Cousin testifies about last time she saw Lawrence murder victim alive
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Story updated at 8:18 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12:
Though Olivia Flores’ memory has faded in the nearly five years since her cousin was found murdered, she recalled telling her not to leave — to come back and have supper.
But Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, never returned, and it wasn’t until two days later that police found her body on the floor of her bathroom, slumped against the wall and bathtub, her face covered in blood and her own long hair.
Rontarus Washington Jr., 23, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with Mosso’s 2014 death at Lawrence’s Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St.
Washington has been in continuous custody for about four years and eight months, and over that time, his case has been repeatedly pushed back because of psychological exams and the introduction of new evidence, some of which has been complicated by translations from Spanish. Mosso and a number of witnesses in the case were originally from Mexico.
On Thursday, in attorneys’ opening arguments and testimony from Flores and five law enforcement officers, the jury in the courtroom of Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria started to gather some of the many pieces of the long-running murder investigation.
photo by: Contributed photos
In her opening statements Thursday morning, prosecutor C.J. Rieg alleged that Washington “viciously killed” Mosso on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.
She alleged that the defendant had taken the lid off the toilet tank and used it to bash Mosso twice in the head, then stabbed her 34 times. She said Washington’s fingerprint was found on the inside of the toilet tank lid, and she shared with jurors a timeline compiled from phone records to back up her case.
Defense attorney Angela Keck, however, described Washington as a second victim in the case. She said he was a “nosy neighbor” and a new kid in town who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time when he fit the profile that police sought.
Keck criticized the physical evidence that prosecutors allege links Washington to the crime and told jurors about the victim’s relationship with her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz — a marriage that she said was a cycle of betrayal, infidelity and domestic violence.
Mosso was found dead in the bathroom of her third-floor apartment at Cedarwood on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, after Cantu Ruiz and Flores separately reported her missing.
Washington had recently moved to Lawrence to live with his girlfriend. Their apartment was on the same floor as the one Mosso and Cantu Ruiz had shared.
• • •
Flores, now 33, testified through an interpreter Thursday that Mosso had moved in with her at 2357 Ridge Court, just a short walk away from Cedarwood, about a month prior to her death. Flores said she didn’t know much about Mosso’s relationship with Cantu Ruiz except that it was “not functioning well,” and Mosso had made the choice to move out.
Flores could not recall the exact incident when she testified Thursday, but she had previously told police about going out to dinner with Mosso and Cantu Ruiz one evening about a week prior to Mosso’s death. At that dinner, Flores told police years ago, Cantu Ruiz had taken Mosso’s phone and looked through her messages and Facebook.
The cousins weren’t that close, Flores testified; Mosso was several years younger, and they worked opposite hours. Flores said Mosso was usually sleeping in the evenings when Flores got off work because Mosso worked nights and mornings.
When Flores got home from work around 3 p.m. Nov. 7, 2014, Mosso had walked to Cedarwood from Flores’ apartment twice already to check and see if Cantu Ruiz’s Ford Focus had left the parking lot yet, but she returned when she saw the car still there. Mosso was planning to grab some chairs, Flores said, because they needed some and she had them there.
Flores said before Mosso walked back to Cedarwood for a third time, she said that her husband was moving to Manhattan and he wanted to say goodbye to her.
Then Flores began to cry: “That’s the last time I saw her.”
At the time, Flores had told police that when Mosso left, she said “If I don’t come back, you come look for me.” On Thursday, however, Flores said she meant Mosso had said if she didn’t come back, she might have gone to Manhattan with Cantu Ruiz.
The following Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, Cantu Ruiz and Mosso’s friend started asking Flores where Mosso was. Flores testified that this made her worried because she thought Mosso had been with her friends.
• • •
In Riley County that Sunday, Cantu Ruiz had phoned in a report to local police, who in turn sent a teletype to Douglas County, a Lawrence police officer testified Thursday.
photo by: Richard Gwin
Officer Daniel Ashley said he went to Cedarwood apartment No. 13 around 2:33 p.m. that day for a welfare check.
Ashley said the teletype had informed him that Mosso’s phone was out of service, and her Facebook had been deactivated. Ashley said from the report he got, Cantu Ruiz said Mosso had been seeing another man for about a month.
He banged on the door and it shook in its frame, but no one answered, Ashley said. Neighbors told him that the couple who lived there wouldn’t open the door for police, but they’d been hearing footsteps upstairs that day.
There was no sign of danger or urgency that he thought would require him to act further, Ashley said. He thought this might just be an “angry husband,” upset because he thought his wife was with her boyfriend.
• • •
There was a fire reported in the same apartment building at almost the same time Flores was reporting Mosso missing to Officer Robert Egidy, of Lawrence police, around 6:52 p.m. Sunday. He was not aware of the call earlier the same day.
Egidy said once he spoke with Flores, he went to Cedarwood to investigate. There he found then-Douglas County Deputy Sheriff Brett LaRue, who had reported to the building in connection with the fire call.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Egidy said he’d been told the door to the apartment was unlocked. After knocking for some time, there was no answer, so he — with an ungloved hand, he said during Keck’s cross-examination — opened the door.
Just inside, he and LaRue saw what appeared to be a footprint in dried blood, both men testified. Egidy called his supervisor, Sgt. Amy Rhoads, who authorized him to go inside.
