Man charged in Utah cold-case killings of 2 women, strangled on same day two years apart

One of the women was six months pregnant, records state.

(Courtesy photos) Damiana Castillo, left, and Sonia Mejia, right, were strangled in 2008 and 2006, respectively. Last week, a man was arrested and charged with murder in connection with their deaths.

A 41-year-old man was extradited from Mexico and charged with murder last week in connection with the cold-case stranglings of two women, one of whom was pregnant, more than a decade ago.

Juan Antonio Arreola-Murillo was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on Thursday and has been charged with three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated burglary, and one count of aggravated robbery, according to court documents and a news release from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. All of the charges are first-degree felonies.

Sonia Mejia and Damiana Castillo were each killed on the same date two years apart.

Mejia died in Taylorsville on Feb. 9, 2006, when she was 29 years old and six months pregnant. Her husband found her body in the bedroom of their apartment, according to probable cause documents. Arreola-Murillo is also charged in the death of Mejia’s unborn child.

Castillo died in West Valley City on Feb. 9, 2008, when she was 57. Her son found her the next day when she didn’t show up to church, the documents state.

They had lived 1 mile from each other, and both were strangled, documents show.

Police believe the killer stole three pieces of jewelry from Mejia: a heart-shaped ruby ring, a diamond ring and a medallion of Our Lady of Guadalupe fastened to a gold chain. At Castillo’s home, the contents of her purse — including her wallet — had been dumped out onto the couch, and her jewelry boxes had been disturbed, the documents state.

Although an officer in 2009 said that the suspected killer — who had not been identified at the time — wasn’t considered to be a serial killer, there were “similarities” between the two crimes. For years on Feb. 9, police in West Valley City and Taylorsville would have extra officers on patrol in the hopes of preventing a third slaying, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported.

Police found fingerprints at both crime scenes — on a Cheetos bag and a Coke bottle in Mejia’s apartment, and on Castillo’s wallet in her home, documents state. DNA also was found on the Coke bottle, as well as on the items apparently used to strangle the women. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to specify Monday what type of material the killer used to strangle them, but the Tribune has reported that investigators believed a wire was used on Mejia.

Since 2009, investigators have believed that biological evidence linked the two killings, but the DNA evidence collected from the scenes did not match any DNA samples in law enforcement databases. In 2010, prosecutors used the DNA profile to charge the unknown suspect with two counts of aggravated murder, referring to him as “John Doe.”

“Connecting the dots to connect that profile and that individual with an identifiable person was the next step that happened,” Gill said Monday.

In 2018, Gill confirmed to a Tribune reporter that law enforcement knew who the DNA belonged to, but documents released Monday show that police had linked Arreola-Murillo to the slayings years before.

In 2016, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System reported a match of the fingerprints found at the crime scenes with Arreola-Murillo’s prints, documents indicate, and a request for an arrest warrant was filed in 2017.

Arreola-Murillo had been deported to Mexico in 2008, and documents state there is no record of him returning to the U.S. since then.

Gill declined to clarify how Arreola-Murillo’s fingerprints came to be in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which is maintained by the FBI.

But Gill said that even after Arreola-Murillo was deported, a “paper trail” allowed investigators to “connect the dots.”

Gill said he hopes the charges filed in these cases can bring justice to two women and their families.

“Whenever we have individuals who are not identified, and when a crime happens and they’re not apprehended, it not only causes injuries to those who are immediately impacted ... but it also leaves an injury to our community at large that somebody is unaccounted for,” Gill said. “... That’s why we don’t give up on cold cases.”