REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) — Opening arguments began Tuesday in the trial of a Northern California man accused of using a samurai sword to kill the mother of his child in front of their neighborhood last fall.
Attorneys for the state told San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak that they intend to prove that Hayward resident Jose Solano Landaeta, 33, was acting in vengeance when he attacked and killed Karina Castro, 27, of San Carlos in 2022. This past March, a state judge ordered Landaeta to stand trial on all charges including first degree murder in the death of Castro, the mother of Landaeta’s one-year-old child.
On the stand Tuesday, authorities described the scene they found around noon on Sept. 8, 2022, in front of an apartment complex in San Carlos, where Castro was found in the street beheaded by multiple strikes from a sharp weapon. She was wearing pajamas and black slippers.
Prosecutors say passersby described an argument between the woman and Landaeta moments before, during which they said the man brandished a large weapon and began striking Castro with it. Witnesses said they watched Landaeta repeatedly strike the woman after she collapsed on the sidewalk, after which he fled the scene in a car. As they described the fatal injuries to Castro’s body, family members in the audience quietly sobbed.
San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office deputy Albert Grant took the stand as the first witness to describe how, while working as a patrol officer last September, a woman walking in the neighborhood begged him to come to the scene on Laurel Avenue. He described seeing several women when he arrived who were crying and distraught, before discovering Castro’s body on the ground behind a black sedan.
“I noticed her head was decapitated and there was a pool of blood coming from her body,” Grant told the jury.
Another witness, Renata T. of Belmont, wept on the stand recalling how she and two friends walking in the neighborhood panicked and ran for help when they saw Landaeta attacking Castro. They became the prime witnesses to alert Grant and other neighbors about the attack underway.
“I didn’t realize he could actually kill her. I thought we were next,” she sobbed.
Officials said later that day, Landaeta returned to the crime scene with his mother and turned himself in, wearing blood-stained jeans and sneakers. Authorities later reported Castro’s cause of death as multiple strikes with a sharp object to the head and neck. They identified the blood on Landaeta’s clothes, in his car and on the samurai sword taken from the vehicle as Castro’s.
Prosecutors have said they will use evidence that Landaeta complained about Castro to another man on Instagram, including making threats of violence toward her. That evidence came out in court Tuesday, including screenshots of chat messages Landaeta exchanged with a friend saying of Castro: “She needa get 86’d.” He often used blood and ninja emojis in messages exchanged with Castro.
Landaeta’s attorney Robert Cummings said in his opening arguments that Landaeta acted out of confusion, not vengeance, when he killed Castro — spurred by accusations Castro had made into a fit of schizophrenic paranoia.
Cummings said that Castro called Landaeta a pedophile and made threats against Landaeta’s family, including “It’s good wait till I find where you work.” He said Landaeta believed Castro had gang affiliations and when he arrived at her house with the sword in his car, she was holding a black knife — which was never found at the scene. Only a pink knife was found, but it was inside Castro's car.
Cummings said Landaeta has suffered from chronic paranoia all of his life, and had stopped taking his medication when he and Castro got into heated online arguments on Snapchat. He said his client, when he turned himself in to authorities, was frothing at the mouth with a fever and did not speak for more than two months once he was hospitalized.
“This is not a whodunit. This is a ‘why?’” he told the jury.
Cummings also said that Landaeta, in the argument with Castro, grabbed the sword from his vehicle to “attempt to de-escalate” the situation.
“It was more confusion,” Cummings said. “He acted in self-defense.”
Cummings requested a psychiatric evaluation of Landeata a year ago, saying his client may not be mentally competent to stand trial. This past February, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s office reported a court-appointed doctor found Landaeta is competent to stand trial.
Landaeta has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder with a weapon with malice assumed and has been held without bail since March. He's also waived his right to be in the courtroom during the trial, which the judge ordered the jury to overlook during deliberations.Follow @nhanson_reports
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