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
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 façade. 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.
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.
When he was very young, Rodriguez’s mother moved her children off the reservation, “thinking she was going to get us a better life in the city. But it didn’t work out like that.” She was an alcoholic and unable to support the kids. When he was 4, Rodriguez and his brother were sent to a foster home. The foster family beat them regularly with hoses, boards, “whatever they could find,” Rodriguez would later testify in court. When Rodriguez was 9, he was moved to another home. He started smoking pot at 11 and shooting heroin at 14. Burglaries and drug arrests landed him in juvenile hall and in a series of group homes. Between 1977 and 1982, Rodriguez was arrested eight times, mainly for thefts and drug charges, but once for an assault, and once in connection with a murder investigation, though he was not charged in either of those cases.
By the time he moved into his sister’s place on Pepper Court, Rodriguez was, he says, “a garbage pail,” drinking and using constantly. “I did not know what sober was.” He fit right in at Henry’s house, where the atmosphere was, to put it mildly, unrepressed. Drug use was constant and open. Rodriguez had sex with Nancy, Henry’s wife. So did Henry’s brother. They stayed friends. Some things did seem a little strange to Rodriguez, he later told the authorities: Henry shared a bed not with his wife but with his two youngest sons. Both Nancy and her daughter Theresa would tell police that they had heard Randy screaming behind the bedroom door. Nancy explained that she “never checked to see why Randy was crying, because she wanted to make sure that Randy found out just how his father really is.” But Rodriguez would maintain for years that he never witnessed anything sexual occur between adults and children.
In March of 1984, Nancy called the police on Henry for beating Randy with a belt. The county took Eddie and Randy away from their parents and moved them to Chino to live with their aunt Naoma, Henry’s stepsister. About one year later, Naoma went to the police, telling them that Randy had told her he had been sodomized by his father and by Rodriguez, and, according to a probation report, that Eddie “has nightmares that he has been raped by James and by his father, but cannot remember whether or not it actually occurred.” When police asked her to take the boys in for a medical exam, she initially refused, but a month later (and more than a year after the boys left their parents’ home), she changed her mind: “The findings were positive for evidence of sexual abuse on both Eddie and Randy, including repetitive forced sodomy on each of the boys.” On May 2, 1985, the day Riverside police arrested James Rodriguez, they set up a photo lineup for the boys. Randy failed to identify Rodriguez.
Back on the reservation: Rodriguez getting to know his grandson James
At a preliminary hearing six weeks later, Randy took the stand. This time he was able to point to Rodriguez in the courtroom, though he could not spell his own last name, or recall the name of his school, or which grade he was in. Whenever he was asked a quantitative question (such as how many times he had been assaulted, or by how many men), he answered “Four,” except once, when he claimed that either 40 or 41 of Rodriguez’s friends had been in the room when Rodriguez raped him. He called the house on Kansas Street “the haunted house,” and said it was haunted not by ghosts but by “naked people,” and that there had been blood on the walls and on the stairs for four years until the landlord washed it off. His testimony was vague, contradictory and largely incoherent, except on one point, that he had been repeatedly and forcibly sodomized by Rodriguez and by his father. No other witnesses were called.
His lawyer, says Rodriguez, “swore I couldn’t beat these cases,” and told Rodriguez that if the case went to trial, he would face hundreds of years in prison. He pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of 16 years. Henry and the others took similar deals. Contacted prior to their sentencing hearing, Henry’s stepsister Naoma said, “They should get the maximum. No child will be free from harm on the streets as long as they’re out. At least 11 children were involved, including James’ 18-month-old baby.”
