Coroner: November stabbing death of Lawrence woman, 19, was ‘overkill,’ ‘personal’

Rontarus Washington, Jr. was in Douglas County District Court Thursday for a preliminary hearing to determine if there's enough probable charge to bind him over on charges of first-degree murder in connection with the brutal slaying of Justina Altamirano Mosso.

Witnesses testifying Thursday in a 19-year-old Lawrence man’s preliminary hearing on his charge of first-degree murder recounted the brutal way 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso, of Lawrence, was killed in November.

Mosso was discovered dead in a bloody bathroom of an apartment leased by her estranged husband on Nov. 9, 2014, detectives testified Thursday. Prosecutors believe that Rontarus Washington Jr., who lived down the hall from the apartment, killed Mosso, and they charged him in January with the death.

Photos of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, provided by the Lawrence Police Department.

Lawrence police officer Robert Egidy said that while responding to missing persons reports for Mosso’s cousin and estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, around 7 p.m., he found Mosso “obviously dead,” seated on the bathroom floor in a “large pool of blood” and “slumped to the side.”

“Her hair was matted with blood, and there was a broken toilet lid on the floor,” Egidy said. “There were several shoe impressions of blood throughout the apartment.”

Detectives later said they found sandals belonging to Washington that had soles similar to those that left the impressions in the apartment. According to prosecutor C.J. Rieg, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation tested those sandals and found a positive match to Mosso’s DNA.

After discovering the body, Egidy left the apartment without touching anything and secured the scene, he said. The apartment was eventually searched, but investigators did not find Mosso’s purse or a murder weapon. However, discarded packaging from a lock-blade knife was found near the apartment’s entrance.

Douglas County Coroner Erik Mitchell said Thursday that he came to the scene early Nov. 10 to assess the body. Mitchell said he found smeared blood on the wall and observed Mosso’s injuries when he walked into the bathroom.

“There was a lot of blood about the body, on her scalp and hands,” Mitchell said.

photo by: Journal-World File

Douglas County Coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell testifies Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in the probable cause hearing for Rontarus Washington Jr., a Lawrence man charged with first-degree murder.

He then clipped her fingernails and other took investigatory swabs, he said. The KBI tested the fingernail clippings and found that DNA under Mosso’s right-hand fingernails was consistent with Washington’s.

Mitchell said that he found during the autopsy that Mosso had been stabbed repeatedly in the face, head and neck — including a cluster of eight stab wounds into her head above her left ear.

Additionally, Mitchell said, Mosso had significant “defensive wounds,” caused by a “sharp object,” to both of her hands. One wound appeared to have run completely through both sides of her palm. Mitchell described the nature of the stabbings as “personal” and “overkill.”

“When stabbing someone, it’s extremely personal as you’re in their personal space,” Mitchell said. “You have to overcome internal (mental) barriers, and it builds up psychological intensity.”

Mitchell said that a person could be driven to commit these “personal” acts by “anger, despair, financial, psychological or sexual” reasons. Mitchell said the nature of the wounds could also be indicative of the assailant simply wanting to ensure the victim was dead.

“Cases of overkill often have a sexual component, but (that) not necessarily (mean) that there’s been a sexual relationship (between victim and assailant) in the past,” Mitchell said. “It could be only the emotions and feelings of the assailant.”

There were also blows to Mosso’s head, Mitchell testified. He said that white ceramic-type bits were found on Mosso and in her hair. He testified that he thought the fragments could be consistent with the broken toilet-seat lid found in the bathroom.

Lawrence police officer Samuel Hiatt testified Thursday that he first encountered Washington on Nov. 9 during a canvass of the apartment complex. Washington said he didn’t know the occupants of the apartment in question, but said he’d seen Ruiz a number of times — including once when Ruiz allegedly displayed a knife.

Ruiz also was interviewed Nov. 9, Detective Sam Harvey testified. Harvey said Ruiz told him that Ruiz and Mosso argued the day Mosso died and she’d demanded Ruiz’s car keys because “he owed her money.” He gave them to her, then left for Manhattan.

Harvey said that Ruiz claimed he’d never struck Mosso, but that she had hit him before. Ruiz told detectives that he and Mosso had recently separated after he learned that Mosso was allegedly seeing another man, and Mosso moved into her cousin’s apartment, Harvey said.

Harvey testified that Washington was interviewed several times after his initial Nov. 9 interview. Washington told investigators by about the third interview that he had seen Ruiz and Mosso arguing on Nov. 7 — the day Mosso is believed to have died — in the apartment’s parking lot, Harvey said. Washington told police Ruiz left in a truck with a man after the argument and Mosso remained in the parking lot talking on a phone.

Rontarus Washington, Jr. was in Douglas County District Court Thursday for a preliminary hearing to determine if there's enough probable charge to bind him over on charges of first-degree murder in connection with the brutal slaying of Justina Altamirano Mosso.

During a subsequent interview, Washington told detectives that some time after seeing the argument, he walked downstairs and waited for an acquaintance to pick him up, Harvey said. While waiting, Washington said he returned to his apartment to make sure he had locked his door.

Washington told detectives that when he got upstairs, he noticed Ruiz’s door was open and he decided to go inside that apartment, “looking for something to take,” Harvey said. Washington told detectives that he’d previously taken some change from a table in the apartment.

Harvey said Washington told him that when he entered, he looked into a dresser and closet but left the residence without taking anything after he noticed a dead woman in the bathroom. Washington said he didn’t remember whether he walked into the bathroom but that he “didn’t take or touch anything” and there would be “no evidence (from) him on Mosso’s body or anywhere else in the apartment.”

During a fifth interview, he willingly submitted to a fingerprint and DNA collection.

Detectives began to consider Washington a suspect, Harvey said, but he was not arrested until January, when a warrant was issued for his arrest and he was found in his hometown of Greenville, Miss.

The preliminary hearing continues Friday, when Mosso’s estranged husband, Ruiz, is expected to testify. Washington remains in the Douglas County Jail on a $750,000 bond.