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    A short life ruined

    The Rodriguezes' dreams came true when they adopted a baby girl. But as Kimberly grew into her teens, she drifted into drugs. Soon after she had a baby of her own, Kimberly died. Her death may be part of the rising abuse of the painkiller oxycodone.

    [Times photo: Jamie Francis]
    Vincent and Margarita Rodriguez hold their granddaughter, three-month-old Alize Linares, at the graveside of their daughter, Kimberly Rodriguez.

    By LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Vincent and Margarita Rodriguez couldn't have kids, but they never lost hope.

    Seventeen years ago, Vincent Rodriguez met a woman on Central Avenue, not far from where he was helping a friend start a business. She was a prostitute, eight months pregnant.

    "Vinny asked (her) about the baby," Mrs. Rodriguez said.

    Two months later, the couple adopted the 7-pound 15-ounce infant and named her Kimberly Hope Rodriguez. They carried her home to a bedroom they papered with pictures of unicorns, whose mythological horn gave protection from poison. The first 12 years were magical -- the principal's list, pool parties and softball games.

    But when Kimberly hit adolescence, the difficult times began. She ran away, smoked pot, got pregnant.

    Kimberly would have turned 17 on Friday, but she died April 4 after an accidental drug overdose. She left behind her parents, a fiance and a 3-month-old daughter, Alize.

    St. Petersburg detectives are investigating whether Kimberly died from taking OxyContin, a brand name for oxycodone, a super-strength prescription painkiller. Toxicology tests by the medical examiner are pending.

    Cancer patients and others with chronic pain take OxyContin for relief. But more and more people are swallowing, chewing, snorting or injecting it for a long, powerful high.

    "It is a rage across the country," said Reta Newman, director of the Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory.

    Like many parents whose children stray, Kimberly's mom and dad wonder whether they could have done better.

    "Sometimes, I feel guilty," said Mrs. Rodriguez, 47. "Where did I go wrong? I know that I didn't. I loved my daughter. I raised her well."

    Pleasant memories precede problems

    Vincent Rodriguez was unable to have children because of injuries he suffered as a combat engineer in Vietnam.

    In 1984, he was walking along Central Avenue at 25th Street and struck up a conversation with a woman. Her name was Victoria Longboat. Half black and half Italian-American, she was tall, beautiful. She had three children, and a fourth was on the way.

    Rodriguez told her that he and his wife wanted to adopt her baby.

    "This is just something for you to think about," Rodriguez said.

    Their wish came true. After the birth, they held Kimberly in the hospital nursery.

    "We are on her birth certificate as her mother and father," Mrs. Rodriguez said.

    Years passed, and they lost contact with Kimberly's biological mother.

    Kimberly's milestones are marked in scrapbooks. First Smile: April 30, 1984. First Day Home: May 8, 1984. First Laugh: July 4, 1984.

    "This cannot substitute the actual moments," her mother wrote on a page, "but it can surely help you to keep the memories alive."

    There was Kimberly in an Angels uniform, catching balls thrown to first base. There was Kimberly smiling with teammates, holding up a No Fear T-shirt at her 11th birthday party.

    The worst trouble Kimberly got into in elementary school involved rubbing an eraser on her hand until her skin burned.

    But something happened when Kimberly hit puberty. The Rodriguezes' little girl, so eager to please, began to rebel at 12, always in trouble at Meadowlawn Middle School.

    The first time Kimberly ran away, she came back the next day. "I promise I won't do it again," she told her parents.

    But she did. Each time, Kimberly stayed away longer, missing Christmas and her father's 50th birthday. Each time, her parents got better at filling out police reports.

    Kimberly wore an ankle tattoo that said "K.' She said it stood for Kim. But her mother wondered whether it was a sign for a gang, the Latin Kings. Her parents searched her bedroom, looking for clues.

    In ninth grade, she was transferred to Riviera Middle School because of fighting. Friends say she fought to stick up for people, such as Jamie Funk, who was teased because she was born without kneecaps and walked with a limp.

    "She made me feel like there was nothing wrong," said Jamie, 17. "She didn't see me as something different. She understood a lot because she'd been through a lot."

