.
The state offered the deal – the third in the case – late last week, Durham’s chief assistant district attorney, Roger Echols, said, with Janet Abaroa’s family agreeing that it was in their best interest.
Abaroa entered an Alford plea under which he was sentenced to 95 to 123 months in prison for the crime. In an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining his or her innocence, and admits it is in his or her best interest to plead because there is sufficient evidence of guilt.
“I didn’t receive a fair trial the first time, and I don’t think I’ll receive a fair trial the second time,” Abaroa told Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.
“The fact is that I love my family very much, and 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,” he added. “I take this plea to ensure that that doesn’t happen, and that’s the only reason. I did not kill my wife.”
Janet Abaroa’s family said later that they weren’t surprised by his remarks.
“We are disappointed that he would not accept the responsibility for this horrible act,” her father, Val Christiansen, said after Wednesday’s hearing. “Not only did he kill Janet, but he knowingly killed his unborn child. No amount of jail time will ever provide justice for Janet or her unborn child.”
Abaroa, who has said he didn’t know his wife was pregnant, maintains that he left his Ferrand Drive home for a soccer match on the night of April 26, 2005, and returned a few hours later to find Janet Abaroa crouched on the floor in their upstairs office and their 6-month-old son, Kaiden, crying in his crib.
An autopsy found she had been stabbed three times in her left hand, chest and neck – with the fatal wound being in the neck. She was likely in the very early stages of pregnancy.
Durham police arrested Abaroa in February 2010 in Idaho, where he and Kaiden were living at the time.
Abaroa’s prison sentence of 8 to 10 years – with credit for time served – means he could be released as early as 2018.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Christiansen, said one of the most difficult and long-lasting effects of the crime was that Kaiden – now 9 years old and living with his paternal grandmother in Utah – never got to know his mother or his baby brother or sister. Janet Abaroa, he said, was also denied the experiences of motherhood.
“Janet missed Kaiden’s first steps, missed out on hearing his first words. She missed out on being called ‘mommy,'” Christiansen said. “Janet will never get to enjoy watching her son thrive as he matures.”
Erica Bakey described her older sister as a kind, loving and fun person whose death inflicted pain on all who loved and cared for her.
“One of the questions I ask myself over and over, is ‘Why kill her?’ Bakey told Abaroa. “Why not just get a divorce? Why not just leave her? Why not just leave her to us? She had so much to live for, and you cut that short. When you took Janet’s life, you took a part of me, my family and all who loved her.”
Abaroa’s defense attorney, Amos Tyndall, said many of the facts presented by prosecutors in the case were true but that some were also either “highly contested” or untrue.
“Mr. Abaroa shares a lot of what Mr. Christiansen said,” Tyndall told Manning. “He’s always stated that to us – how much he misses Janet and how much he loved her – and he has always maintained his innocence.”
Tyndall contended during Abaroa’s trial that police only focused on him as a suspect and ignored or explained away any evidence that could have helped identify another culprit in the case.
Durham County Assistant District Attorney Charlene Coggins-Franks said it’s likely that Janet Abaroa had been making lunch for the next day when her husband called her into their upstairs office on the night of her death and killed her.
The couple had been having “extreme financial difficulties” Coggins-Franks said, and it was “very apparent” that the type of life Raven Abaroa wanted to live “was going to change extremely.”
He was already facing embezzlement charges from stealing from his job and had been having trouble in his marriage.
“Although Janet and Raven appeared to be happy, Raven was, for lack of a better word, a womanizer,” she said.
During his first trial, the state portrayed Raven Abaroa as a controlling and verbally abusive husband who not only cheated on his wife but had a penchant for spending money.
Witnesses testified that Janet Abaroa feared her husband, his temper and wild mood swings.
“In that trial, we saw the dark side of the defendant,” Christiansen said. “He was exposed for what he really is – an embezzler, a convicted felon, a sexual predator and a narcissistic, self-absorbed individual.”
LaVerte Dowd and her family befriended the Abaroas years before the crime when the young couple lived in Smithfield, Va. They remained close after they moved to North Carolina.
“Janet, in our experience, was loving and quiet and kind and gentle – all those things that we want to emulate,” she said during Wednesday’s hearing.
“Janet loved Raven,” she added. “She was willing to overlook his infidelities, his embezzlement and his controlling nature. She wanted her marriage to work because she loved him and valued marriage. He threw that away like it was yesterday’s garbage, as though it was worth nothing.”