Breaking down the case of Rontarus Washington Jr., charged in 2014 Lawrence murder: FAQs and the latest motions
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
It’s been almost six years since 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death on the bathroom floor of a Lawrence apartment.
Lawrence police and prosecutors have long held that the evidence points to Rontarus Washington Jr. as the killer in the brutal murder. He was 18, and he lived at the opposite end of the hallway at Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St., at the time.
But one thing was clear from his four-week-long trial in September 2019: The jury of 12 was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Washington was the killer.
The future of the case is now unclear. One reason is that there will soon be a change of leadership in the district attorney’s office — Douglas County voters rejected longtime District Attorney Charles Branson in the Democratic primary on Aug. 4 in favor of Suzanne Valdez, who faces no opponent in the Nov. 3 general election.
photo by: Contributed photos
In addition, as the Journal-World reported last week, CJ Rieg, the former chief assistant Douglas County district attorney who had been prosecuting the case for years, has withdrawn.
Altamirano Mosso was found slain in the studio apartment that she had shared with her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, on Nov. 9, 2014. She moved out about three weeks prior to her death and instead went to live with her cousin about a block away.
Cantu Ruiz has testified that Altamirano Mosso was having an affair and their marriage was unhappy. He thought she might be pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, though the autopsy later found she was not. Cantu Ruiz said he decided the morning of Nov. 7, 2014, that he was going to move to Manhattan to start anew, and a brief interaction in the apartment complex parking lot that afternoon was the last time he saw Altamirano Mosso alive. Her body was found two days later, when Cantu Ruiz and her cousin separately reported her missing.
The defense has suggested Cantu Ruiz as an alternative suspect, citing previous documented incidents of domestic violence, his own admissions about his jealousy and her “betrayal,” insulting text and Facebook messages to Altamirano Mosso and statements he made to various other witnesses, including the message “I am widowed” to another woman hours before his wife’s death.
In addition to new prosecutors, there will be new evidence to consider. Both the prosecution and the defense have requested further DNA testing in the case, and court documents indicate that the defense has sought out the services of at least one additional expert, forensic scientist and criminologist Brent Turvey.
• • •
Rieg moved to retry Washington after the first jury hung. In March, she left the DA’s office and became an assistant attorney general at the state level, but she had stayed on as a special prosecutor in Washington’s case. She filed a notice that she was withdrawing from the case on Aug. 31, and Senior Assistant DA Alice Walker and Deputy DA David Melton are now on the case.
Washington’s lawyers, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, have filed a number of motions, including one asking that the case be dismissed due to “overwhelming prosecutorial error.” They argue that Rieg stepped out of bounds with some comments she made during her closing arguments, and that she has demonstrated racial bias. Walker has filed responses, arguing that many of the defense team’s claims are taken out of context or that there is no support for the “bold accusation that the State has demonstrated an inability to seek justice in this case.” The defense also asked the court to show potential jurors at the retrial a short video on unconscious bias, and the state is opposed to that request.
At hearings yet to be scheduled, Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria will hear arguments on the motions, some of which will involve witness testimony. Dates will be set at Washington’s next status conference on Sept. 11.
Dorothy Kliem, trial assistant for the DA’s office, did not directly answer when the Journal-World asked whether Rieg’s withdrawal had anything to do with the recent motions. Rather, she said via email that “Since this case is not presently set for trial new co-counsel can be brought into the case without interruption.” However, the case has not been set for trial since before jury trials were brought to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Washington, now 24, had been in custody of the Douglas County Jail for more than five years as his case was continued multiple times once he waived his right to a speedy trial. On July 1, his bond was reduced from $750,000 to $500,000 cash or surety, and by that evening, community fundraising efforts had secured the $50,000 needed for him to be released. He is currently on bond and living with his family.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Here’s some background and frequently asked questions about the case interwoven with the latest motions. All of the following is sourced from court documents and trial testimony.
• • •
Jurors were tasked with weeding through about 15 days’ worth of witness testimony, much of it translated from Spanish to English, to determine whose accounts they believed. They saw hundreds of photos and messages, and they heard countless corresponding exhibit, photo tent, evidence and lab item numbers. On Oct. 4, 2019, after three full days of deliberation, the jury hung on all counts.
Back in November 2014, Cantu Ruiz told police that he saw a Black man in the parking lot as he was leaving for Manhattan. Another witness who reportedly spoke to Altamirano Mosso after Cantu Ruiz left said that the victim told her there was a Black man yelling about something in the parking lot, though she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Neither could provide any further description of the man.
photo by: Richard Gwin
Washington agreed to speak with police on Nov. 24, 2014, because he wanted to help in the investigation, he told them.
