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Civil trial resumes case of slaying by pizza deliverer

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


TAMPA -- For three years, Geraldine Rodriguez has thought about the night a pizza delivery driver shot and killed her 17-year-old son.

To her, authorities were too quick to paint Michael Rodriguez as a thug, and the pizza company did little to uphold its own policies banning drivers from carrying weapons. A dose of racial prejudice helped seal her son's fate, she said.

Rodriguez hopes a civil trial against the delivery man, the Domino's Pizza store that employed him and the chain's corporate parent will help "put things right." The trial began Monday with jury selection.

"It's time the true facts came out," Rodriguez said. "We cannot let this type of gun violence go unchecked."

The lawsuit claims Domino's failed to do a routine background check to see whether the driver owned a gun and to enforce its policy banning drivers from carrying guns.

Domino's officials did not want to comment on the lawsuit. The former driver, Clifford Jordan, could not be reached for comment.

Authorities said Michael Rodriguez and Carlos Pierce, then 22, followed Jordan to a south Tampa neighborhood on Dec. 19, 1996, and waited on a dimly lit street as he made a delivery.

Rodriguez went up to the driver's side window either to rob Jordan or to ask for information, according to varying reports. Within in a few seconds, Jordan shot Rodriguez in the chest. Jordan then got out of the car and fired at Pierce, who was running away. Rodriguez died at the scene. Pierce recovered from a gunshot to the leg.

Jordan, 26 at the time, gave several conflicting statements about what happened including saying he had used the robber's own gun to shoot him. Actually, it was a handgun Jordan bought at a pawn shop and kept in his car; Rodriguez did not have a gun.

Authorities cleared Jordan, saying he acted in self-defense. Domino's had a written policy forbidding drivers from carrying weapons while on duty, but it did not outline possible punishment. Jordan was given a written reprimand, ordered to attend counseling and suspended with pay until he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. He could have kept his job, but he never returned to work for Domino's. In July of 1997, he was delivering for Pizza Hut.

Pierce was charged with attempted robbery and second-degree murder. Under Florida law, a person can be charged with murder if a death occurs while he is committing a forcible felony, in this case, attempted robbery. At trial, a jury acquitted Pierce of the charges.

"The police went after the wrong guys," Mrs. Rodriguez said. "And Domino's washes its hands of the killing saying they cannot control the actions of all their drivers, but they do seem to manage to keep tight control over the quality of their pizzas."

Rodriguez said her son would not rob a pizza delivery man given that he had his own part-time job. He had two $95 paychecks waiting for him at work the next day, and his father planned to give him a $5,000 mutual fund for his 18th birthday a few days after the shooting.

She said it was likely her son was trying to ask Jordan for information about a man who he thought had stolen a missing ring.

"The driver panicked when he saw a Latino boy approach the car," she said. Money is not the main reason for suing, she said. Raising awareness and promoting gun control top her list. She vowed to give a large portion of any award to gun control groups in Florida and the family's native New York.

The trial is expected to last most of the week.

gs,2 -- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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