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Father recounts in courtroom the life of the son he has lost

Rodney Rodriguez spent two hours on the stand Friday describing the struggles that preceded his son's slaying.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000


TAMPA -- For two hours Friday, Rodney Rodriguez described for six jurors the ups and downs of his relationship with his 17-year-old son.

The heart-wrenching details spanned from the day Michael was born to the last time he saw him before a Domino's Pizza deliveryman shot and killed him in South Tampa.

The testimony came during the fifth day of a wrongful death suit brought by Rodriguez and his wife against the deliveryman, the Domino's Pizza store he worked for and the chain's corporate parent.

The Rodriguezes claim that the driver, Clifford Jordan, overreacted in 1996, when he went for his gun as Michael Rodriguez and a friend approached him. Domino's has argued that Michael Rodriguez was trying to rob or hurt Jordan and that he acted in self-defense.

Neither side has established with much certainty what happened in the two to three seconds after Michael Rodriguez reached the driver's side window. The two eyewitnesses didn't hear any words exchanged and couldn't say for sure exactly when the gun appeared. Rodriguez's attorney, Paul Catania, put him on the stand to show the jury the extent of the family's suffering and to demonstrate that Rodriguez's son, while troubled, was not a thug.

The jurors, riveted by Rodriguez's testimony, barely moved except for an occasional dab at their eyes. The only other sound in the courtroom was the low hum of the air-conditioner.

Rodriguez, a Spanish professor, described his son as a passionate child, one who enjoyed new challenges and places. Michael thrived when the family moved to Michigan when he was in the fourth grade and when they spent a year in Guatemala.

The father, self-described as bookish and reserved, cherished his son's versatility, his sports prowess, they way he easily made friends.

"I loved my son, loved him so so much," he said. "The problems probably made me love him more."

He told the jurors about his son's love of acting, skateboarding and baseball. How Michael cajoled his family into going to California to visit the factory where some of the best skateboards were made. And how the two of them would drive to Chicago or Detroit from their home in Kalamazoo, Mich., to watch baseball games and stay at the same hotels as the players.

Then one day his son put the baseball cards away, never to bring them out again. At about 15 years old, the passion waned. His normally solid grades began to drop.

A series of photos shown to the jury charted the changes, from a youngster constantly flashing his gleaming teeth, to baseball hats worn backward and the brooding cool of teenage angst.

Curfews were constantly missed. The yelling matches increased both in frequency and intensity. Michael shoved his father a few times. They tried counseling. Rodriguez even moved into a motel for a week to give his son some space.

"We thought it was beyond normal teenage rebellion," Rodriguez said. "I may have pushed too much. I don't want to put all the blame on him . . . We were desperate and tried a lot of crazy things."

A move to New York City, where Rodriguez got a job at Manhattan College, helped for a while, Rodriguez said. Michael, however, violated the three strikes policy at the Catholic school he was attending by smoking on campus and fighting.

That summer, in 1995, after Michael failed most of his classes at a public magnet school in the Bronx his parents had pulled strings to get him into, his parents decided he might do better with his younger, "cooler" uncle in Tampa.

Michael always seemed like his old self on the many trips the family made to Florida. Both parents grew up in Tampa; most of their vast families still lived in the city.

Maybe the problem is me, Rodriguez said he thought at the time. Why not give Michael some freedom by setting him up at his uncle's? It was a trying time, but they felt good about the decision, he said.

A month after Michael moved to Tampa, Rodriguez brought him the family's old car. Father and son spent the weekend together, going out for dinner and buying some Tommy Hilfiger shirts and a pair of shoes. Rodriguez felt some of the walls coming down, like he was reconnecting with his son, who had turned to rap music in the past few years, but still listened to the soundtrack of West Side Story.

Michael drove his father to the airport. They parted after a "great embrace." It was the last time Rodriguez saw his son.

The funeral took place at the same Tampa church where the Rodriguezes married. His attorney asked whether he had attended church since that day. Rodriguez did not want to answer. Eventually he said no, he hadn't.

"I only prayed for my son, prayed that he'd be okay," he said, as tears started to flow. "That prayer wasn't answered."

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