How Contact Lenses Helped Crack the 2005 Killing of Janet Abaroa

Janet Abaroa was found stabbed to death in her own home in April 2005. Five years later, her husband, Raven Abaroa, was arrested for her murder.
Courtesy of Tears for Janet

Where were her contact lenses?

Det. Charles Sole couldn't get the question out of his head. It had been almost five years since the killing of 25-year-old Janet Abaroa, who was found stabbed to death in her own home in Durham, North Carolina, on April 26, 2005. At the time, she was a mother to one child and pregnant with a second. 

The main suspect? Her husband, Raven Abaroa, whose knife collection was strangely missing when police turned up at the home to investigate the crime and who, authorities say, gave conflicting statements during his conversations with detectives.

But he had an alibi and investigators had no reason to contradict Raven's story that he'd left his wife getting ready for bed when he went to play soccer with his buddies while their 6-month-old son Kaiden slept soundly in a room nearby.

The case had gone cold, but Sole, who'd recently been assigned to the investigation, found himself obsessing over a singular detail: Where were Janet's contact lenses?

“I noticed the contact case on the counter with the top off of it indicating to me that the ... 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 told ABC's "20/20" in an episode airing Friday at 9 p.m.

Bolstering this were interviews with Janet's friends and family, who said she always took out the lenses before getting into bed to watch TV. 

The more he thought about it, the more Sole couldn't shake the niggling thought that he knew where the contacts were: still in Janet's eyes.

But he needed to prove it.

New Wife, New Life

For years, suspicion swirled about Raven, who left Durham and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, with Kaiden shortly after Janet's death. 

There, Raven, a Latter-day Saint who felt at home in Salt Lake City, met his second wife, Vanessa Pond, a single mother. Pond's daughter went to the same day care as Kaiden. 

"He seemed very upfront ... very honest and genuine,” Pond told "20/20" of her initial impression of Raven. “And I found out that he was a single father. And I really, really admired that."

Raven told Pond that his first wife had died, she said. She was initially a bit suspicious after reading local reports online about Janet's death but said that when she asked Raven about it he "removed any and every doubt from my mind," putting the blame for Janet's unsolved death on police.

Three years after Janet's death, in September 2008, Raven married Pond in an intimate backyard ceremony.

Worried for the safety of Pond, Janet's family got in touch with her. "We just wanted her to make sure she was aware of the things that had been in the news about him," said Janet's sister Dena Kendall. "That she would know what she was getting into."

But, by her own admission, Pond didn't heed their warning. "I [did] not want to believe at all ... that he had done this," she said.

After they wed, Pond said, she began to see a different side to Raven. "He could say the most horrible things," Pond said. "And then moments later, he would apologize."

He also, she claimed, was physically aggressive, pushing her against a wall one time, a claim Raven denies.

Added Pond, "He tried to convince me that I had tripped."

Pond said she regretted the marriage nearly immediately, but, as she would later testify, she was scared of what might happen to her if she tried to leave Raven, so she tried to drive him away. 

By Christmas 2008, just months after getting married, they had split, and their marriage was eventually annulled. 

In spring 2009, Pond voiced publicly for the first time the suspicions that had been gathering momentum in her mind for months: Raven, she believed, had killed his first wife.

Digging Up Clues

On Feb. 1, 2010, Raven was arrested and charged with Janet's murder.

Detectives had built their case against Raven over the past five years from little bits and pieces of evidence that mounted as the weeks and months passed.

“Raven never kept the lies straight,” Sole, the lead detective, told "20/20." “His statements to law enforcement, initially, they were contradictory.”

In addition to Raven's allegedly conflicting statements about the night in question, as well as his missing knives, police pointed to the family's financial troubles, the result of Raven's involvement in an embezzlement scheme.

Months before Janet's death, the two had been forced to leave their jobs at a sporting goods company where they both worked after Raven was charged with multiple counts of embezzlement for stealing thousands. The scandal put increasing strain on their marriage, police said. (Raven would later plead guilty to those charges.)

In addition, Raven had taken a $500,000 life insurance policy out on Janet, and though they were jobless and couldn't pay rent, somehow the payments on the policy were always on time. 

Raven had also allegedly been cheating on Janet — the couple even split briefly the year before Janet's death, her mother would later testify. At the time, Janet was pregnant with Kaiden and terrified of becoming a single mother.

Also key was video from a convenience store that showed Raven was wearing a different sweatshirt than the one he had said he was wearing when he went to play soccer, which would not make sense if he had, as he said, come home to find his wife dead on the floor. 

His claim that he had hugged Janet when he discovered her was also questionable, according to police and prosecutors. Where, they wondered, was all the blood?

But the mystery of the contact lenses ate at Sole. He called a ophthalmologist, Dr. Charles Zwerling.

“So what happened was, a detective called me and asked: Would it be possible to identify contact lenses from a body that had been exhumed after five years?” Zwerling later recalled to BuzzFeed News.

“I told him contact lenses disintegrate, but never say never, I would be willing to try.”

In July 2010, Janet's body was exhumed. In her eyes? Yellowed fragments of Acuvue contact lenses — the brand she always wore. 

“They had caught [Raven] out in a lie," Zwerling said.

'It's Not Justice'

Raven's first trial, which began in April 2013, ended in a hung jury in May, 11-1 in favor of guilt. 

Part of what made the case tricky to try was the lack of witnesses and a weapon.

"His advantage was trying to say that 'I'm just a bad husband. I'm a criminal as far as money goes, but there's no [physical] evidence I killed my wife,'" Durham District Attorney Charlene Coggins-Franks told NBC's "Dateline" in 2014. 

Still, the circumstantial evidence was vast, and before they could go to trial a second time, Raven entered what's known as an Alford plea for voluntary manslaughter, admitting there was enough evidence to convict him but not acknowledging any guilt. 

Janet's family took it as a win. 

“With this plea agreement today, Raven has finally admitted, after almost nine years, that he did in fact kill our beloved Janet," they said in a statement at the time. "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."

"... This plea is not what we wanted but under advice from counsel and collaboration among the family we have decided to support it – we would have preferred that he be put away for life in a place where he could not hurt anyone ever again."

But, as she later told "20/20," Pond, who emerged as a key witness during Raven's first trial, was stunned. 

"I was shocked at what the plea deal turned out to be," Pond said. "That's not justice at all. It's not justice."

Raven ultimately was sentenced to between 95 months to 123 months in prison (about eight to 10 years) and given credit for time served before, during and after the first trial.

Now nearly 40, Raven left prison on Christmas Day 2017 and returned to Utah, where he lives to this day. Raven and his lawyer declined to comment to "20/20" for the special. 

After his father's arrest, Kaiden was placed with his paternal grandparents. It's not clear where he is today.

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