Updated at 7:48 p.m. Friday:
A sex crime report that has recently surfaced in a long-pending Lawrence murder case is raising new questions for a group of supporters who believe Rontarus Washington Jr. has been wrongly charged with the crime.
Washington, 24, was arrested in January 2015, then formally charged in Douglas County District Court in March 2015 with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of Justina Altamirano Mosso, a 19-year-old woman who lived down the hall from Washington at his Lawrence apartment.
Washington’s defense team has presented evidence to raise doubt about the possibility that Washington could have been the killer, instead pointing to Altamirano’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as an alternative suspect.
The Times has learned that earlier this week, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez sent an email to Chief Judge James McCabria that she had discovered a report of an alleged violent incident involving Cantu in March 2017. A woman reportedly told Lawrence police that Cantu had attempted to sexually assault her. The woman said her husband woke up and intervened when she shouted, and she was injured in a scuffle that ensued.
A jury hung after Washington’s four-week-long trial in September 2019; a second trial has been tentatively set for this coming September. But one point at issue in post-trial hearings has been how Cantu obtained a U visa, a special type of visa that allows undocumented people to remain in the United States if they have been a victim of a crime. That status allowed Cantu to testify at Washington’s first trial.
Washington’s defense attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, have raised questions about Cantu receiving the U visa despite multiple DUI cases. Being charged with a crime could preclude someone from obtaining that status.
However, Valdez indicated in the email that the sex crime report from 2017 was not charged. It was not clear to the Times Friday whether or when the DA’s office was made aware of the case in 2017 when former DA Charles Branson was still in office, but Valdez wrote that she had requested the report from the Lawrence Police Department. Valdez wrote that she would have the police report and affidavit reviewed for charging consideration by another prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors have raised many objections to evidence the defense has tried to present about Cantu, including about domestic incidents involving Altamirano that occurred prior to her death. Valdez also wrote that she thought the defense team was in possession of the 2017 report and affidavit as the result of a May 2018 records subpoena seeking any and all documentation of Cantu as a “suspect, reporting party or arrestee,” in any case other than Washington’s.
However, over days of post-trial evidentiary hearings, the 2017 report has never been mentioned in court.
Valdez wrote that she wanted to bring it to the judge’s attention promptly because he was set to rule on the series of post-trial motions, including one to dismiss the case due to prosecutorial error or to disqualify the prosecutor, on Friday. The Times requested the judge’s written ruling, but online court records indicated that they had not yet been filed.
After the Times filed requests with the DA’s office and the Douglas County District Court for records connected to the 2017 incident report Thursday night, prosecutors filed a motion to seal Valdez’s email and the attached documentation that detailed the alleged sexual assault attempt.
“The dissemination of this information would create a clear and present danger to the fairness of this trial by continuing to saturate multiple media outlets with information that may not be admissible in the criminal trial and has a potential to influence the jury pool in this case,” the motion to seal states. “Furthermore, there are no reasonable alternatives that would allow this Court to avoid the prejudicial effect disclosure would have.”
Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden told the Times earlier this week that the district attorney’s office would have no further comment on the case.
During Washington’s trial, Cantu testified that he and Altamirano had a bad relationship. The defense showed photos of Altamirano from an incident on March 17, 2014, after which Cantu was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery. He was not charged in connection, jail and court records indicate.
The Times has filed numerous requests for the public first pages of police reports, KSORs, connected with at least one known separate alleged violent incident between Cantu and Altamirano in the weeks prior to her death.
Altamirano had been seeing another man, which Cantu said upset him. In October 2014, that boyfriend reported to Lawrence police that Altamirano told him that Cantu had forced her to have sex with him and choked her, according to documents in the case file. But “when the police arrived, she was in the bathroom” because Cantu had told her to go in there, the boyfriend later told homicide investigators.
The records custodian for the Lawrence Police Department has repeatedly declined to search LPD’s system for the public records corresponding to that incident.
The nature of the 2017 report also gives Washington’s supporters further pause about the alternative suspect’s character, they told the Times.
During the September 2019 trial, a detective testified that cellphone tower records showed that Cantu’s phone was en route to Manhattan, Kansas, at the time investigators said they believed Altamirano was killed on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. Cantu had also taken a selfie in the bathroom of a rest stop near Paxico and sent it to a friend via Facebook messenger; however, the detective said the original photo was not recovered from the phone.
In her closing arguments, the prosecutor said the evidence from Cantu’s phone and the testimony of a Manhattan man who saw Cantu later that night proved that he could not have been the killer.