Opening statements began Tuesday, Nov. 7, in the trial of Jose Rafael Solano Landaeta, 33, of Hayward, who is accused of killing Karina Castro, 27, the mother of his 18-month-old child, after an alleged violent argument ensued between the two in front of her San Carlos apartment on Sept. 8, 2022.
Landaeta previously pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. While his attorney, Robert Cummings, spoke about mental illness, paranoia, and self-defense during his opening comments in San Mateo County Superior Court, Prosecutor Joshua Stauffer opened his statement with a definition for the word vengeance.
"She (is) looking to get smoked, blood," said Stauffer, who was reading excerpts from an alleged thread between Landaeta and a friend in an Instagram direct message hours before the alleged crime. "The defendant, Mr. Jose Solano Landaeta, used this sword in the act of vengeance against the victim, in this case, Karina Castro."
On Monday, Nov. 6, Landaeta appeared in court while the jury selection process was finalized. Wearing a black suit and white turtleneck, he stood with his hands crossed at his waist, appearing poised and facing the potential jurors as they walked into the room after a recess. At one point, Judge Lisa Novak misspoke during the hearing; she made a joke, and Landaeta cracked a smile, along with the rest of the room.
Yet on Tuesday, Landaeta remained in his cell, refusing to come to court. It marks the first day of trial, to which he faces 26 years to life in prison for murder.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the last time someone didn't come to trial for a murder case in the county was in the late 1980s, but that was for a death row sentencing.
"I have never seen in a murder trial in this county a defendant failed to come to court for the trial on whether he committed the crime," Wagstaffe said.
On the day Landaeta is alleged to have killed Castro, Stauffer said three witnesses were walking along Laurel Street shortly before noon when they approached a couple arguing on the sidewalk. The witnesses crossed the street to avoid the argument. One of the witnesses reported hearing Castro ask Landaeta if he was going to hit her, and then she pushed him. Shortly after, Stauffer said the witness would tell the jury that Landaeta punched Castro with a closed fist. He grabbed an item from a nearby car and struck Castro in the arm so severely that her arm was nearly severed from her body, prosecutors told the jury.
Stauffer said witnesses saw Castro run behind a vehicle away from Landaeta. He said she left a trail of blood and blonde hair because Landaeta allegedly swung the sword at her head, chopping her hair as she ran away. When Castro got to the rear of the vehicle, witnesses said they saw Landaeta raise the item above his head, striking her many times around the neck and head. Landaeta allegedly put the sword back in the vehicle and drove away. One witness toward Castro attempted to help her but found that she was dead near her car in the street. The second witness called 9-1-1 and ran away from the scene. The third witness remembered a police officer two blocks away during their walk and ran to the officer to report the crime, Stauffer said.
Stauffer passed around photos of Castro's body during Tuesday's hearing, and multiple jury members were visibly bothered, breathing heavily and wiping their eyes.
Castro's mother, Laura Engman, who said she was at her daughter's residence minutes before the killing, dropping off groceries, said she wished those witnesses would have attempted to stop Landaeta.
She said Castro had only been home a few days after spending two weeks in a hotel because she was avoiding Landaeta, who had a restraining order to stay away from Castro. Stauffer said that about 20 minutes after the alleged crime, Landaeta returned to the scene with his mother and surrendered himself.
But Landaeta's defense counsel painted a different picture of what happened inside Landaeta's head on the day of the alleged crime.
Cummings said arguments between Castro and Landaeta boiled up to a point where Castro threatened to have Landaeta, his mother and his brother killed by her gangster friends. Landaeta was paranoid and worried about his family's safety, causing him to act.
Landaeta, who has a history of mental illness, was apparently off his medications for days before he left his job in Berkeley and allegedly went home to Hayward, retrieved a samurai sword to protect himself and went to Castro's home in San Carlos, where he acted in self-defense after Castro attempted to stab him with a pink knife, Cummings said.
Leading up to the trial, Cummings had made court motions doubting Landaeta's competency to stand trial, but doctors found that he was competent. Earlier this year, Cummings renewed a competency motion. However, Stauffer gave Novak evidence that Landaeta had spoken over the jail telephone and to a medical staffer that if he stopped taking his medication, he was going to beat the case and would be freed, Wagstaffe said.
Ultimately, Novak denied the motion for new competency proceedings.
During Tuesday's trial in Redwood City, Engman and Castro's relatives and friends sat in and listened to the prosecution. Shortly after the prosecutor's opening statements, they were all visibly bothered and crying.
"I relive this every day," Engman said. "I just want it to be over already."