Detectives Jamie Lawson and Sam Harvey interviewed Washington, and at first, they told him he wasn’t in trouble for anything. They said that he’d been “extremely helpful,” their best witness so far in the investigation — they wanted to clear Washington and just find out any information he knew. They didn’t “have any feeling you’re involved in regards to the female or anything like that,” one of the detectives told him, and they knew he was a “good guy.” One told him, “I believe in you, Rontarus.”
Washington told the detectives that he had seen the door to the couple’s apartment open, so he called out to ask if anyone was inside, then went in and looked around. He said he’d taken some change from the table, but he then discovered Altamirano Mosso bloody on the bathroom floor. He said it looked like she wasn’t breathing; he turned and ran out of the apartment, and he was scared to call police because he thought he’d be blamed for her death. He denied any involvement in the murder and said whoever did it was a “monster.”
• What are Washington’s charges? Washington is charged with first-degree premeditated murder and aggravated burglary. In the alternative to the first count, he’s charged with first-degree felony murder. During the first trial, the jury was also instructed to consider lesser charges of second-degree murder and burglary.
• How was Altamirano Mosso killed? Investigators believe she was bludgeoned twice on the top of her head with a toilet tank lid and stabbed dozens of times, mostly in her head and neck. Her throat was also cut, but not through to her windpipe. She had several defensive wounds on and through her right hand. Her left hand had fewer injuries, but her ring finger was cut up.
• If Altamirano Mosso had moved out of that apartment, why was she there? A family member and a friend testified that she had gone back to that apartment to grab a couple of chairs to take with her. She walked over to the apartment after Cantu Ruiz texted to tell her that he was leaving; however, he returned, the couple argued in the parking lot and then he left again, he testified. He said that was the last time he heard her voice, though his phone records showed he answered a couple of calls from her phone shortly after that.
• Did Washington or Cantu Ruiz have injuries on their hands? Multiple law enforcement and lay witnesses said they never saw any injuries on Washington’s hands or arms. Cantu Ruiz had a circular injury on his left palm that was still bleeding when he arrived back in Lawrence on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. A manager at one of the restaurants where Cantu Ruiz was working at the time told detectives that he saw Cantu Ruiz’s hand bandaged up prior to Nov. 7, but he didn’t have any documentation of when the injury occurred. The kitchen manager who reportedly witnessed the injury did not testify.
• How was Cantu Ruiz “ruled out” as a suspect? Investigators believe Altamirano Mosso died sometime not long after 4:22 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, which was the time when her phone was last used. (The coroner was unable to provide an estimated time of death.) At the trial, officers testified that they spoke with Juan Carlos Pacheco, Cantu Ruiz’s friend from Manhattan who drove to Lawrence to pick him up that afternoon, and another man from Manhattan. During her closing arguments, Rieg said the witnesses “absolutely exonerate Felipe because he was not in Lawrence during the time the crime was committed.”
They also used data from Cantu Ruiz’s phone, including a selfie he had reportedly taken in the men’s room at a rest area near Paxico at 4:57 p.m. that day, and pings of cell towers en route to Manhattan. However, at the trial, Cantu Ruiz could not verify that he had taken the rest stop photo, and it was admitted into evidence based on its metadata rather than his testimony about its validity.
This was an issue the defense raised in a recent motion. Counsel writes that Rieg also elicited a police witness’ opinion that Washington was guilty because the officer had been permitted to testify that another potential perpetrator had been “ruled out” in the investigation. The defense contends that this could unfairly prejudice the jury. Judge McCabria overruled defense objections at the trial, and the state contended in its response that the ruling “remains sound.”
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
• Did the victim’s family believe Cantu Ruiz was involved? The defense alleges that among other key information, the prosecutor failed to disclose that another Lawrence defense attorney who had worked with members of Altamirano Mosso’s family reportedly told the DA’s office that the family believed Cantu Ruiz was involved in the murder. The family members reportedly asked that attorney why a young Black man had been taken into custody when he was not the killer, according to the defense motion.
The DA’s office responded that “on information and belief,” no one from the DA’s office had spoken to that attorney about the case or was provided any information or evidence from the family that Cantu Ruiz had killed Altamirano Mosso.
• Was Washington’s DNA on the victim’s body? Another post-trial motion by the defense asks that the prosecutor not be allowed to say that Washington’s DNA was found on or under Altamirano Mosso’s fingernail because that was not what the evidence showed. Rieg, however, said multiple times during her closing arguments that Washington’s DNA was found on the victim.
