Coroner testifies that Lawrence homicide victim likely died of blood loss from multiple stab wounds and other cuts

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Rontarus Washington Jr., left, listens to a discussion between counsel and the judge during Washington's trial Monday, Sept. 23, 2019 in Douglas County District Court. At right is Angela Keck, one of Washington's defense attorneys.

Story updated at 6:04 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23:

The former Douglas County coroner testified Monday that the likely cause of death for a 19-year-old homicide victim was blood loss from many stab wounds, slices and punctures on her head, neck, hands and knees.

Dr. Erik Mitchell showed the jury diagrams, then photos, of several wounds to the body of Justina Altamirano Mosso, who was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. Mosso was slumped against the tub and wall in the bathroom of the apartment she had shared with her husband at Lawrence’s Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St., No. 13.

Rontarus Washington Jr., 23, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with Mosso’s death. He lived on the same floor of the apartment building. Washington has been in custody for about four years and eight months as his jury trial has been delayed several times for various complications. Trial began Monday, Sept. 9.

photo by: Contributed photos

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

Based on when she was last seen and when her phone was last used, authorities believe Mosso died Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 — two days prior to her body being found. Mitchell said there was no way for him to know exactly how much time had passed between when she died and when her body was discovered that Sunday evening, but he pointed out some decomposition in her fingertips that he said showed that mummification had begun.

Mosso had some wounds to her hands, which Mitchell said indicated she had tried to block the knife. She had a long slice across her throat, but Mitchell said it did not cut her windpipe, and it would be surprising if that wound had been the cause of her death.

Mosso had a series of stab wounds on her head, especially concentrated in the area above her left ear, Mitchell said. They were similar in direction and size, and he said they could indicate that the victim was not moving much while those wounds were being inflicted — for instance, if the assailant had been holding her hair and she was not actively defending herself.

photo by: Sara Shepherd/Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Jan. 31, 2019, Dr. Erik K. Mitchell, former Douglas County coroner, testifies during a murder trial in Douglas County District Court.

In addition, on the top of her head, Mosso had two crush injuries. Authorities believe Mosso was bludgeoned over the head twice with the lid from the toilet tank. Her skull was scored, but none of the wounds broke through the exterior of the skull, Mitchell said. There were some small pieces of white debris on Mosso’s body that Mitchell said he attributed to the broken toilet tank he’d scene at the crime scene.

Based on Mosso’s injuries, Mitchell said, it was impossible to know how slowly or quickly she had died.

Despite Mosso’s husband’s belief and testimony that she might have been pregnant at the time of her death, Mosso was not pregnant, based on endometrial testing, Mitchell said. She had no drugs or alcohol in her system, he said.

• • •

Also Monday, some Lawrence Police Department detectives testified about their investigation in the aftermath of the discovery of Mosso’s body.

Washington’s defense attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, have focused largely on Mosso’s husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative perpetrator. Cantu Ruiz has testified that their marriage was not good and that Mosso had cheated on him multiple times. Multiple friends or co-workers of the couple have testified about discord in their relationship, including alleged domestic violence.

Detective Jamie Lawson testified about how he had interviewed Cantu Ruiz the night Mosso’s body was discovered. Police did not immediately tell him what had happened and instead interviewed him for about two hours before telling him she had died. They did not immediately tell him the nature of her death, Lawson said.

After informing Cantu Ruiz of Mosso’s death, Lawson started scrutinizing Cantu Ruiz’s answers more and explained that he needed to get to the bottom of this. He said Cantu Ruiz cried and was upset.

Lawson asked Cantu Ruiz whether the couple had had a fight, and he said no, they hadn’t, but at that point he showed detectives an injury on his hand. He has testified that it came from using a mandoline to slice vegetables at work.

Lawson said he did not collect the shoes Cantu Ruiz was wearing during the interview because the treads didn’t match a footwear impression found on a piece of paper outside the bathroom door. He said he was not aware of a second piece of paper found inside the bathroom that also bore footwear impressions.

• • •

A part owner and manager of two downtown Lawrence restaurants where Mosso’s alleged boyfriend, Fernando Martinez, worked at the time of her death testified briefly Monday to confirm that his timecards were accurate. They showed him working all morning at one restaurant with a 20-minute break — from 3:51 to 4:11 p.m. — before he clocked into work at the other restaurant that day.

