Editor’s note: This article contains language some may find offensive. It has been updated with comment from the Indiana Department of Correction.
Derek Romano and Jeremiah Roberts had been drinking homemade wine on a Saturday night in their cell at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, Romano explained, as he told an investigator how he lost control and beat his cellmate to death. Romano, who is now charged in Roberts’ murder, shared not just a cell with Roberts, but also a criminal history.
Roberts, 32, and Romano, 28, both were convicted in the 2014 murder of Indianapolis pizza delivery driver John Sullivan. The two had ordered a pizza to be delivered, but when Sullivan arrived, the pair killed him, left his body in a basement and stole his car. Roberts and Romano were found two days later in Wyoming.
An Indianapolis jury convicted Roberts in 2017 of Sullivan’s murder and robbery, and Roberts was sentenced to 68 years in prison. Romano was sentenced to 55 years in prison after pleading guilty to a murder charge in February 2015.
On the morning of Sunday, May 3, Wabash Valley staff found Roberts unresponsive in his cell, and he was pronounced dead a short time later. Authorities soon after said they suspected homicide.
Romano was charged earlier this month in Sullivan Superior Court with Roberts’ murder. A probable cause affidavit shows that he told a state police detective who investigated at the prison the morning Roberts’ body was found that Romano admitted he had beaten his cellmate to death with his fists and feet.
“Yes, it was stupid argument over stupid shit, dumb shit,” Romano told the detective, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit said Romano told the detective he and Roberts “argued over being right or wrong, and Mr. Roberts thought (Romano) was trying to say that Mr. Roberts was wrong about shit, but (Romano) wasn’t saying that. They argued over the spelling of words, saying if you capitalize the first letter of a word, it changes the meaning.”
Romano described hitting Roberts with a first strike that knocked him out and then continuing to assault him. Romano “stated he knew what he was doing when he hit Mr. Roberts with his fists, and kicked him while he was on the ground. Mr. Romano also stated he knew what he was doing when he put Mr. Roberts in his bunk and listened for when he stopped breathing,” the affidavit says.
Romano did not have an attorney who could speak on his behalf, according to online court records.
The Indiana Department of Correction did not directly answer a question about whether Roberts and Romano should have been housed in the same cell under DOC rules or policies. “Offenders are evaluated based upon risk levels, crimes, medical/medical health codes, length of stay and several other factors. Romano and Roberts were classified based upon this information,” a DOC spokeswoman said in an email.
She said the case remains an active Indiana State Police investigation.
The night before Roberts’ body was found, “Mr. Romano advised that everyone in their building had been on lock down, and while in their cell during the day, he played a game on his tablet and ignored Mr. Roberts. The argument started later that evening prior to, as well as during, drinking. Mr. Romano stated that the homemade wine they were drinking wasn’t laced with any drugs, and the last time he used K2 was a month ago.”
In his interview with the detective, Romano said he and Roberts were not friends but had committed a crime together and “Roberts was the reason why he was in prison. He (Romano) took a plea deal to get out of county jail and ended up pleading to murder when he didn’t touch the guy.” When Roberts “got into his face, touched his shoulder,” Romano hit him, knocking him out and unleashing the fatal assault, the affidavit says.
Romano also had sent text messages to family members alluding to killing someone, according to the affidavit. And while he told the detective he probably meant to kill Roberts, the affidavit said he also had written on the wall inside their cell, “pray for the man who died here, for he lived and died a better man than me.”
Meanwhile, state police said they were investigating as a homicide the death of another Wabash Valley inmate who was found unresponsive Sunday in his prison cell. Foul play also is suspected in the death of Kevin J. Carpenter, 57, of Churubusco, police said. No charges had been filed in Carpenter’s death as of Friday.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.