A single mother who had only just begun to enjoy her independence had her life tragically cut short in the fall of 1998 — and the investigation into her murder would lead to one of the most shocking killers in the area’s history.
On the evening of November 15, 1998, Laura Billeter called the police to request a wellness check after a friend, someone she usually spoke to every day, left a strange message on her answering machine only to then become unreachable.
When Howard County Police went to check on Sara Raras, a 35-year-old single mother to a 1-year-old boy, at her home in Elkridge, Maryland, they found her lying dead in the family room, blood pooling around her body and painting the nearby walls. She’d been stabbed numerous times to the point of mutilation; her hands had almost been severed from her wrists and she’d nearly been decapitated.
“The thing that sticks in my mind is just the sheer brutality. I can close my eyes and see it as visibly today as I did then,” Nathan Rettig, a detective with the Howard County Police Department, told “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Upon closer examination, authorities concluded Sara had been dead for around 24 hours before their arrival. There were signs of forced entry, including a shattered window, and bloody shoe prints had been trodden into the carpet, but neighbors who were interviewed by police claimed that they hadn’t heard anything amiss.
Sara, a mathematician who was described by those who knew her as a friendly, helpful person, worked as a statistician for the National Security Agency. She was a newly single mother, having split from her husband, Lorenzo Raras, earlier that year, and she was proud of herself for embracing her new beginning, her friends said. It was devastating to learn mere months later, her life had come to a tragic, violent end.
Police went to speak to Billeter again, and she shared with them the disturbing voicemail she’d received at around 8:30 the previous night. It was clear from the recording that a struggle of some sort had taken place, and police quickly concluded that the 30-second audio was the sound of Sara being murdered — but by who, they still didn’t know.
When asked if there was anyone who’d want to hurt Sara, Billeter immediately named Lorenzo, Sara’s estranged husband. Lorenzo had been jealous of the attention their child was getting from Sara, so in an effort to try and get the two to bond, Sara would often have Lorenzo watch the baby. However, Lorenzo’s mother ended up taking care of the child most of the time when he was supposed to be in Lorenzo’s care, which Sara didn’t agree with. Things came to a head when Lorenzo tried to hit Sara while she was holding the baby, prompting her to immediately get a restraining order against him, friends claimed.
Sara’s friends knew that she was afraid of Lorenzo, so authorities wasted no time bringing him in for questioning. He immediately claimed he had nothing to do with Sara’s murder. He said that he’d last seen Sara when picking up the baby that weekend. He also suggested that she’d been having an affair with a co-worker and pointed to that person as a possible suspect.
When police tested Lorenzo’s DNA, nothing tied him to the scene, but they still weren’t convinced of his innocence. He insisted that he’d been at home with family at the time of the murder, so they traveled to his house to interview the other people who lived with him. While his mother, Emilia, said that she was at her job at a local nursing home at the time of the murder, Lorenzo’s brother Mike said that he was at the house with Lorenzo that night and Lorenzo was still there when he’d left to go work a night shift.
Although investigators were unconvinced of the family’s innocence, police were forced to look for suspects elsewhere when a search of the family home, as well as Lorenzo’s car, yielded no evidence. Instead, they switched gears and investigated the claims of an affair, but that quickly proved to be another dead-end: The man in question lived in a different state and told police that he’d only been a mentor figure to Sara, despite her husband’s jealousy and accusations.
After weeks passed and DNA testing was completed, investigators learned that bloody fingerprints found on the wall of Sara’s home were actually a mix of Sara’s blood and the blood of an unknown male. Authorities tested both Lorenzo and Mike’s blood, but neither was a match.
Several more months passed, with the case beginning to grow cold.
“You started to lose hope,” Billeter told producers.
Then, a break in the case came when detectives got a phone call from authorities in a neighboring county that would change everything.
An officer told detectives that he’d recently had an inmate confess to a murder that sounded a lot like what had happened to Sara Raras. The man in question, 19-year-old Ardale Tickles, was in jail for an armed robbery he’d committed three months ago, but he’d been recorded speaking about a murder he believed he’d gotten away with. Tickles was describing elements of Sara’s murder that only the police and the culprit would know, detectives soon realized.
As investigators continued listening to the tape, they were hit with an even bigger bombshell: Tickles said that he’d been paid to carry out the murder by a woman who worked at the same nursing home as him: Emilia Raras, Lorenzo’s 63-year-old mother.
Finally, the truth had been revealed. Now, police had the challenge of building their case. They were able to get witnesses to attest Emilia and Tickles knew each other and spoke at work, but they needed more than that, so they called Tickles in for an interview. When faced with his taped confession, he pointed to Emilia as the person who hired him to kill Sara in exchange for $3,000.
While Tickles refused to call Emilia to get her to confess on tape, police investigated on their own and discovered that Emilia had written a check for $3,000 — the same amount Tickles said he’d been paid in exchange for killing Sara. It was just what prosecutors needed.
Although Emilia tried to claim that she never wanted Tickles to kill Sara and had hired him to scare her instead — as revenge for what she felt was a lack of respect for her on Sara’s part — police and prosecutors were unmoved.
“Showing disrespect to a mother is death,” Emilia was recorded saying during a heated interview with police.
Mark and Lorenzo, meanwhile, had their names cleared because Emilia confirmed to police that neither knew anything about what she’d done.
Emilia and Tickles were both charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy, with Emilia facing an additional charge of solicitation. While Tickles was remorseful and pled guilty, landing himself a life sentence, Emilia pled not guilty and went to trial.
After a week, the verdict was in: A jury found her guilty of all charges. In court, Emilia cried and maintained her innocence, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
“I would like to say to the honorable court that I had no intention at all to kill Sara,” she said. “I'm very, very sorry that it happened.”
The judge, unmoved, described Emilia as an “evil person” who lacked any “real remorse,” according to the Sun. He sentenced her to life in prison without parole.
While justice had finally been served, Sara’s loved ones were still left to reckon with the tragic loss of a beloved friend and mother whose child would now have to grow up without her.
“We lost a really good person that day,” Billeter said. “We lost a light, and I just hope that she’s happy in God’s arms.”
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