tampabay.com

Living a time of tears

By Saundra Amrhein
Published June 22, 2007


A neighbor banged on the door of Emma Rodriguez's trailer just after sunrise.

The body of a man lay in the road, the neighbor said, and it looked like Emma's boy, Enrique.

As Emma's other children rushed outside, Emma refused to leave.

"It's not my son! It cannot be him, " she cried.

She couldn't bear to walk out there, to see if another of her children was dead.

There on her shelf, above the couch, sat a votive candle and the photo of a son killed in a work accident more than two years ago. Then last month, her oldest son died from an illness, his ashes not yet even buried.

Now people were filling her house, trying to tell her that the man in the road was Enrique - her 20-year-old son, who got out of prison a few weeks before, in time to say goodbye to his dying brother. Enrique, who promised his mother he would take care of her now, who was starting a job and turning his life around.

Someone had run him down and kept going.

In small, close-knit Wimauma, a town full of generations of farm workers and construction laborers, word spread fast. Plastic bottles went up on counters at bodegas along State Road 674. Within days, the community raised $2, 500 for the funeral.

But there's another side of this insular outpost, one that doesn't easily surrender its secrets, distrusts the law and is loath to get involved.

Nearly two weeks after Enrique Grimaldo's death, investigators have no suspects, no leads, no witnesses.

Emma, who has called Wimauma home for almost 20 years, still dreads leaving the house, but now for a different reason. Enrique was struck on a local road. Whoever did this could live close by. The thought of bumping into his killer makes Emma shudder.

"I don't want to leave, to see people out there, " she said. "I feel like someone ripped my heart out."

- - -

Emma, 57, has long roots here following a lifetime of work and tragedy.

She moved to South Florida from her native Texas in the late 1960s, shortly after her mother was murdered.

Emma labored in the orange groves with other Mexican-Americans. In the off-season she went to Georgia to harvest apples, taking her two oldest sons with her.

Once she settled in Wimauma, Emma drove a bus for a local mission that served farm workers. But arthritic knees and high blood pressure took their toll as she aged. Emma now collects disability.

Her oldest son, David, helped care for her in the trailer they shared with four of her six children off Ruth Morris Road. When her son, Andy, died more than two years ago from chemical exposure in a work accident in Texas, it was David who drove the family there for the funeral.

He was like a father figure to his siblings, including Enrique, family members said.

When David, 41, fell ill earlier this year with a brain infection, he worried about his mother.

"I'm in charge at home, and if it's not me, it's got to be Enrique, " David told family friend Laura Cruz from the Good Samaritan Mission.

But Enrique was in prison for violating probation the year before.

In May, Enrique finished his sentence and was released. Less than two weeks later, Enrique, his mother and his siblings were at David's side when he died.

Enrique and his mom had always been close, like friends. He had a tattoo of her name on his neck. He told her not to worry.

"I'm going to take care of you, " she recalled him saying.

Enrique and his girlfriend moved into David's room with their 3-year-old daughter. Enrique was excited about getting his life on track and starting back at the construction company with his brother, Rudy.

Rudy, 41, said the boss liked Enrique and thought he was a hard worker.

Rudy moved from Wimauma to Apollo Beach years ago and tried to pull his younger brother away from the influence of the town's gangs.

The two loved to fish, and Rudy would take him to the Alafia River and nearby lakes. The last time they spoke, they made plans for another fishing trip. Enrique, jovial with lots of friends, seemed to be more serious after prison, sensing the weight of his responsibility for his mom, his family said.

"He told me, 'I know I messed up, but I hope this got me straightened out, ' " Rudy said.

- - -

On June 8, the night before Enrique died, the family held a birthday cookout for his nephew at Emma's home.

After everyone left, Enrique did as his mom asked, making sure his 18-year-old brother was inside for the night, she said.

The family went to bed, but Enrique slipped off. He walked to a friend's house to hang out and drink beers for several more hours, family members said.

He was walking home, heading north on West Lake Drive, around 5:30 a.m. when he was killed, said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

The Sheriff's Office has few details, no witnesses and is asking for the public's help in solving the case, Detective Eugene Van Der Wall said.

"We literally have no vehicle description, " Van Der Wall said.

The family is offering a $1, 000 reward for information leading to an arrest, Emma said.

A mild-mannered, humble person, she is tormented by a mixture of sadness and anger.

How could the driver not have seen Enrique? she asked. A street light hangs right above the spot where Enrique was struck. How could they not stop to help?

The questions weigh heavily on her, even as they cover the deeper pain of losing another child.

"You always think that parents go first. You never expect this, " she said. "I still can't deal with the first one dying, even though it was almost three years ago."

She sits on her couch and quietly greets visitors offering condolences.

Before she can fully face her grief, she wants those answers.

"Someone knows what happened, " Emma said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.