    At 13, Kimberly had an abortion. At 15, she had a miscarriage. By 16, she had run away nearly 60 times.

    "We learned to live without our daughter at home," Mrs. Rodriguez said.

    Dreams spark an attempt to straighten out her life

    In the last six months, Kimberly stopped running away because she was with Eddie Linares Jr., her 18-year-old fiance. She had dreams. She wanted a pit bull. A daughter. A Cadillac with fancy rims. "She got all that," Linares said.

    Trouble, though, was never gone long. Police caught her fiance with a pound of pot. He spent several days in juvenile rehabilitation.

    "I started playing my act straight," Linares said. He said he quit selling drugs. They rented a house in north St. Petersburg.

    Kimberly got a job taking orders at Kentucky Fried Chicken. She planned to get her high school equivalency certificate. Linares sold auto parts.

    On Jan. 5, they had Alize.

    "I felt like my bundle of joy had just come out into the world," Linares said.

    But three months later, their world fell apart.

    Linares got home from work at 9:45 p.m. April 3. Kimberly left to dry clothes at a coin laundry. When she got home, they sat on the couch, watching television, smoking pot and drinking wine coolers.

    Around 11:30 p.m., Kimberly showed him a green pill that said "OC," which is the marking on OxyContin. She asked if he wanted half. He said no. At 2 a.m., she took the other half of the 80-milligram tablet.

    "Baby, I'm sleepy," she said. "Can I lay on your lap?"

    If the pill indeed was OxyContin, when Kimberly snapped the tablet in half, she destroyed its 12-hour time-release coating. The contents were released immediately, providing a rush more potent than morphine or heroin.

    The drug had dulled her senses, induced drowsiness. Too much OxyContin causes coma or respiratory arrest.

    Linares woke at 11:15 a.m. April 4.

    "Honey, honey, honey," he said, nudging Kimberly. She did not stir.

    He splashed water on her lips and chest. She was stiff, discolored. He called 911. The paramedics pronounced her dead.

    Linares said Kimberly was not on any prescription medication. He said he does not know where she got the pill. Whoever gave it to her could be charged with her death, said St. Petersburg Detective Gary Gibson. OxyContin has a $40 to $80 street value. "Why are people walking around free and my daughter's in the ground?" Kimberly's father asked.

    Mark Baughman, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tampa, said drugs in pill form are easy to camouflage from police, making enforcement tough. Abusers and dealers are breaking into pharmacies and warehouses or stealing prescription pads to get OxyContin.

    The number of prescriptions increased from 316,000 in 1996 to 5.8-million in 2000, he said.

    "It's become a major problem in many rural areas in the United States," Baughman said.

    Now, as Kimberly's parents look back on a short life ruined, they question how they raised her and wonder if they could have done better. They tried to discipline her -- making her quit softball when she got a bad report card -- but she still grew wild.

    "Maybe I did wrong," her mother said. "Her main beef all the time was we wouldn't let her do what she wanted to do."

    St. Petersburg police Officer Les Harris, who knew Kimberly at Riviera Middle School, said parents can be naive about what their children do.

    "A kid can tell a parent, "I'm not doing anything,' and the parent has trust until they see otherwise," he said. "Then the kid winds up dead, and it's too late."

    The Rodriguezes buried their daughter three weeks ago and have temporary custody of her daughter, Alize. They have returned to the parents' routine of bathing, feeding, rocking and burping. She is their second chance.

    This time, they plan private school and more church. They envision organized activities to keep her out of mischief.

    "It's a trial and error," said Mrs. Rodriguez, who was raised Catholic in a Puerto Rican family. "It's not like we go to classes to become parents. What might work for me might not work for you."

    Vincent Rodriguez, 51, walked to the stereo on their back porch and cued up a compact disc their niece, an aspiring Latin singer, recorded. He hit track 3. It always reminds him of Kimberly.

    "Come back to me," Rodriguez sang, translating the Spanish lyrics.

    His eyes filled with tears. He set a can of Old Milwaukee on a pool table and hoisted Alize toward the sky. She smiled.

    "But I got you," he said.

    -- Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8406.

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