Rontarus Washington Jr.’s attorney admits he was mistaken in claiming in lawsuit that woman’s husband was charged in her death

photo by: Journal-World

In this file photo from Sept. 4, 2015, Felipe Cantu Ruiz testifies at the preliminary hearing of Rontarus Washington Jr., who was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the Nov. 7, 2014 death of Cantu Ruiz's wife, Justina Altamirano Mosso.

Updated at 2:18 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023

The attorney who filed a lawsuit for wrongful incarceration on behalf of Rontarus Washington Jr. against Douglas County and other defendants has acknowledged that a major factual claim in his lawsuit is wrong — namely that a homicide victim’s estranged husband was arrested and charged in the case. That claim is false.

Attorney Larry G. Michel acknowledged in an email to the Journal-World Thursday morning that the claim was “mistaken.”

“Unfortunately, we were mistaken with the allegation about Mr. Cantu and are filing an amended complaint to correct that misstatement,” Michel said. “At this time, we do not have any comments to add to what is alleged in the complaint.”

In the lawsuit, Michel, misspelling the name of the victim — Justina Altamirano Mosso — as “Rosso,” wrote: “Another suspect was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Justina Rosso. That suspect was Felipe Cantu, her husband.”

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

As the Journal-World first reported, Michel filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Douglas County, former Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and current Sheriff Jay Armbrister, claiming that his client, Washington, was wrongfully incarcerated in violation of his constitutional rights.

Washington, 26, of Hinesville, Georgia, was charged in January 2015 in the death of his then-neighbor Altamirano Mosso, 19, who was found Nov. 9, 2014, at her Lawrence apartment after having been repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed. Washington was eventually tried by Branson’s office in 2019, and the jury could not reach a verdict. He was in jail for more than five years before the case against him was dropped by current DA Suzanne Valdez about a year after she took office.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Rontarus Washington Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court during a motions hearing on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.

Michel also claimed in his lawsuit that the case against Washington was dismissed with prejudice, meaning that it could not be filed again. That claim is also incorrect; the case was dismissed without prejudice, according to Douglas County District Court records.

Two of Washington’s former attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, had suggested Altamirano Mosso’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.

A detective at Washington’s trial testified that records from Cantu Ruiz’s cellphone indicated that he appeared to be on his way to Manhattan at the time that Altamirano Mosso likely died on Nov. 7, 2014. Cantu Ruiz testified during the trial about the couple’s tumultuous relationship and his intention to move to Manhattan. He and Altamirano Mosso had both moved to the United States from Mexico but had a young daughter who was still in Mexico.

According to an affidavit in the case, Washington told police he had entered Altamirano Mosso’s apartment looking for change to steal, which he said he had done before. During the trial, Washington had admitted to entering Altamirano Mosso’s apartment and seeing her body, but he maintained that he did not kill her. He left Lawrence for Mississippi and was arrested there about two months after Altamirano Mosso’s death.

Washington’s lawsuit requests judgment in an amount exceeding $75,000, which is a jurisdictional requirement in federal court, plus reasonable attorney fees and further relief as the court deems “fair and equitable in the circumstances.”

In a letter dated July 22, 2022, to the Douglas County clerk, Michel, of the Kennedy Berkley law office in Salina, notified the county that Washington intended to sue for more than $3 million for wrongful incarceration, lost wages, mental anguish and loss of society.

Mike Seck, an attorney representing the county, declined to comment on the case.

Michel, along with fellow attorney Christopher J. Kellogg, filed an amended lawsuit Thursday, deleting the reference to Cantu Ruiz, noting that the case was dismissed without prejudice and adding as defendants former Douglas County sheriffs Ken McGovern and Randy Roberts.


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