Ronald Roldan confessed to killing Bethany Decker earlier this year, but her mom believes there’s more to the story

In November 2020, Ronald Roldan had almost finished a prison sentence for a nearly fatal assault on a girlfriend when a warrant for his arrest was issued in the death of Bethany Decker.

Although authorities in Virginia had long suspected Roldan in the death of Decker, 21 — who was pregnant with her second child when she vanished on Jan. 29, 2011 —  her body hadn’t been found, and Roldan was never charged. Then, this year, he confessed to the killing.

The admission, which came in a roughly four-hour interview in January with a prosecutor and the lead detective, was a key part of a plea agreement Roldan had made with authorities two months before: In exchange for his account of Decker’s death, he was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to 12½ years.

Tune in to Dateline tonight for “Bethany Vanished.”

Decker’s mother supported the deal, believing the interview would reveal the truth about what happened to her daughter.

But in recent interviews, authorities told NBC’s “Dateline” that they believe Roldan lied when he confessed that Decker’s death was accidental. Video of Roldan’s interview, first reported by “Dateline,” shows the lead detective challenging Roldan, telling him that his account didn’t add up and that it appeared he tried to cover up the killing by posing as Decker on Facebook and elsewhere and sending messages after she vanished.

“It’s disappointing to not get the truth,” Loudoun County Sheriff’s Detective Mark Bush told “Dateline.” “What I got from him was I got an admission that he did it.” 

Roldan — who at times talked so quietly that authorities repeatedly told him to speak up — said he didn’t remember anything about the messages. He stood by his account of Decker’s death and apologized to her relatives.

“What happened was an accident,” he said. “I’m sorry. I feel bad.” 

Decker’s mother, Kim Nelson, also doubted Roldan’s account and told “Dateline” she didn’t believe her daughter’s death was accidental.

“It was very hard to hear the disregard for human life,” she said of the confession.

Panic after a physical fight

In the video, Roldan said he and Decker — a waitress enrolled at George Mason University whom her mother recalled as an inquisitive, adventurous and natural parent — got into an argument about whether she’d work that January day at Carrabba’s, the restaurant where they met and both worked.

At the time, Roldan said, he and Decker were in the living room of the apartment they shared in Ashburn, Virginia, roughly 30 miles northwest of Washington.

Roldan said he lightly shoved Decker. She tripped over her feet, he said, hitting her head on a windowsill as she tumbled to the ground. She wasn’t bleeding, Roldan said, but he felt no breath when he placed two fingers beneath her nose.

Roldan told officials he couldn’t recall how long he spent trying to figure out whether Decker was dead. He said he provided no lifesaving measures and didn’t call authorities, who he feared “would not believe what I had to say.”

In a state of panic, Roldan said, he grabbed a Christmas tree removal bag from the kitchen and shoved Decker’s body into it. That afternoon, he dumped the bag in the apartment building’s trash compactor, he told officials in the interview. 

In the video, Bush, the detective, said investigators found no marks or scrapings on the windowsill to corroborate Decker’s account.

“I’ve never seen a single case where someone hits their head on the corner of a windowsill and ends up dead within a couple of minutes,” he said. Bush added that Roldan’s own description of the push — “I didn’t put all my power into it” — made the account seem even less plausible. 

“I think it’s more likely that you choked her out, and that’s the reason why she died,” Bush said in the interview. “Did you ever put your hands on her throat?”

“No,” Roldan responded.

When Bush asked whether there was anything he wanted to change about his account, Roldan declined.

The prosecutor in the case, Loudoun County Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Shaniqua Clark Nelson, also doubted parts of Roldan’s account. But some of it seemed true, she told “Dateline.” She believed that there had most likely been an argument — but that it wasn’t about whether Decker had planned to work that day. 

Just before her death, Decker had gone to Hawaii with her husband, a National Guardsman who was the father of her son, in an effort to repair their relationship and get her away from Roldan, who’d become increasingly controlling, threatening and abusive, Kim Nelson said. 

She said the family had reached out to domestic abuse hotlines for Decker and had tried to develop a plan for her to escape the relationship. (In the video, Roldan denied that he was abusive to Decker.) 

Roldan didn’t know Decker was on a trip with her husband, Nelson said; he learned about it upon her return, and she disappeared shortly after. (Roldan said during the interview that Hawaii wasn’t the source of the argument and that he felt no hostility or resentment over the trip.)

Bush, the detective, also believed parts of Roldan’s account. He told “Dateline” that Roldan’s description of how he disposed of Decker’s body was far more specific and matter-of-fact than his recollection of the killing. 

