Verdict reached in San Carlos samurai sword murder trial

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KRON) — A jury reached a verdict on Monday for a man who used a samurai sword to behead his ex-girlfriend in San Carlos.

The San Mateo County jury found Jose “Rafa” Solano Landaeta guilty of murdering 27-year-old Karina Castro in 2022.

Prosecutors said the 34-year-old Hayward man was driven by “vengeance.” Castro’s father, Martin Castro, cried tears of relief. He told reporters outside the courthouse that the guilty verdict made him feel like “something has actually gone right. It doesn’t bring her back. But I know he won’t be on the street. I’m hoping he gets life (in prison).”

Martin Castro said, “I feel like I was at that scene yesterday, I feel like I was frozen in time.”

Karina Castro
Karina Castro (Images via Facebook)

Karina Castro was a mother of two daughters and Landaeta was the youngest daughter’s father. Their relationship turned “toxic,” a defense attorney said. The former couple sent each other menacing private messages over social media in the days leading up to the murder on Sept. 8, 2022.

Karina Castro accused her ex-boyfriend of being a pedophile and rapist, trial evidence showed. Landaeta responded by sending emoji symbols of ninjas with swords on their backs, evidence revealed.

Landaeta refused to attend several key moments of his own murder trial. He was a no-show for opening statements. He was dismissed from the courtroom after he refused to answer prosecutors’ questions on the witness stand. He did not attend closing arguments from prosecutors. He was in court Monday to hear the jury’s verdict.

Jose Solano Landaeta waits to hear the jury’s verdict on Nov. 20, 2023. (Pool/ Photo by Nicholas Mazzoni)
Jose Solano Landaeta waits to hear the jury’s verdict on Nov. 20, 2023. (Pool/ Photo by Nicholas Mazzoni)

Defense attorney Robert Cummings said Landaeta’s absences from the trial hurt their case. Still, Landaeta remained hopeful before the verdict that he would be found not guilty — and walk out of the courthouse as a free man. “He was pretty sure he was going to walk out the front door. I was not as optimistic myself,” Cummings told reporters.

In opening statements, Cummings admitted that his client fatally slashed Karina Castro with a sword outside Karina Castro’s apartment on Laurel Street in San Carlos. Her two young daughters were inside their apartment at the time.

Cummings told the jury that Landaeta acted in self-defense because Karina Castro made death threats over social media. Threats were made against Landaeta, his mother, and his brother, the defense attorney said.

Landaeta suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and he stopped taking his medication the week of the sword attack, according to Cummings. Three court-appointed doctors testified there was no link between the defendant’s mental health condition and the murder.

Defense attorney Robert Cummings talks to reporters outside the courthouse on Nov. 20, 2023. (KRON4 photo / Amy Larson)
Defense attorney Robert Cummings talks to reporters outside the courthouse on Nov. 20, 2023. (KRON4 photo / Amy Larson)

Several jail staff members testified about his time behind bars in Redwood City, including a nurse and health supervisor. They told the jury that Landaeta had no symptoms of mental illness, that he said he stopped taking his medication so the jury would send him home.  One doctor testified that Landaeta was likely “malingering” for the jury.

The prosecution also played jail phone call recordings in court. In one of the recorded jail calls, Landaeta told his father that he had “killed the b**ch.”

Earlier in the trial, eye-witnesses testified about the horrific moment they watched a man slash a sword into the victim’s neck and head, even after she was no longer moving. The prosecutor told the jury that Landaeta swung his sword “over, and over, and over again.”

San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy Damian Machuca testified that he was working at the grisly crime scene on Sept. 8, 2022 when Landaeta suddenly appeared with his mother and made a murder confession.

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.’ He was breathing heavily, sweating … then I noticed blood splatter on his clothing.”

Karina Castro was a mother of two. (KRON4 photo / Karina Castro Facebook)
Karina Castro was a mother of two. (KRON4 photo / Karina Castro Facebook)

The jury will resume deliberating on Tuesday morning to decide whether four aggravating factors are true. Prosecutor Stauffer told the jury that the case’s level of pre-meditated planning, cruelty, violence, and the victim’s vulnerability are all aggravating factors.

Stauffer said Karina Castro was only wearing slippers on her feet, ran for her life, was unarmed, and was on the ground when she was slain. “This crime was vicious. This crime was cruel. There is no credible evidence that the defendant suffered from any mental health condition on the day of the crime,” the prosecutor told jurors.

Stauffer also emphasized that the killer planned his sword attack. Landaeta had told his boss that he was sick, went home early, retrieved the sword in Hayward, told his friend about his plan, and drove an hour to Karina Castro’s San Carlos home.

Martin Castro said his daughter should be remembered as a hero and an amazing mother.

“She loved her kids more than anything. Their mom was a hero, as far as I’m concerned,” Martin Castro told KRON4. When the killer showed up outside her apartment building, she confronted him outside, he said.

“There’s no telling what could have happened if she had been in the apartment and he went up there. She kept him outside and away from (her children),” Martin Castro said. “She’s going to be my angel for the rest of my life on my shoulder.”

Landaeta will face 25 years-to-life in prison when he is sentenced at a later court date.

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