REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KRON) — Testimony from key witnesses and investigators is underway for the samurai sword beheading murder trial in the San Mateo County courthouse. Jose “Rafa” Solano Landaeta, 34, of Hayward, is charged with murdering Karina Castro outside her San Carlos apartment building on Sept. 8, 2022.
Landaeta refused to attend his own trial for opening statements on Tuesday, and instead remained in his jail cell. He chose to appear in the courtroom on Wednesday as testimony continued.
San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy Damian Machuca testified that he was working at the grisly crime scene when Landaeta suddenly appeared with his mother and made a murder confession. Machuca said he first saw the duo when the mother and son lifted up yellow crime scene tape and crossed under it.
“I yelled at them to move back,” Machuca testified.
Prosecutor Josh Stauffer asked the deputy, “What are the exact words the defendant said to you?”
Machuca answered, “He said ‘she was trying to kill me. I’m sorry.’ I turned him around and placed his arms behind his back. He was breathing heavily, sweating … then I noticed blood splatter on his clothing.”
Landaeta’s mother and brother lived in the same apartment building as Castro at 400 Laurel Street in San Carlos. After the couple’s relationship turned “toxic,” Landaeta moved into his father’s Hayward home, Cummings said.
On cross examination, defense attorney Robert Cummings asked deputy Machuca to reveal what Landaeta’s mother told him during the murder confession. Stauffer objected to the question over hearsay, and judge Lisa Novak did not allow the deputy to answer for the jury.
Three witnesses testified on Tuesday about the moment they all saw Landaeta slash Castro’s head off, and continue slashing her with the sword even after she was dead. Landaeta’s defense attorney said there’s no doubt his client killed Castro in broad daylight on a busy sidewalk. Cummings’ opening statements focused on motive.
The defense attorney told the jury that Landaeta is a paranoid schizophrenic who stopped taking his medication. He received death threats from his ex-girlfriend over social media the night before the killing, and Landaeta believed he acted in self defense, Cummings said.
The prosecutor told the jury that 27-year-old Castro was running for her life when her ex chased her down the street and slashed her repeatedly with the sword.
Prosecutors also called San Mateo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Grant to the witness stand. Grant was flagged down by a frantic witness of the beheading and he was the first law enforcement officer at the scene. “Her head had been decapitated and there was a pool of blood coming from her body,” Grant testified.
While jurors were handed photos of Castro’s body, Stauffer asked Grant to describe what was in the photographs. One male juror gasped, covered his mouth with shaking hands, and tears streamed down his face. A female juror stared up at the courtroom’s ceiling trying to recompose herself.
Witness Renata Tabellion testified that she had just left a brunch at Drake’s San Carlos restaurant with her two friends when they saw an argument erupting between Landaeta and Castro on the sidewalk. “We saw a couple fighting. He was much bigger than her,” Tabellion said.
Tabellion said what happened next was so horrifying, she couldn’t even believe her eyes in the moment. She testified that Landaeta pulled a long, shiny weapon out of his car and “stomp walk” menacingly toward Castro.
While her friend Marie screamed at the sword-wielding man, “Stop! Stop! Stop,” Tabellion ran to a nearby house out of fear. “I thought we were next,” Tabellion wailed on the stand.
On cross examination, Cummings asked Tabellion if Castro was holding anything in her hands while the former couple was screaming at each other. The witnesses replied that she only saw a cellphone in Castro’s hands. In his opening statements, the defense attorney told the jury that Castro was armed with a knife and attempted to stab her ex-boyfriend in the heart.
San Carlos resident Daniel McCormick testified that he was working from home directly across from Castro’s apartment building when he head “loud voices and some screaming,” outside.
McCormick watched Landaeta strike Castro with the sword twice while she was already down on the ground. “I knew the first blow was catastrophic, she was deceased, I could clearly see that. I knew I had just witnessed a murder,” he testified.
Once the killer left in a car, McCormick said he went outside and “guarded” the body until law enforcement officers arrived. “I went out there to stand next to Karina to block the view of anybody going by,” he testified.
Castro is survived by her two young daughters. Their mother’s accused killer is the father of the youngest daughter. Landaeta and Castro exchanged a flurry of messages over social media in the hours before the killing. 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.
Stauffer said the man on trial plotted to murder the mother of his baby out of “vengeance,” not self defense.