About a year later, after Rodriguez had already been sent to Folsom, Eddie stepped forward. When his turn came to take the stand, prosecutor Paul Grech asked the boy about four occasions. On the first, Eddie said, his father and uncle, dressed for a fishing trip in long rubber pants, took turns sodomizing him at his grandmother’s house. On another he was smoking pot with his mother, when his father, uncle and Rodriguez came home from the golf course and commenced shooting up. His mother injected him with heroin, Eddie said, and he passed out. When he woke, his father was raping him while the others held him down. On a third occasion, the family was living in a car parked in his grandmother’s backyard, and, Eddie testified, his mother stripped off his clothes and his father raped him in the back seat. Finally, he said, the day before the county separated him and Randy from his parents, he was watching Scooby-Doo on TV when his father and Rodriguez came in, threw him against a wall, fed him “a little white pill” that paralyzed him, and then took turns sodomizing him. Eddie’s testimony was far more detailed and consistent than his brother’s. He contradicted himself only on one point: When Rodriguez’s attorney cross-examined him about the only occasion on which he alleged that Rodriguez had raped him, Eddie told the story a second time, and said that Rodriguez had only held him down.
Once again, the child was the only witness called, and once again, the case never went to trial. Rodriguez and his co-defendants all took pleas, in his case adding nine years to his sentence. “There was no beating it anyhow,” he says now with a shrug. When interviewed by a probation officer at the time, Rodriguez “declined to comment on circumstances surrounding his behavior with Eddie, expressing a desire to return to Folsom as soon as possible.”
The years passed slowly, and Rodriguez did his best to stay intoxicated, “just to sleep the time away” — on pruno (prison-brewed wine) or pot, meth or heroin, whatever found its way through the prison walls. He was at Soledad in January of 1998 and due to be paroled in six months, when he received a visit from two mental-health evaluators named Dana Putnam and Dawn Starr. Rodriguez didn’t think much of it at the time — he was pissed off and addicted, but otherwise, he says, there was nothing wrong with him. Then on May 17, 1998, a month before he expected to be paroled, guards told an excited if strung-out Rodriguez that he would be released the next morning. The morning came and went. “I said, ‘Hey, what about me?’ They said, ‘Riverside [County] has a hold on you.’ I said, ‘I’ve been incarcerated 13 years, how can they have a hold on me?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, man.’”
A lot had happened in 13 years. In the mid-1990s, a second wave of moral panic about sexual abuse overtook the country. The murders of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma in 1993 and 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1994 lodged a new sort of monster in the recesses of the American imagination: the sexual predator. Though the term rarely appeared in the press prior to the 1990s, it appeared 865 times in major American papers in 1994, and 924 in ’95. Public anxiety was proportional, and political responses immediate. The same year that Californians voted in the three-strikes initiative, the state Legislature passed a still tougher “one-strike” statute that mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for a single conviction of certain sex crimes. Concerned that sex offenders who had been sentenced prior to the new law might nonetheless go free, legislators closed the gap with another bill, passed in 1995. Henceforth anyone who had committed specified sex offenses involving at least two victims, and whom state evaluators determined to be suffering from a mental disorder (which the statute defined broadly enough to be almost synonymous with having committed a sex crime) and likely to offend again, would be classified as an SVP and subject to forced commitment to Atascadero, a 50-year-old razor-wire-fortified complex at the end of a long and almost idyllic tree-lined drive in the town of the same name, about 15 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo.
The name Atascadero comes from a Spanish word meaning mire or dead end, but the institution is usually referred to by its equally fitting official acronym: ASH. Theoretically, SVPs can be confined there for only two years, after which the state has to again make its case to a jury for another two-year commitment, but because juries are so reluctant to free anyone bearing the label sexually violent predator, SVP status usually means an indefinite term of incarceration. Of the nearly 500 men classified as SVPs since the law took effect in 1996, only three have completed the hospital’s treatment program and been released; 36 have won their freedom in the courts, and 19 have died at ASH.