A forensic search of the dumpster revealed no evidence, however, Bush said. And although authorities believe they know the possible location of her remains in a nearby landfill, Bush said, they “are just not retrievable.”

Who sent the Facebook messages?

Bush also pointed to messages that he said Roldan sent to Decker’s family and friends as evidence that the killing was more sinister than Roldan portrayed.

The messages, many of which were sent on Facebook in the weeks after Decker’s disappearance, all had what Bush described as the “same tone” — “Bethany screwed up, Bethany lied and that Ronald was the best thing that ever happened to Bethany,” Bush told “Dateline.” “Bethany was going to take some time alone and be away and that she couldn’t tell anybody where she was.”

Briefly, Decker’s family found the messages somewhat comforting, her mother said, noting that she thought they’d been her daughter’s way of reaching out. But that comfort turned to anxiety because the messages didn’t sound like they were from Decker, she said.

Another point of concern was Decker’s car: It was parked crookedly in her building’s lot, with a flat tire and covered in dust, Nelson said. When the family realized that no one had actually seen Decker since late January, they reported her missing. That was three days after the messages began — on Feb. 16, 2011.

Authorities had long been suspicious of the messages, Bush said, but investigators had never been able to prove Roldan sent them. In earlier interviews with authorities, he denied having had anything to do with Decker’s disappearance, and there wasn’t enough evidence to link him to what authorities had come to believe was a homicide, Bush said.

Law enforcement had also interviewed Decker’s husband and considered him a person of interest, Bush said. Although his name appeared in media reports, he had a solid alibi, and the case languished, even after Roldan pleaded guilty in 2016 to felony assault in the shooting of another woman, Vickey Willoughby. 

As he’d done with Decker, Roldan moved in with Willoughby after they worked together at a Virginia restaurant. 

In 2016, Roldan choked Willoughby so badly that he broke a vertebra in her neck, said Bush, who sat in on a law enforcement interview with her. She shot him in self-defense, striking him twice, but he grabbed the gun and shot her in the face, hitting her right eye, Bush said.

Willoughby survived but lost her eye, he said. 

In 2020, after the detective who had been handling Decker’s case was promoted, Bush took it over and noticed something. When the messages were sent from Decker’s Facebook account beginning Feb. 16, they came from a device that used the same IP address as the device that was checking Roldan’s email account and Facebook page.

“It was an aha moment,” Bush said, describing the records as a direct link between Roldan and Decker’s disappearance.

“At that point, he’s either got to be hiding her disappearance because he knows where she is or [he’s] hiding the fact that he killed her because he’s trying to cover his tracks,” Bush said.

That evidence was further strengthened when investigators found web browser data showing that the messages came from Roldan’s laptop, said Clark Nelson, the prosecutor. 

In the confession video, Roldan told authorities that no one else would have used his laptop to send messages as Decker and that he hadn’t shared her password with anyone. 

As Clark Nelson showed him what was sent to Decker’s husband and others, Roldan said: “You can show me every single message that was sent. I really don’t remember.”

A chance to get to the truth

Just before Roldan’s sentence for assaulting Willoughby was up, authorities in Loudoun County issued an arrest warrant accusing him of abduction in Decker’s killing. He was transferred to the county jail and indicted later on a second-degree murder charge.

As authorities prepared for trial, they talked with Decker’s family about the possibility of taking a different path — of skipping what Kim Nelson described as the “big burden” of a lengthy, uncertain court case and getting something that Decker’s family had longed for since she vanished: the truth.

The family agreed, and authorities eventually reached a deal with Roldan’s lawyers, Clark Nelson said. Roldan would serve 12 ½ years in prison and submit to a “debrief” — a post-conviction interview in which he would lay out what happened and Decker’s family could provide her with questions for him.

Many of the questions revolved around whether Decker suffered and what happened to her body, the prosecutor said.

But there was a catch. Authorities would have to accept the account Roldan put forward, Bush said. They’d be allowed to challenge it, he said, but they wouldn’t be allowed to verify it as a condition of the agreement. 

Lawyers for Roldan didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Even though there were doubts about Roldan’s claims — and even though his sentence was far lower than the 40-year term he could have faced at trial — Clark Nelson said the outcome was positive. 

Decker’s husband was exonerated in a way that he hadn’t previously been — prosecutors provided a letter to the court clearing him — and her family got answers about what Roldan did with her body, the prosecutor said.

Roldan will be deported to his native Bolivia when his term ends.

“Sometimes, justice isn’t black and white,” Clark Nelson said. “It’s not an easy formula. But it really is a compilation of weighing everything that you have and figuring out the right path to bring as much closure and understanding to the ultimate conclusion.”

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