Man guilty of murder in shooting death of ex-girlfriend in Columbia

A North Carolina man was found guilty by a Howard County jury Thursday of fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend outside her Columbia home last May.  

After three hours and 45 minutes of deliberation, Ryan Patrick Matthias, 44, of Charlotte, N.C., was convicted of first- and second-degree murder, a felony gun charge and an assault charge in the homicide of Deborah Castellano, who was shot to death on May 4, 2013 outside her home in Verona Apartments in the 9600 block of Basket Ring Road.

Matthias will be sentenced on July 25 in Howard County Circuit Court.

Castellano, 47, had moved to Columbia from New York state in March 2013, just one month after the couple separated, to “get a fresh start” working at Maryland Live! Casino, according to prosecutors.

She was found with three gunshot wounds in her car, which was parked in front of her apartment, by a neighbor at approximately 9 a.m. May 4. Emergency officials pronounced her dead upon arrival.

Howard County police identified Matthias early on as the primary suspect, and he was arrested on May 11, 2013, by local police in North Carolina.

When the verdict was read in the courtroom Thursday, Deborah’s children, Michael and Bianca Castellano, who had clasped hands between a rosary, let out a simultaneous sigh of relief before sharing a tearful embrace.

Afterward, Bianca said the verdict was “long overdue justice,” and that she is “happy this is over.”

“It was overwhelming,” she said, recalling her emotions when the jury foreman read the verdict. “I’ve been waiting to hear these words for so long.”

Assistant state’s attorney Ned Curry said that the verdict was “a real win for the people of Howard County,” and that “justice was served.”

Defense attorneys from the office of the public defender declined comment.

Through four days of testimony, prosecutors painted Matthias as a jilted lover who could not move on from his breakup with Castellano.

Prosecutors said that Matthias, who moved from New York to North Carolina after the breakup, traveled over 420 miles to Howard County to carry out the killing after discovering Castellano was seeing other men.

According to police, Matthias went to Castellano’s neighborhood on April 30, days before the murder, and spied on her. It was during that visit that police believe he learned she was dating.

Matthias’ sister, Stephanie Owens, testified last week that Matthias called her in the early morning hours of May 1 incensed that Castellano was dating, according to state’s attorney spokesman Wayne Kirwan.

Owens testified that Matthias admitted he was in Maryland and that he threatened to hurt people and himself, Kirwan said.

Using cellphone, bank and rental car records, police were able to place Matthias near the crime scene during the time of Castellano’s death. A cellphone linked to Matthias signaled to a cell tower less than two miles from the crime scene at 2:20 a.m. May 4, according to police.

Michelle Peterson, an acquaintance of Matthias living in Virginia, testified that he called her on May 8, days after the murder, to ask if she would provide an alibi for him for May 4 and May 5.

There was no direct evidence linking Matthias to the crime, as DNA samples from Castellano’s body did not match. The gun used to kill Castellano was not recovered, and prosecutors could not prove that Matthias had access to a firearm.

“Any time a case is circumstantial, there is an inherit challenge convincing a jury that circumstantial evidence is just as strong as direct evidence,” Curry said. “ Clearly that message came through to the jury as evidenced by their verdict.”

Juror No. 6, who requested anonymity, said Owens' testimony was particularly “compelling,” and that the jury was leaning toward a guilty verdict at the beginning of deliberations.

Bianca and Michael said that their mother began dating Matthias in spring of 2012 and that he moved into their family home in July of that year.

Both said they were skeptical of Matthias and felt the relationship was moving to quickly.

“I definitely didn’t like the feeling he gave us,” Bianca said. “He was very strange, something wasn’t right.”

Bianca and Michael, who were at the trial since it began on May 7, said the litigation was a difficult experience.

“It was hard to sit and keep your mouth shut,” Bianca said. “There were times I wanted to scream and leap out of my seat. It was hard to be in a room with (Matthias).”

Michael said the verdict gave the family some closure, and that they “get back to living life.”

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