James Rodriguez was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Henry got 30 years. Henry’s brother Delbert, who died of pneumonia this past March, got 10 years, and Henry’s wife, Nancy, got eight. A neighbor named Richard Harrison was also sent away. Though Rodriguez would maintain for years that he was innocent, he, like all of the other defendants, took a deal, and pleaded guilty in court. At a sentencing hearing, prosecutor David Gunn informed the judge that he found it “difficult to discuss in verbal terms my disgust and loathing for the defendants involved in this case.”
If those crimes seem almost unbelievably horrible today, they may have seemed slightly less astounding in the mid-1980s. A strange virus had infected the nation, a societal hysteria of the variety that sociologists label “moral panic.” In 1984, the year Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies began asking Randy and Eddie what had happened on Pepper Court, the owners of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach and four of the teachers in their employ were arrested on allegations involving the molestation of over 100 children in hot-air balloons and in secret tunnels beneath the school, as well as the ritual murder of infants, the killing of a sea turtle and the sodomy of a dog. Their trial would become the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, ending after six years without a single conviction. In 1985, a 23-year-old New Jersey day-care worker named Margaret Kelly Michaels was accused of having forced the children in her care to eat feces, drink urine, and lick peanut butter from one another’s genitals and of having sodomized them with cutlery, light bulbs and Lego blocks. At trial, one child testified that Michaels had turned him into a mouse. She was sentenced to a term of 47 years. Her conviction was reversed only after she had served several years in prison. Similarly bizarre and horrific cases sprang up that year in Boston, in Jordan, Minnesota, and in Bakersfield, where a man named John Stoll — accused of leading a child sex and pornography ring for which 60 people were ultimately charged — was convicted of 17 counts of child molestation. He was not released until this May, after several of his alleged victims, now grown, came forward to testify that they had fabricated their tales of abuse.
It’s a small world: Henry, who was released in August of 2000 and now lives in Perris, just southeast of Riverside, knew John Stoll in prison. One of Stoll’s co-defendants was in the same group-therapy unit as James Rodriguez at Atascadero State Hospital, to which they had both been committed as sexually violent predators (SVPs) under a 1995 law that allows the state to keep sex offenders confined even after they complete their prison terms.
Sitting on the floor of his father’s house, Eddie, now 31, shakes his head. His hair is cropped short and thinning in the front. He wears paint-spattered glasses, and his forearms are tattooed with grinning skulls. “The bad part about it is I don’t remember James at all. I remember seeing him across the street at Cookie’s house and that’s it,” Eddie says. “The truth is my dad didn’t do nothing. James didn’t do nothing. My uncle didn’t do nothing. Nobody did anything.”
A Better Life
When, in February of this year, Eddie first revealed to investigators from the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office that everything he and his brother had told them back in the ’80s had been false, the D.A. was justifiably surprised — not only because Eddie was contradicting his own earlier testimony but because James Rodriguez, after 15 years of protesting his innocence, had copped to the crimes in 1999, and had been earnestly copping to them ever since. In 2002, he had entered Atascadero’s treatment program for sex offenders. He appeared so genuinely repentant and had made such efforts to reform himself that his doctors became convinced he no longer posed sufficient danger to society to justify his continuing confinement. Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, Rodriguez’s treating psychologist at Atascadero, wrote to the hospital administration in late 2003 that Rodriguez “has presented a unique case in my five years of working on Unit 23 . . . He has made great strides in treatment and . . . does not require the confines of the state hospital.” Thompson petitioned the Riverside D.A. for Rodriguez’s release. The D.A. sought out Eddie and Randy for questioning, and Eddie dropped his bomb.
Carlos Monagas, the deputy district attorney who had been fighting to keep Rodriguez at Atascadero, still believes Rodriguez is guilty. Nonetheless, on April 20, the state of California opened the door that it had closed on Rodriguez 19 years before. He stopped to visit his son (who is now 23 and was 4 when Rodriguez saw him last) before moving into his new home, a small, white-and-green mobile home parked on tribal land. He lives on a hillside not far from his uncle’s place, just up the road from a cluster of rusting cars. Despite the cars and the abandoned trucks and rotting trailers down the way, it’s beautiful here. The air is breezy and clear and, at least in the shade of the oak trees, cool enough.