A partial DNA “haplotype” — which could not exclude Washington, any of Washington’s male relatives or 1 in 2,000 men in the general population, equivalent to about 24 men in Lawrence — was found somewhere on one of Altamirano Mosso’s fingernail clippings. At least two other partial minor profiles from unknown males were found in the same location.
After the trial, the defense requested DNA testing of scrapings from underneath Altamirano Mosso’s fingernails that could provide more conclusive results if she scratched her attacker. Court documents indicate that the results from the new testing the defense requested have been provided to the DA’s office. As of Friday afternoon, the status of further DNA testing the state requested was unclear from court records.
• Was Cantu Ruiz’s hair found in the victim’s hand? Possibly. Altamirano Mosso clutched roughly 200 hairs in her hands, mostly her own. However, two hairs in her left hand were consistent with hairs of Cantu Ruiz or any of his maternal relatives. Experts testified that humans lose about 100 hairs per day, so it was possible that the hairs in Altamirano Mosso’s hand were picked up from the bathroom floor. Investigators did not find any of Washington’s hair.
• Was Altamirano Mosso’s blood on Washington’s sandal? Investigators found a pair of orange Nike sliders when they searched Washington’s apartment that matched a bloody footprint on a piece of paper found at the crime scene, according to Steve Koch, a former Kansas Bureau of Investigation footwear impression expert who testified. There was no red-brown staining visible to the naked eye, but several spots on the sole indicated blood and matched Altamirano Mosso’s DNA. There was no blood on the tops of the shoes, according to a forensic scientist who worked for the KBI.
• Was Washington’s fingerprint on the murder weapon? The coroner, Dr. Erik Mitchell, testified that Altamirano Mosso died from the stab wounds and blood loss. He said the crush wounds on top of her skull could have been “contributory,” but they did not kill her. Investigators never located a knife that showed traces of her blood.
Washington’s fingerprint was found on the underside of a piece of the shattered toilet tank lid, according to a KBI expert’s testimony. Cantu Ruiz’s palm print was also found on the lid. In closing arguments, defense counsel argued that the print was consistent with picking up a toilet tank lid to flush a toilet that didn’t work, and that Washington had used that bathroom before. Detectives testified that they did not attempt to flush the toilet to see if it worked.
photo by: Sara Shepherd/Journal-World File Photo
• Why was Washington in that apartment before? Cantu Ruiz testified that about a week prior to Nov. 7, 2014, a man and a woman were standing near the entrance to the apartment building as he got home from work one evening. He didn’t speak English, but he indicated to them that if they wanted beer, this was his home and they could come have a beer, he said. After that, Cantu Ruiz said he had way too much to drink, and with the woman, “I don’t know, we had sex, I don’t know.” The man sat at the table but didn’t stay long, and when he left, some change was missing from where he’d sat, Cantu Ruiz said.
In later testimony, it was clarified that the man was Washington and the woman was a prostitute who lived in the area. Washington told police in his interview that he’d felt uncomfortable in the situation and he’d left. He said he didn’t tell them about that incident before then because he was afraid his girlfriend would find out, and she might get mad and kick him out.
Cantu Ruiz told police he did not know whether the Black man he’d seen in the parking lot when he was leaving for Manhattan was Washington.
• What happened to the victim’s phone? Investigators said they found Altamirano Mosso’s phone on Nov. 26, 2014, tucked inside a white ankle sock and then a black dress sock, on the roof of the apartment building. They thought it could have been thrown there from Washington’s balcony. Detectives found a similar white ankle sock inside Washington’s apartment, but they later determined that it was not a match. A fingerprint analyst said that a print found on the phone’s inside back cover ruled out Washington and Cantu Ruiz; it may have been Altamirano Mosso’s, but her postmortem prints were not sufficient for comparison.
• Was there any evidence that someone else could have been the killer? In addition to the unknown male DNA on Altamirano Mosso’s fingernail clipping, some DNA found on the toilet tank lid showed a partial major profile of an unknown male subject. The KBI did not compare them because the lab does not compare two unknowns.
From testimony at the trial, it was unclear whether police ever collected anyone’s DNA, phone records or alibis besides Washington’s, Cantu Ruiz’s and Altamirano Mosso’s, except that Altamirano Mosso’s boyfriend was ruled out by his alibi. Information on the whereabouts of Cantu Ruiz’s two brothers in the area and his friends, including one with whom he said Altamirano Mosso had previously had an affair, was not shared at the trial.
More from the latest motions:
Racial bias concerns
Before Rieg filed her notice of withdrawal from the case, the defense had argued that she had shown racial bias that required her to be disqualified from the case.