When James Rodriguez arrived at the Riverside County jail to await his SVP hearing, he was frustrated, he says, but not overly concerned. “There was nothing abnormal about my way of thinking sexually, so I didn’t think they would ever commit me.” But Starr and Putnam testified in court, “and they just made me out to be a devil.” Because he had insisted on his innocence, “Right away, they put me down as being in denial,” he says. More specifically, they diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder, “poly-substance abuse,” and paraphilia, a catchall term for sexual deviancy. Starr testified that Rodriguez’s “high level of psychopathy, strong narcissism, willingness to victimize others in a variety of ways . . . and his clinical diagnoses, especially that of pedophilia, suggest that he is likely to behave in future sexually violent criminal behaviors.” Rodriguez’s jury heard the full range of Randy’s and Eddie’s decade-old allegations, baby rape and all. Rodriguez himself had never heard them in such full detail. “They were very heinous,” he says, his brow knit with something like wonder. “They even scared me.” The jury, he says, took only 20 minutes to come back with a decision. He was sent to Atascadero in December.
Elizabeth Thompson was Rodriguez’s unit psychologist from the start. “My initial impression was that he was a very angry man,” she says, but that didn’t differentiate him much from any of the other patients, most of whom are enraged at finding themselves institutionalized indefinitely after serving out their prison time. The vast majority consider Atascadero’s treatment program a sham and refuse to participate, preferring to take their chances with the courts. (The state Department of Mental Health says “less than 40 percent” are in treatment; Thompson puts the figure at about 20 percent.) Nor was there anything unusual about Rodriguez’s crimes — compared with those of other inmates at ASH, many of whom are repeat offenders, Thompson says, they were “not particularly horrific” — or his insistence on his innocence. It’s a rare convict that doesn’t claim the same. “We don’t believe them,” Thompson says. “They’re sex offenders — they lie.”
Drugs were easy to get at ASH, and Rodriguez kept using until April of 1999, when his niece refused to send cash to a drug connection outside the hospital (the usual method for buying inside). At first he was furious, he says. “It took a few days, and the light finally went on: Is this going to be my life? I’m always going to be this ugly person?” He enrolled in the hospital’s substance-abuse program, asking to be tested at random intervals to keep him honest. Hospital staff noticed immediate and dramatic improvements. “Mr. Rodriguez seems to be less disrespectful of staff than he was initially and appears to be making an effort to follow unit procedures,” wrote one doctor in the fall of 1999.
The change was short-lived. In the first six months of 2000, Rodriguez was written up repeatedly by Atascadero staff for what one doctor called “significant behavior problems.” Despite his pledge to sobriety, Rodriguez had “a severe anger problem,” Thompson wrote in June of 2000. “He consistently interferes with staff during interventions with other patients . . . He goads other patients to aggravate them during crises . . . He does not want help. He is a difficult patient.” That month, at the first of Rodriguez’s biennial recommitment hearings, Thompson explained Rodriguez’s anger to the court. “He is experiencing life sober,” she said, “and he just can’t cope.”
But something else was going on during those months, something so tentative and incomplete that Rodriguez’s psychologists did not at the time find it impressive, and certainly didn’t see it as a significant factor in explaining the precipitous changes in his behavior. He had dropped his avowals of innocence. “Nobody wanted to hear me,” Rodriguez says, so “I had to tell them what they needed to hear.”
A hospital document dated December 1999, just before his conduct began to shift for the worse, noted a “dramatic change” in Rodriguez’s “ability to accept responsibility for his sex offending.” Six months later, hospital records reported that Rodriguez “accepts partial responsibility for his past illicit sexual behavior. [He] acknowledges that his behaviors were somehow harmful to the victims, but his understanding is superficial and vague.” One of his evaluators wrote that Rodriguez “could give very little in the way of details about the events of the molestations . . . He insisted that he could not recall any specific events, although he admitted to being involved.”
Despite this early attempt at confession, Rodriguez lost his recommitment hearing in 2000. When he got back to the hospital, he says, “I thought I was through.” He relapsed once by smoking a single joint, then threw himself back into AA meetings. He enrolled in the hospital’s anger-management class and, though he still refused to take part in the sex-offender treatment program, began individual therapy. He continued to tell his doctors he was repentant, but he couldn’t quite convince them — or, apparently, himself. “He is still having difficulty accepting some of his crimes — almost a disbelief that he could do some of the things he did,” noted one doctor in early 2002. Three months later, an intern noted, he “continues to be on defense about looking deeper into his crimes.”
