A mother in Wisconsin, awakened in the middle of the night by a chilling phone call from her daughter in San Diego, heard the final moments of a struggle that led to the killing of her daughter, a prosecutor revealed Thursday.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Melissa Vasel said Ann Nielsen, the mother of murder victim Jhordann Rust, 26, heard her daughter screaming during a late-night phone call from a hotel room in downtown San Diego on Dec. 12, 2015.
Vasel said the final words Nielsen heard Rust say before the line went dead were, “That hurts!”
Vasel said Rust had called Nielsen three times the night she was killed.
During a two-hour phone call Nielsen said she could hear the voices of what sounded like at least two men in the background with her daughter, including one man who allegedly hurled expletives at Rust.
The final phone call from Rust to her mother came just after midnight San Diego time -- 2 a.m. in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where Nielsen lives.
The mother was sleeping but was jarred by the call.
Vasel said Rust asked her mother, “Do you ever feel like you’re in a nightmare that you can’t wake up from?”
The prosecutor said Nielsen, hundreds of miles away, felt powerless as her daughter cried out. After the line went dead, Nielsen called the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) to report concern over her daughter's well-being, telling authorities that she heard "crashing against a wall" and her daughter saying "Ow, Ow, Ow" before their call was disconnected.
The disturbing details of Rust's murder emerged Thursday as opening statements were delivered in the trial of Jason Lewis, 41, the man accused of killing Rust at the 500 West Hotel and Hostel and leaving her body in a communal shower area.
When Nielsen made that first 911 call, she asked police to conduct a welfare check on her daughter. Officers could not find Rust that night.
Over the next few days, Nielsen heard nothing from her daughter. The mother took the stand at Lewis' trial Thursday, at times fighting back tears.
She said that as her daughter said those final words on the phone, it sounded like Rust was being held down by someone.
On Dec. 15, police found Rust's body in a communal shower area on the second floor of the hotel.
Lewis, a registered sex offender with a criminal history that includes sexual battery and felony domestic violence, was arrested a few days later. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder.
A witness said that the day before Rust’s slaying, she and Lewis had gotten into an argument in front of the hotel. The pair had met just before her killing.
Rust and her boyfriend, Cory Nowell, had checked into the hotel on Dec. 12, 2015. Soon thereafter, Nowell was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and the woman from Wisconsin was left alone in San Diego.
After Rust was killed, Vasel said Lewis took steps to conceal the woman's body, including purchasing a suitcase at a local store on Dec. 14, 2015, to use to move the woman’s body from a hotel room into the shower area at the hotel.
During his opening statement Thursday Lewis' defense attorney said the trial will include a lot of information about "transfer DNA" and how easily DNA can be passed from one person to another with minimal or indirect contact. For instance, the attorney said Nowell's DNA was found on some of Lewis' clothing, despite the men never actually meeting in person.
The attorney also told jurors to pay attention to the timeline in this case.
"I think timing is going to be key in this case," he said. "If you follow the timing in this case, you're going to have more questions than answers about what happened to Ms. Rust."
If convicted, Lewis faces 56 years in prison.
San Diego judge Amalia L. Meza said Thursday that Lewis' trial is set to resume on Oct. 11, running for several days next week. It will likely conclude on the week of Oct. 17, Meza said, with the jury deliberating that week.