The men walked through the small kitchenette and into the studio apartment’s bedroom area. They found a few more footprints in what appeared to be dried blood and saw the shattered toilet tank lid, both testified. As Egidy checked the closet, LaRue went the other direction in the dark bedroom and saw the bathroom illuminated. Under the sink, in an “unnatural” position, LaRue saw Mosso’s foot, and then the rest of her body.
The two officers then stepped outside, they testified. LaRue guarded the door as Egidy went outside to wait for a team of investigators. They had not worn gloves or anything to cover their shoes, they said when questioned.
• • •
Lawrence police Detective Sam Hiatt testified Thursday that he had interviewed Washington during an area canvass late that night after Mosso’s body was discovered. Hiatt and another detective were knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask if anyone had heard or seen anything.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
That was when Washington let Hiatt into his apartment, No. 10, and told him about his encounters with Cantu Ruiz. Washington told him that the man from apartment 13 had invited him to have a beer once, but he declined. Another time, Washington said he had encountered Cantu Ruiz in the hallway, and Cantu Ruiz had held up a big knife and asked him if there was a problem, but there was no confrontation, Hiatt testified.
Hiatt said Washington did not appear to be nervous or uncomfortable during the interview.
Washington’s other defense attorney, Adam Hall, asked Hiatt whether Washington appeared to have any scratches or visible wounds to his hands or face, and if he had, whether that would be in Hiatt’s report. Hiatt said yes, injuries would be in his report if they had seemed unusual to him, and no, he didn’t note any on Washington.
• • •
After hearing from six witnesses already on Thursday, the jury will hear plenty more evidence throughout the trial that is set to last through Sept. 27:
In her opening statements, Rieg said that Cantu Ruiz and a friend of Mosso’s both had mentioned to police that an African American man was in the parking lot of the complex while Cantu Ruiz was leaving for Manhattan. The friend reportedly told police that Mosso had told her there was an angry black man in the parking lot who had called her a foul name.
Keck focused much of her opening argument on Cantu Ruiz and his relationship with Mosso. Keck cited phone records and said some showed that Cantu Ruiz would message Mosso up to 150 times per day — including some profanity-laced messages shortly before the murder, saying he would never forgive her. Keck said he told police that he knew Mosso had a boyfriend, and he’d been following her and spying on her.
In a text message several hours before Mosso is believed to have died, Keck said, Cantu Ruiz wrote to a friend, translated from Spanish: “I am a widower.”
Keck said Washington, then 18 years old, and another neighbor separately told police that they had heard a scream around 4:25 that afternoon, and shortly thereafter heard someone running down the stairs. Washington looked out from his apartment and saw that the door to apartment 13 was open, so he went to see if everything was OK, or to at least close the door for the residents, but when he saw Mosso’s body, he panicked and ran back out.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Keck said Washington tried to tell himself that he hadn’t seen anything, and he regrets not reporting what he saw to the police immediately.
Regarding the physical evidence in the case, Keck said multiple subjects’ DNA was found on Mosso’s fingernails, and it could have come from the doorknob, stair railing or other shared surface in the common area of the apartment building. She said there was hair discovered lying on blood in the bathroom that was short and dark, not curly like Washington’s.
Trial will resume Friday morning.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:
More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. trial
• Day 20 — Oct. 4, 2019: Jury unable to reach verdict in 2014 Lawrence murder case; prosecutor wants to try again
• Day 19 — Oct. 3, 2019: Lengthy Lawrence murder trial could end with hung jury; deliberations to resume Friday
• Day 18 — Oct. 2, 2019: Jury continues deliberating in Lawrence murder trial; will resume Thursday
• Day 17, closing arguments — Oct. 1, 2019: Prosecutor rehashes defendant’s story’s ‘progression,’ defense emphasizes passion in closing arguments for Lawrence murder trial
• Day 17, last of testimony — Oct. 1, 2019: Longtime Cedarwood resident may have seen Lawrence murder victim kissing an unknown man, he testifies
• Day 16 — Sept. 30, 2019: Detective: Husband’s phone was en route to Manhattan at time of Lawrence murder victim’s death
• Day 15 — Sept. 27, 2019: Defendant and victim’s husband left prints on toilet tank lid used as weapon in Lawrence murder
• Day 14 — Sept. 26, 2019: Expert: Partial DNA on Lawrence murder victim’s nail could link to 1 in 2,000 men
• Day 13 — Sept. 25, 2019: Lawrence murder defendant tells police he walked in on body, then they accuse him, video shows
• Day 10 — Sept. 20, 2019: Co-worker of murder victim’s husband lied to Lawrence police, he says; footwear impression expert testifies
• Day 9 — Sept. 19, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s best friend testifies, alleges domestic abuse in victim’s marriage
• Day 8 — Sept. 18, 2019: Investigator gives jury photo walkthrough of crime scene in Lawrence murder case
• Day 7 — Sept. 17, 2019: Husband of Lawrence murder victim wants to stay in U.S. only until case wraps, he testifies
• Day 6 — Sept. 16, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s husband recounts alleged infidelity, lack of trust in relationship
• Day 5 — Sept. 13, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s husband believed she was pregnant at time of her death, he testifies
• Day 4 — Sept. 12, 2019: Cousin testifies about last time she saw Lawrence murder victim alive
• Day 3 — Sept. 11, 2019: With jury selected, Lawrence murder trial to proceed
• Day 2 — Sept. 10, 2019: Prosecutor questions jury pool about graphic photos, domestic violence, biases in Lawrence murder trial
• Day 1 — Sept. 9, 2019: Jury selection begins in trial for 2014 Lawrence murder