At the same time, Rodriguez says, he had begun sitting down with a pedophile in his unit, milking him for information and advice about what to tell the court, preparing for his next recommitment hearing, scheduled for April 2002. He was not yet a good enough student. His testimony that April was bizarre and contradictory. Rodriguez could not bring himself to admit that he was attracted to children, but at the same time promised to avoid putting himself in “a high-risk situation” such as “maybe having magazines of kids or kids’ programs on the TV or being around a school or arcade.” He confessed to having joined Henry in sodomizing Randy, but would only say that he felt “horror, straight sickness” and, initially at least, stubbornly denied having been aroused at the time, or having enjoyed himself at all. He would not describe the act, because, he said, “It’s disgusting.” The best explanation he could offer for his actions was, “I got caught up in the situation.”
Rodriguez’s performance was so flawed that prosecutor Carlos Monagas accused him of “parroting the words of the doctor.” (Monagas now points to that 2002 hearing as one of the main pieces of evidence pointing to Rodriguez’s guilt: Confessing in court that day was, Monagas says, “the worst thing that he could have done, but it was the truth. The truth has a way of slipping out in court.” In fact, though, nothing slipped out — Rodriguez had been telling that particular “truth” to his doctors for over two years.) The jury didn’t buy it either, and handed Rodriguez another two-year stint at ASH.
When he got back to the hospital, Rodriguez says, “I was defeated.” He surrendered his last bit of resistance and entered the treatment program. “It was the only way.”
Confessions, Part I
Sitting in the cramped kitchen of his mobile home, Rodriguez pulls paper after paper from a tower of files that dwarfs the small foldout table: evaluations, polygraph results, physicians’ notes, group-therapy “homework” assignments. Once in treatment at ASH, he says, he began to study the old police reports and court transcripts. He grilled the pedophile in his unit. “He helped me do the homework,” Rodriguez says. “He’d basically tell me what to say and what not to say.”
Rodriguez pulls an assignment from a file folder, an “events chain” he had to write, analyzing the events leading up to attacking Randy. All of it is true, he says — getting high with Henry, sleeping with Nancy, getting dumped by his girlfriend and losing his job — all of it, right up to the point where he walks in on Henry in bed with the boy and decides to join in.
The Atascadero staff was impressed with Rodriguez’s sudden eagerness to atone. He was outspoken in group therapy. He fasted for a week for each of his victims. He took a phallometric assessment — a “peter meter,” as patients call the procedure — in which sexual arousal is measured physically while patients are shown photos of children and of violent sex. Rodriguez showed no response at all to images of boys or of rape scenarios, but he was aroused by one photo of what he says was a particularly buxom 17-year-old girl. When doctors asked him about it, he told them, “You guys gotta go look at the picture. That girl did not look like 17.” They reviewed the photo and agreed. Rodriguez passed, convincing his doctors, as he puts it, that “Kids aren’t my bag . . . My sexual preference is chunky white women, or Mexican or Indian. That’s always been my preference.”
None of this was easy. “Emotionally,” Thompson says, “he appeared genuine.” Beginning in November of 2002, Rodriguez fell into a deep depression and began isolating himself in his room. “He was in tears all the time,” Thompson said. To his doctors, Rodriguez’s malaise was evidence of the sincerity of his repentance. “It seemed he was experiencing victim empathy and really taking responsibility. It impressed me, and the staff.”
It wasn’t remorse, Rodriguez says, but the weight of all he had to listen to in group sessions day after day — “the ugliest shit a guy has ever heard” — and, worse still, of all he had to say. “Some of the stuff I had to say was just So. Fucked. Up,” he says, his eyes widening in awe. “I was supposed to be sodomizing them. We were supposed to be gang-raping them. I mean, I was supposed to be holding them down.” After a long pause, Rodriguez shakes his head. “I’ll tell you,” he says, his voice low, “at one point I started thinking, ‘Maybe I did do this.’”
