Thu. May 23rd, 2024

A 34-year-old California man accused of beheading his ex-girlfriend with a samurai sword in San Carlos refused to attend his own murder trial Tuesday morning for opening statements.

Jose “Rafa” Solano Landaeta is charged with murdering 27-year-old Karina Castro. The victim and her accused killer had a baby together before their relationship turned “toxic,” a defense attorney told the jury.

San Mateo County Judge Lisa Novak said Landaeta is welcome to attend his trial at any time, or not attend. “This is his choice,” the judge said.

Three horrified witnesses said they saw Landaeta slash Castro’s head off with the sword on Sept. 8, 2022. Her arm was also nearly slashed off. She had attempted to run away from Landaeta along on a sidewalk outside her apartment at 400 Laurel Street, prosecutor Josh Stauffer told the jury.

For opening statements, the defense and prosecution outlined what the jury will see during the trial as witnesses are called to testify and evidence is presented. Just days before the trial began, Landaeta changed his plea from “not guilty by reason of insanity,” to “not guilty.”

The defense told the jury that this is not a case of “who done it.” Landaeta killed Castro because he believed his ex was sending “gangsters” to kill Landaeta, his mother, and his brother, defense attorney Robert Cummings said.

While the man on trial remained absent from the courtroom, there were several emotional moments on Tuesday. The victim’s family members, witnesses, and jurors all broke down into tears. A particularly tense moment happened when photographs of Castro’s beheaded body were handed to each of the jurors. One male juror gasped, covered his mouth with shaking hands, and tears streamed down his face.

San Mateo County Prosecutor Josh Stauffer told the jury that the case can be defined by one word: Vengeance.

“Vengeance is the act of punishing or harming someone in return for what they have done to you,” Stauffer said.

Just hours before the slaying, Landaeta had a conversation over Instagram with a friend about Castro. Prosecutors displayed the private Instagram messages on a screen. Landaeta wrote, “She lookin ta get smoked blood. She needa get 86ed. Ima have ta do what I gotta do broo.”

Stauffer showed the jury photos of a blood-covered sword, Castro’s smiling driver’s license photo, the crime scene with Castro’s body covered by a blanket, and a blood trail left from Castro trying to flee.

The prosecutor said three witnesses who went to brunch at a nearby restaurant, Drake’s San Carlos, that morning saw the entire beheading. The three witnesses, who are close friends, left Drake’s after finishing their brunch. As they walked on Laurel Street, they saw an argument erupting between Landaeta and Castro on the sidewalk.

Stauffer told the jury, “They noticed a male and a female arguing. It was extremely heated.”

The trio was so unnerved by the verbal argument that they crossed Laurel Street. Suddenly, they saw Landaeta pull a sword out of his car, swing the sword at Castro, and chase her down the street. He cut Castro’s neck and head with at least seven blows, Stauffer said. “They witnessed a savage act of violence,” he added.

One of the three witnesses, Natalie Griffin, “saw him swing at Castro with such a blow, her arm was almost severed from her body,” the prosecutor said.

Landaeta swung the sword at Castro’s head and chased after her, the prosecutor said. Once Castro fell to the ground, Griffin witnessed the killer swing the sword and strike Castro in the neck and head “over and over and over again. Griffin was terrified. She called 911 and ran in fear,” the prosecutor told the jury.

Another witness in the group heard Castro’s screams fade to whimpers, and then silence. The prosecutor said, “Ms. Castro was first screaming, then whimpering, then making no noise at all.”

The witness remembered seeing San Mateo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Grant just a block away from the crime scene conducting a traffic stop. She began yelling at the assailant, “There’s a cop! The police are here!” in an attempt to make the sword attack stop, Stauffer said. Then the witness sprinted a block over, found Sgt. Grant, and directed him to the homicide scene.

Landaeta briefly left the crime scene in his car before returning with his mother. He walked under yellow crime tape and surrendered to deputies. Photographs shown in court revealed he had blood on his pants and shoes. Officers found the bloody sword inside his car.

The prosecutors showed a flurry of messages exchanged between the former couple over Snapchat in the hours leading up to the beheading. Castro accused her ex-boyfriend of being a pedophile and rapist. She threatened to post their private Snapchat conversation with screenshots on social media. Landaeta responded by emoji symbols of ninjas with swords on their backs. They also argued about custody of their baby.

Castro wrote in one message that their daughter “Izzy will have my last name. You will have no right to my kid.”

Castro is survived by her two young daughters.

Cummings began his opening statements by telling the jury, “This is not a who done it case. This is a why. That why is not based on vengeance. Rafa suffered all his life from paranoid schizophrenia.”

After the couple’s relationship turned “toxic,” Landaeta moved away from San Carlos and moved into his father’s Hayward home. He worked as an accountant for a business in Berkeley.

Cummings said, “He was doing well, providing for his child. He had a toxic relationship with Ms. Castro. She had other things going on that concerned him greatly. He tells her, I’m done with you, I’m going to find another woman.”

Castro began making death threats that caused her ex severe stress, Cummings told jurors. Landaeta stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia because of stress, and was off his medication the week of the homicide, the defense attorney said.

Castro gave gang members a “green light” to kill her ex, his mother, and his brother, Cummings said.

Landaeta’s mother and brother lived in the same apartment complex as Castro, just a few doors down.

Cummings said, “The reason he moves out is because they had issues. He visited (his baby daughter) on the weekend. She says, before you come on the weekend, your mother and brother will be dead. That’s what gets him in the car to drive to San Carlos. He’s expecting six to 10 gang members will be there. He took the sword for protection. She has a pink knife and a black knife.”

When he arrived outside the victim’s apartment building, Castro tried to stab Landaeta in the heart with one of her knives, Cummings said.

Police and prosecutors said no knives were found at the crime scene. Witnesses said they did not see Castro in possession of any weapons.

After he surrendered, Landaeta was taken to a hospital and was frothing at the mouth. “He did not speak at all for 2 ½ months,” Cummings told the jury.

The defense attorney displayed Snapchat messages in court and claimed she “put a hit on him.”

She wrote in one Snapchat message, “You got a target on ur back too. Haha I already got a green light. Tell your mom to plan a r fucking service.”

Cummings said, “She means a funeral service.”

Another message from Castro stated, “I got someone out there right now haha looking for you. Imma havae someone on u all times.”

Cummings told jurors, “In his mind, he has paranoia and he’s terrified. He attempted to go there (Castro’s San Carlos apartment building) and de-escalate the situation.”

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By Buffy Gunner

Independent Journalist + Business Owner | Lover of all things true crime. Mantra: Only YOU can be YOU. | Los Angeles Born |