• • •

Detective Sam Harvey testified about interviewing Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014.

Harvey said that Cantu Ruiz and another witness, his friend Juan Carlos Pacheco, had mentioned to police seeing a black man who was angry about something in the parking lot at Cedarwood Apartments on the Friday afternoon that Mosso is believed to have died.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

From left to right, defense attorneys Angela Keck and Adam Hall discuss an issue with prosecutor C.J. Rieg and Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria during trial for Rontarus Washington Jr. on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Cantu Ruiz had decided to move to Manhattan that day, and he had given Mosso the keys to the black Ford Focus for which they’d each paid half. Cantu Ruiz had Pacheco come pick him up to give him a ride to Manhattan.

Pacheco testified that Mosso slapped Cantu Ruiz. Cantu Ruiz has said he then tried to extend his arms to keep distance between them but never actually touched her.

Asked about the encounter, Washington told detectives that from his balcony, he saw a lady in the parking lot with the man from apartment 13. They appeared to be arguing, and he said he saw the man grab the lady by the shoulders and push her. Then the man got into the truck and the driver drove away. He said the people in the parking lot looked up and saw him on his balcony.

At that point, Washington told Harvey, he went back inside his apartment, then went downstairs, sat on the stairs for a little while and said hello to a maintenance lady. He then called his girlfriend’s uncle — “Uncle Jot” — to come pick him up. He said he never saw Mosso go up the stairs.

Washington told police he didn’t like to be alone in his apartment, No. 10 on the third floor of Cedarwood. Someone had burglarized it recently and kicked in the door, and he said he was scared because he didn’t have anything to defend himself.

• • •

Detective Amy Price returned to the trial Monday afternoon to continue her testimony.

Three weeks to a month prior to her death, Mosso had moved out of the Cedarwood apartment to instead live with her cousin, just a block or two away. On Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014, Price and another detective visited Mosso’s bedroom at 2357 Ridge Court.

Price gave the jury a photo walkthrough of that space. Mosso’s nametags from both her jobs — McDonald’s, where she worked overnights, and Comfort Inn, where she worked through the morning and early afternoon — lay on the brown carpet. A pink overnight bag held a small teal purse and some other personal items, and some receipts and time card slips were scattered around the room.

In the closet, a few bright pink clothing items stood out. Next to a jewelry box on a shelf in the closet was a magenta wallet, which contained Social Security cards and Permanent Resident IDs for Mosso and her husband. Cantu Ruiz has previously testified that his documents were fraudulent, but he did not mention hers.

A plastic tub in one corner of the room held an assortment of clothing items and toys for little girls, which Price said were likely set aside for Mosso’s daughter, whom she had left in the care of her family in Mexico.

• • •

Prosecutor C.J. Rieg began playing some audio recordings of some phone calls between Washington and Price, but Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria had to recess for the day and one of the interviews was not played in full.

On Nov. 24, 2014, Washington had called the police department and left a message asking Price to call him back about an urgent matter. She recorded the return call, and in it, Washington tells her that someone downstairs in the apartment building told him that someone had scratched the vehicle identification number off the car in the parking lot, presumably speaking about the Ford Focus that Cantu Ruiz bought with Mosso.

Later in the call, Washington says he is scared to talk about it over the phone, but there was something he left out when he spoke to detectives previously: the cellphone he was using belonged to a black prostitute whom he had seen multiple times at the apartment complex.

Washington said that one night, the black prostitute came downstairs, handed him her phone and said something about needing $200. He said she told him he should answer the phone when she called, and he had answered the phone but she hadn’t called. He was nervous about having the phone and he wanted to turn it in to the police, he said.

The jury trial is scheduled to last through Friday, Sept. 27. It will resume Tuesday morning.

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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 12 — Sept. 24, 2019: Neighbors: Defendant in Lawrence murder case requested ride out of state; victim and husband often had screaming arguments

Day 11 — Sept. 23, 2019: Coroner testifies that Lawrence homicide victim likely died of blood loss from multiple stab wounds and other cuts

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


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