Late last year, Thompson determined that Rodriguez had progressed sufficiently that, though he had not completed even the second phase of Atascadero’s four-phase inpatient treatment plan, there was no longer any reason to keep him locked up. She drove down to San Diego County and learned that his tribe was willing to take him in and could offer him outpatient treatment in a community setting that rivaled anything the state had to offer. She wrote to the district attorney, asking him not to press for recommitment in 2004. Of the approximately 270 men she had treated at ASH, she wrote, “I have never before recommended the unconditional release of a single patient.”
On the afternoon of May 29, coincidentally Thompson’s next to last day at Atascadero (she had earlier resigned, she says, for a combination of personal reasons, burnout and disgust with the hypocrisy of the state mental-health bureaucracy), she opened an e-mail from Sylvia Graber, James Rodriguez’s public defender. The D.A. had sent investigators out to talk to Randy and Eddie, and Graber had just listened to the tapes of the interviews. Randy’s statements were ambiguous, Graber wrote, but Eddie’s were not: “He says that the molests never happened.”
“I flipped out,” Thompson says. “I just flipped my lid. I was angry that he had duped me.” She called Rodriguez into her office. “He said, ‘What else could I do?’ And he was right — what else could he do?” She listened to the tapes of Eddie’s and Randy’s interviews with the D.A. and reviewed all the old transcripts. She reconsidered everything Rodriguez had said and done since 1998. “That’s when it all made sense.”
Confessions, Part II
Graber was right — the taped interview with Randy is ambiguous, but not when it comes to James Rodriguez. An investigator for the Riverside D.A.’s Office named Mary Ortiz spoke with Randy in February at the adult group home in which he was then residing. Randy was scared from the start. When Ortiz asked if he remembered the house on Pepper Court, Randy answered in a frightened, childish voice, “It’s not a good thing to say. It’s making me more scared inside that I’m have that happen again.” He told her that his father had abused him a lot, whipping him with a belt, scarring his head with the buckle. “He hurt me,” Randy said. “He makes me do a lot of things that I can’t say.”
Ortiz asked if he was scared “because of the things James did to you.” Randy answered, “Who’s James? I don’t know James.”
Later, he said that his father “makes me do a lot of stuff on his body.” He also said that he missed his father, and forgave him, and that he badly missed Eddie, whom he had not seen for years. The only person he did not miss was his aunt Naoma. “I don’t want to talk about her,” he said. “I don’t like her.”
Ortiz, in a final attempt to wrest something conclusive from it all, asked Randy if he thought “those bad people that did bad things to you should stay in jail.” Randy answered, “I think they need to get out . . . I know my aunt did that to me and say that about my dad and my mom. And we went there, and he was in jail, and she said, ‘Okay, say it, say it, say it, keep on saying it.’” A few seconds later, Ortiz ended the interview.
She had interviewed Eddie just days before. He wasn’t expecting it. His parole officer called him up to San Bernardino for a meeting (Eddie has been in and out of prison for years, most recently for receiving stolen cars), and he found Ortiz and another investigator waiting for him. When Ortiz first asked him about the abuse allegations, he answered bluntly, his voice clipped with anger, “They were false.” He told Ortiz that his aunt had “kind of brainwashed” him and Randy, that she and the district attorney coerced them into testifying, that prosecutors threatened to separate him and Randy unless they testified, and subjected them to lengthy interviews, not letting them leave to use the toilet until they said what the D.A. wanted them to say. “If I was strong like I am now when I was a kid,” he said, “then the truth would’ve come out that [Rodriguez] didn’t do nothing and my dad didn’t do nothing and it was all coerced by my aunt and the D.A.”
Though at the time of the interview he had been clean for nine months, Eddie blamed the Riverside D.A.’s Office for his years of addiction to speed, and for the prison time he had done in pursuit of it. “It rides on me every day, knowing that I put people in prison that didn’t need to be put in prison. And I have difficulties living with it,” he said. He would sue the county, he said, if he only knew where to start.