“The prosecutor has indicated to defense counsel that the only reason Mr. Washington was not convicted at the jury trial was because a black juror refused to convict a black defendant,” the defense wrote in a motion. “From defense counsel’s discussion with jurors, this is patently a false statement, considering the fact that there was at least one white person who also voted not guilty, demonstrates racial bias on the part of the prosecutor, and disqualifies this Prosecutor from further serving on this case.”
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
In response, however, Walker argued that the statement was taken out of context and that rather, Rieg had learned that one of the jurors reported to the rest of the panel that he could not convict a young Black man, and it was meant to “convey to defense the strength of its case.” The response — filed 10 days before Rieg’s notice — did not give any indication that Rieg would soon withdraw from the case.
The defense also has asked to show a “juror orientation video,” intended to educate potential jurors about implicit or unconscious bias, during the next jury selection process. It’s an 11-minute video, created by a committee of judges and attorneys for the U.S. District Court for the District of Washington, presented to jurors “with the intent of highlighting and combating problems presented by unconscious bias.”
The state objects, arguing that potential jurors can be questioned about implicit bias during voir dire.
“At the time of writing, there does not appear to be a national consensus or significant trend toward including a jury instruction on implicit or unconscious bias,” the response states. “… In fact, it appears that these sorts of jury instructions are rare, especially in criminal cases.”
Defense alleges witness tampering
The defense alleges that the state failed to disclose “prior convictions involving dishonesty and that would call into question the memory of” at least two key witnesses. They were not told of one witness’ “significant methamphetamine addiction,” according to the motion. It was unclear whether the defense was made aware that witness was also in custody during the trial. The state responded that all such convictions were provided before trial for all state witnesses.
The defense also alleges that the prosecution tampered with witnesses.
In one alleged incident, the defense’s DNA expert, Stephanie Beine, reported that she heard Rieg ask KBI analyst Lance Antle why he can’t say DNA was found under Altamirano Mosso’s fingernails and that he’d responded, “Because I can’t see the cells.”
The state included a portion of the trial transcript in which Keck told the judge about that, to which Rieg responded, “That was not me. I did not say that.” McCabria said Rieg seemed “unequivocal,” and he was going to accept her answer.
Additionally, the defense wrote that on the first day of trial, several of the Spanish-speaking witnesses appeared at the courthouse on their subpoenas. As the defense investigator and interpreter were going to meet them, however, Detective David Garcia of the Lawrence Police Department — a Spanish-speaking officer who handled many of the witness interviews in the case — rounded them up and took them into the DA’s office.
“After this, the witnesses would no longer meet with the defense interpreter and investigator,” the defense wrote. “This behavior was planned and amounts to witness tampering.”
The state responded that Garcia and victim-witness coordinator Cindy Riling were rounding up witnesses to “get them out of sight of the jury,” and that most of the witnesses were also subpoenaed by the state.
“The defense presents no evidence suggesting that the interactions in the conference room were improper,” the response says.
In a separate motion, the defense says its investigator has learned that Cantu Ruiz has been telling the people whom she’s tried to interview not to speak with her. However, she reportedly learned from a family member of Altamirano Mosso that Cantu Ruiz had “tried to kill his first wife and their daughter while living in Mexico. This witness was also contacted by Felipe Cantu Ruiz and told not to discuss the case ‘or else,'” the motion states.
“Felipe Cantu Ruiz also called the defense investigator and told her that the defense team was trash and to stop interviewing the witnesses,” the motion states. “He told her he hoped she had someone murdered in her family. The defense investigator felt threatened by the call and reported it to the Sedgwick County Police Department.”
The defense also alleges that witnesses are afraid to speak because Cantu Ruiz’s family has a lot of power in Guerrero, Mexico.
The state, in response, disputes those claims and rather says that Cantu Ruiz reported to Detective Garcia in January that the defense investigator has been upsetting people by saying that Cantu Ruiz had killed Altamirano Mosso.
“Given the nature of the allegations and the lack of names, dates, details, corroboration, or evidence contained in the defense motion, the State is unable to effectively respond to the allegations in this motion without a hearing,” the response says.
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
• Aug. 31, 2020: Prosecutor withdraws from Rontarus Washington Jr. murder case
• After the trial — Oct. 7, 2019: In Lawrence murder trial deliberations, majority of jurors flipped votes from not guilty to guilty; new trial scheduled
September 2019 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
• Sept. 5, 2019: Lawrence murder case, pending since 2014, set for trial next week
• Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico
• Nov. 10, 2014: Police investigating possible homicide at Cedarwood apartments