By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Joe Klein
The distinction between what happened and what didn’t is precisely the one that is not available to us.
—James R. Kincaid, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting
Standing beneath the open sky in the hills that rise to the east of San Diego, listening to the birds sing and the wind shiver through the oak trees, James Rodriguez wears a look of profound incredulity. He’s a solidly built man with long, black, braided hair, a goatee flecked with gray, and a small, faded tattoo of a cross between his index finger and thumb. Prison tends to close men’s features down, to harden faces into masks, but despite his 13 years behind the walls of New Folsom and Old Folsom, Mule Creek, Avenal and Soledad, and six strange years locked up at the state mental hospital in Atascadero, an almost childish air of surprise and disbelief rarely strays from Rodriguez’s eyes. The tale of how he ended up in prison, told stories both true and false, and found his way back here to the Indian reservation on which he was born begins not in these dry hills, but about 80 miles to the north, beneath the haze of the Inland Empire on a short, straight street called Pepper Court in the Riverside County town of Moreno Valley.
Even in the late afternoon, it’s hot on Pepper Court. Children line up on the sidewalk, dollar bills clutched in their fists. A battered ice cream truck clanks out its cheery melody with apparently endless patience. A man stands shirtless in his driveway, talking on a cordless phone. The houses are low, squat, flat-roofed stucco boxes. The lawns, for the most part, have gone brown and are cluttered with bicycles, wagons and car seats, all the dust-caked detritus of suburban life. Did Pepper Court look any different in 1980, when our sad story began? Or was it 1982? The dates differ depending on who is telling the tale, and when they told it, but so do almost all the other facts. No matter, the pepper trees that rise in a line behind the houses on the west side of the street must have been here in both those years. The paint on the houses may have been a little fresher then, the smog a little thicker or maybe just the same.
Rodriguez believes it was in ’82 that he began hanging out on Pepper Court, which would have made him 22 years old. With several years of sobriety behind him now, he readily admits that he was then an addict, drinking heavily and regularly using methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. “I’m not going to bullshit you,” he says. “I was a criminal.” His sister Cookie was still alive back then (she passed away in 1994) and lived in a house in the middle of the block. She introduced Rodriguez to a man named Henry whose last name, at his request, I will not tell you. Henry was in his late 40s then, and was also a heroin addict, as was his wife, Nancy, who suffered from schizophrenia as well. They lived across the street from Cookie with their children, Frankie, Teresa, Randy and Eddie. At first, Henry was just a convenient drug connection for Rodriguez, but before long the two became friends. When Rodriguez’s girlfriend kicked him out, he moved in with Cookie, and spent a lot of time across the street. Henry’s family eventually moved away from Pepper Court, but he and Rodriguez were still friends when they were both arrested in May 1985.
That June, Henry’s son Randy testified in a preliminary hearing held at the ornate Beaux Arts courthouse in downtown Riverside. No less than four statues of justice — scales in one hand, sword in another — adorn its faÃ§ade. Randy was then 14 but, according to a court-appointed psychologist, was “mildly mentally retarded” and functioned at the level of “an anxious, depressed 6-year-old.” He told the court that his father and James Rodriguez had sodomized him in his bedroom on Pepper Court, that they had done this again in another house on Kansas Street where Rodriguez had also injected drugs into Randy’s penis. Randy had previously told police that he saw Rodriguez “rape a baby,” and that he had been gang-raped by Rodriguez and several of his friends while his father sat on the couch and watched. A medical examination determined that Randy and his younger brother Eddie appeared to have been sodomized.
In September of 1986, Eddie, then 13, told a Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy that he had been repeatedly raped by Rodriguez, his father, his uncle Delbert and two other men. One Thanksgiving in the Pepper Court house, Eddie said, he watched his father, his cousin and another man take turns raping his grandmother, then in her 80s, while his mother cooked a turkey in the other room. Also at Pepper Court, he said, he was sodomized by his father while his eldest brother, Frankie, held him down and his mother watched. On another occasion, Eddie alleged, his father and Rodriguez forced him at gunpoint to have sex with his mother and with Rodriguez’s sister Cookie. He would later testify in court that his father and Rodriguez had also murdered two children.