High school grad: Rodriguez receiving his GED at
Atascadero State Hospital in April 2003
Henry’s half-acre lot in Perris is mainly dirt, littered with castoff golf clubs and fishing rods, tires, lawn furniture in various states of decay, a dead Ford in a corner, a smog-stained mobile home, and two small, white stucco buildings. Henry has been fixing up the front one, trying to make a home for his son. There’s no furniture, so Eddie sits on the carpet smoking Marlboros, his back against the wall. Henry, now in his 70s, bone thin and leathery, sits on a folding chair beside him, his long legs crossed, a pink golf shirt buttoned up to his throat.
For Eddie, the beginning of the end came the day in March of 1984 when his mom called the cops on his dad for beating Randy (“It was just a spanking,” Eddie says), when he and his brother were first separated from their parents and fell into the hands of the state. “It was a legal kidnapping,” he says. “My dad came and got me from school. We walked down the alleyway, and the cops pulled up on my dad, and they handcuffed him and threw me in the back seat.”
After a few weeks in a shelter home, the boys moved in with their aunt Naoma. The visits to the D.A.’s Office soon began, Eddie remembers. “We’d go down there every day except Saturday and Sunday, and I’d tell them, ‘No, this didn’t happen.’” Randy quickly caved, but Eddie fought as long as he could, he says. “When we were home, [Naoma] would drill it in more. She never let it rest. And after a while, I started believing it.” The D.A. threatened to separate him and his brother, he says, and he was put on drugs — Ritalin, lithium, Haldol, Thorazine. He stopped fighting. When he finally testified in late 1987, Eddie says, “I was like a tape recorder, that’s how much they drilled it into me. I knew it line for line, verse for verse.”
Not a word of it, he says, was true: Neither he nor Randy was abused by anyone, sexually or otherwise — not by his father, not by his uncle, not by James Rodriguez. The medical exam was wrong, he claims. “If there was scarring, it’s because they stuck a camera where they shouldn’t be sticking a camera.”
Dr. Astrid Heppenstall Heger, the executive director of the Violence Intervention Program at County-USC and a longtime expert in child sexual abuse, believes the exam would not likely have held up had the case gone to trial. Because the boys were examined more than a year after the alleged abuse took place, long after any tearing or abrasion would have healed and disappeared, says Heger, who testified in the McMartin case, “the chances of there being any medical findings that would withstand scientific scrutiny are very remote.”
As to his aunt’s motivations, Eddie says, “I have no clue,” except, he speculates, that “she was a money-hungry woman” and was willing to see her brothers imprisoned to get the government assistance that guardianship of the two boys entailed. Henry claims total ignorance of the source of his stepsister’s enmity. “I never did nothing to her,” he says. “She wanted that check.” Naoma has long since moved out of California, and did not respond to requests for an interview.
More than he blames his aunt, though, Eddie blames the Riverside D.A. After they turned off the tape recorder during the February interview, he says, the D.A.’s investigators told him that unless he testified that Rodriguez was guilty, they would ask his San Bernardino parole officer to declare him in violation if he left the county to stay with his father. He refused, and sure enough, he says, his P.O. told him he could not return to Perris. (Neither Carlos Monagas nor a spokesperson for the Riverside District Attorney’s Office responded to repeated calls for comment on this allegation.) But more than that, he says, “Every day I have to look at the fact that my dad did time, James did time, my uncle died with this on his jacket. I have to live with that, and it has fucked with me mentally.”
Henry shakes his head. “We don’t blame you.”
Eddie stares at the carpet and smokes. “I blame myself.”
“We got a good relationship now,” Henry says. Things are always rocky between him and Nancy, who flits about the compound like a ghost, but he speaks with all four of his children, and Randy has been coming out for weekends. “We just want to be a family.” Henry doesn’t know if he can afford to seek to get his conviction expunged, but “It’d be nice to be cleared of it, because I know in my heart and in my mind that I never did do nothing to my kids. That would be a blessing, to go to my grave knowing that things was finally right in life.”
Asked if he has seen Rodriguez since his release from Atascadero, Eddie says Rodriguez came out to Perris once on a Saturday. “I couldn’t even fucking look at him,” he says, pulling off his glasses and wiping away tears with a tattooed wrist, “because the fact is, I feel bad. I feel real bad.”
Carlos Monagas is not budging. Monagas is in his mid-30s but looks younger. He came to the Rodriguez case in 2002, when Rodriguez was up for his last recommitment hearing. Sitting behind a wide, U-shaped desk in his office across the street from the Riverside courthouse in which Eddie and Randy testified almost 20 years ago, Monagas says he does not believe Eddie’s recantation. “I would make an analogy to a domestic-violence case,” he says, “where the police get a 911 call [and they] rush to the scene and there’s the defendant beating on the wife, and you fast-forward to trial a year later and what is she saying? ‘I made that up. I fell down the stairs.’”
As for Rodriguez, he says, “It’s easy 18 years later to claim that you didn’t do things when nobody is likely to contradict you, but in the 1980s, when everything was on the line and when it counted most, instead of demanding his right to a jury trial and confronting the evidence, Mr. Rodriguez instead pled guilty and admitted what he had done. He pled guilty twice, in two separate cases. Not only him, but all his co-defendants pled guilty and admitted responsibility.”
When he first heard the tape of Eddie’s disavowals, Monagas says, he went back to the original transcripts and reviewed the evidence against Rodriguez. He spoke with one of the three original prosecutors and was convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that James Rodriguez “molested those boys. He’s a child molester.”
His decision not to petition for Rodriguez’s recommitment to Atascadero, Monagas says, had nothing to do with Eddie’s recantation. “There just wasn’t sufficient evidence to proceed to trial”: Four of the five doctors who evaluated Rodriguez were ready to testify that he was not likely to offend again and hence no longer fit the criteria to be classified a sexually violent predator. “I pray every day,” Monagas says, “that they’re correct.”
If anything, James Rodriguez says, “I’m angry at the system for not investigating this further. If I had the money, I probably would’ve been able to beat this. But I never had money.” He still nurses some rage at David Gunn, who originally prosecuted the case against him, “just because he was so arrogant. He didn’t want to hear nothing.” Gunn has long since left the D.A.’s Office to work as a private defense attorney. When Rodriguez was in court in Riverside for his SVP hearings, he says, “Some days he’d stand right next to me and come and talk to his client. The only thing that would come to my mind was Cape Fear,” he laughs. “I used to think, ‘Man, if I wasn’t chained up. I’d just love to jump on him.’ But what was that going to solve?”
Contacted in his office by phone, Gunn says he has a “pretty hazy” recollection of the case against Henry, but “the name Rodriguez doesn’t ring a bell.” Gunn did not respond to several other requests to further discuss the case. Neither of the two other main prosecutors in the case — Paul Gretch, also now a private defense attorney, and Vilia Sherman, now a judge on the Riverside bench — was willing to comment for this story.
On June 17, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department posted a photo of James Rodriguez on the “High Risk Sex Offender” page of its Web site. Residents on the reservation were sufficiently alarmed that the tribal council called Rodriguez in to account for himself. “It’s kind of an iffy situation,” Rodriguez says. He is talking to lawyers, hoping to soon begin the legal battle to clear his record, and sue the county, and perhaps the state. In the meantime, he has found a job — not a good one, but a job, building pallets for $8 an hour. And he has become romantically involved with Elizabeth Thompson, his former psychologist. “I always knew I had feelings for her, but I didn’t think it was appropriate given the situation I was in,” he says. After he got out, though, “It just blossomed.”
Their relationship has become something of a scandal up at Atascadero, Thompson says. Few of her former colleagues will speak to her, and she will likely lose her license to practice psychology, but, she says, “I had to follow my heart.”
“It’s a love story,” she laughs. “Now you have a good ending.”
Also on June 17, Henry learned that Randy would be allowed to leave the group home and, after fully 20 years apart, live with him and Nancy. He has already moved in.
The day after I saw Henry and Eddie in Perris, Eddie had a court date in San Bernardino. He never made it. Sheriff’s deputies arrived that day and arrested him at his father’s house. When Henry and I last spoke, he had not heard from Eddie since.