Crime - Sacto 911

After 20-plus years, ex-teacher sentenced in grisly South Land Park murder

Sacramento police investigator Maria Nadeau leaves a home on Oct. 14, 1996, where authorities discovered the body of a woman who had been killed two weeks prior. Suspected in the killing is Robert Castorena, the woman’s husband.
Sacramento police investigator Maria Nadeau leaves a home on Oct. 14, 1996, where authorities discovered the body of a woman who had been killed two weeks prior. Suspected in the killing is Robert Castorena, the woman’s husband. Associated Press file

Robert Castorena sat stoically next to his attorney, his face hidden behind a thick thatch of beard, his hair matted into a bushy pony tail, the gray in both symbolizing the years that have passed since he stabbed his wife to death and left their children with her body inside the family’s South Land Park home.

Castorena had fully recovered his sanity, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Bunmi Awoniyi ruled from the bench, and he was no longer a danger to himself or others.

Since Castorena was sane, the judge found, he could now be sent to prison.

Awoniyi earlier this month sentenced the former McClatchy High School teacher to prison for murdering wife Janice Baker-Castorena in October 1996, abandoning their children and fleeing the country until he was captured weeks later in Mexico.

Castorena’s sentencing was the latest – but likely not final – development in a case that horrified Sacramento at the time and garnered international headlines.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered Castorena to Atascadero State Hospital in 1999, after the nearly 2 1/2 -year murder case ended suddenly with Castorena’s surprise plea of no contest to second-degree murder by reason of insanity in his wife’s slaying and assault with a deadly weapon for cutting his then-11-year-old daughter with a knife.

The sentence was stayed at the time because of Castorena’s mental state.

“This is a tragic case,” said Sacramento attorney Kenneth Rosenfeld, who for years has handled Castorena’s mental health defense, outside the courtroom, adding that Castorena “is not a well man.”

Castorena voice was clear at last week’s sentencing. He said he remained unsound, called the dual commitment of state hospital and state prison “unconstitutional,” said he forgave his prosecutors and asked for Awoniyi’s mercy.

“I’m being prosecuted for being mentally ill,” he said. “I throw myself at the mercy of the court, God ordained.”

Castorena was sentenced to 15 years to life for killing his wife, but he was found to be insane when he set upon his daughter before fleeing Sacramento. He was committed to Atascadero until he was found fit to serve the murder sentence in state prison. Prosecutors at the time believed that Castorena would spend the remainder of his days in a state hospital.

“The thought of everyone in the case is that there’s a good likelihood that he’ll never leave Atascadero during his life,” Les Brown, then a supervising Sacramento County District Attorney, said at the time.

Even with the April 7 decision, Castorena could be returned to a state hospital to serve his sentence. After the hearing, Rosenfeld said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a stay was filed for Castorena by the state’s appellate attorneys.

An appeal was filed later that day, say court officials. Castorena remains at Sacramento County Main Jail on a procedural hold.

Castorena turned 59 at the end of February, but his crime still shocks two decades later.

Castorena stabbed Baker-Castorena, 38, to death Oct. 1, 1996, in a rear bedroom. The two argued before the bloodshed, his then-11-year-old daughter would later tell police.

His wife’s neck had been slashed, other wounds showed she was stabbed in the back, forensic pathologist Robert Anthony testified at Castorena’s 1998 preliminary hearing. The knife wounds to Baker-Castorena’s chest and abdomen were likely the ones that killed her.

Castorena surfaced from the room two days later with a vow to his young son and daughter that he would kill them, too, if they entered the room or called police before he fled the country for Mexico, according to news accounts and court documents.

“He told them he was leaving. (Castorena said) he had to go fight the enemy, or, find the enemy,” Sacramento police homicide Detective John Cabrera testified at the 1998 preliminary hearing. “And, then he got in the car and left and they never saw him again.”

For two weeks, the children stayed silent, afraid their father would return to make good on his promise to end their lives as he had their mother’s.

But Castorena’s young son, just 8, had a plan. He attempted to shoplift video tapes from a nearby Raley’s supermarket on Freeport Boulevard, a gambit to draw the attention of shop clerks – and the police – who the boy led to his home and to his mother’s body.

“He was crying. He was very emotionally upset,” recalled Troy Woodward from the witness stand at the 1998 preliminary hearing, transcripts showed. Woodward was a Sacramento police detective working robbery detail when he received the shoplifting call. The boy didn’t know his address, Woodward testified, but could show the officer where he lived if he drove him to the neighborhood.

His older sister answered the door when the detective knocked. She seemed “very reluctant to answer” where her parents were, Woodward testified.

Finally, she told him.

“She told me her mother and father had an argument and that she believed her mother was home and believed that she was dead in the back bedroom of the residence,” Woodward testified.

Residents after the gruesome killing recalled a family whose life was lived in isolation. The family was silent when they did leave the house, averting their eyes and ignoring the waves of neighbors.

Many of those neighbors have since moved on or passed away, but a few remain and remember when the quiet on their secluded street was broken.

Glenn Leake was mowing his lawn when a group of television reporters advanced on him from the street, he recalled in a recent interview. Later that evening, a Sacramento police officer arrived at his doorstep. “He really wouldn’t tell us too much. He wanted to know if we’ve seen something, that there was an incident,” Leake said.

Leake and his family moved onto Flora Vista Lane a few months before the Castorenas rented their home. Leake’s daughter soon took a job alongside their neighbor Baker-Castorena, a physical therapist.

Castorena taught public school in the Sacramento City Unified School District, but their children were home-schooled and largely unseen on Flora Vista Lane, an eclectic string of homes shoehorned between 27th Avenue and Del Rio Road.

Robert Castorena was “the weirdest teacher I ever had,” one student told a Sacramento Bee reporter in a story after the slaying. Many other students and teachers did not know Castorena, such was his on-again, off-again tenure at the city’s schools.

Leake also remembered his daughter telling him that Baker-Castorena was often uneasy and was prepared to pull up stakes at any time on word from her husband.

Leake’s daughter did not respond to requests through her father to be interviewed for this story.

“My daughter worked with (Baker) before. She said she always had to have her bags packed and boxes ready,” Leake said. “She was nervous, on edge and she had to have her boxes packed.”

It’s unclear what sparked the violence, but Sacramento police investigators said Castorena traveled to the Mexican artist’s enclave of San Miguel de Allende a week before his wife’s death. He signed a three-month lease on an apartment before abruptly returning to California.

In Sacramento, Baker-Castorena told her new employer that she needed two weeks off to tend to a family emergency. She was killed the next day.

Soon, Robert Castorena was the target of a nationwide manhunt that lasted for weeks. A tip ultimately led authorities to San Miguel and to Castorena’s arrest by Mexican federal police.

Family members knew Baker-Castorena was in a stressful marriage, but could not have imagined what happened on Flora Vista Lane, said her sister, Elizabeth Webb, at the time. “We never dreamed that such a terrible fate was in store for Jan and her children,” she said.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith