May 1st, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Ernesto was met at the gates of the Fox Lake Correctional Institution by a man named Zamudio, a Mexican American, who drove the paroled prisoner almost half way to Milwaukee. Zamudio had a trailer office near a Jolly Green Giant pea cannery and that, Zamudio explained was as far as he personally could drive Ernesto. A friend of his, an Anglo, would take Rodriguez the rest of the way to Milwaukee.
Already Ernesto was entangled in his own commitments to females, one named Lois Dotson from Waukegan Illinois, and the other lady, named Marla, from Milwaukee. Both had visited him in prison. In return for his promises to “give her a good lay” the first day of freedom, Lois was waiting for him in Illinois. Marla, a pretty, slender blond hadn’t been promised the same indelicate reward, but it was certainly implied. Ernesto had met her when she and others were visiting Hispanics at Fox Lake. Marla had approached him, betting she said, that he was a Pisces. It wasn’t a bad ploy for small blondes who hungered for broad, muscular Latin Lovers. In one of her letter she, too, said she’d look forward to seeing Ernesto when he was released. Born February 26th and imprisoned for six years, Rodriguez was about as passionate a Pisces as she was likely to meet.
When he was dropped off at the United Way agency office where Marla worked he sought directions and bounced up the stairs to the second floor. Marla screamed when she saw him and was quickly in his arms. It being after eleven and almost time for luncheon, she told her boss she was taking the afternoon off and then proceeded to call a friend of hers, a Mrs. Mendoza, a very popular woman, well known to many of the Hispanics on the Milwaukee’s South side. Mrs. Mendoza said she’d pick them up in twenty minutes and suggested they have luncheon at the Acapulco, one of Milwaukee’s finest Mexican restaurants.
Marla sat in the back seat of Mrs. Mendoza’s Black Ford Ltd. And did a little courting to the tune of Spanish music Mrs. Mendoza played on the eight track tape.
When they reached the Acapulco, Rodriguez ordered a “steak ranchero” and while he was waiting for it he remembers telling the two ladies how wonderful, how extraordinarily great, it felt to be free. As he tried to explain it he saw tears begin to roll down Mrs. Mendoza’s cheeks. It was then that he learned Mrs. Mendoza’s son was in jail, charged with the shooting of two off-duty Milwaukee policemen (a crime for which he was later found not guilty.)
After the first good meal he’d had in six years, Marla drove Ernesto in her car to Mitchell Street where he cashed his prison check and bought some new clothing. He couldn’t stand being in the prison issue stuff a minute longer. It felt as though it crawled up his skin when he moved.
Because he had been paroled to the state of Michigan, Ernesto called his parole officer in Lansing to announce that he’d been freed and that he’d be in Lansing as soon as a plane could get him there. He made no mention of Marla.
When they reached the terminal at Mitchell Field they were early so Ernesto and Marla stopped off in the cocktail lounge. Marla was pretty to begin with, but the longer they stayed in the saloon the prettier she became.
“What are we doing here?” Ernesto finally asked, covering her tiny hand with his big brown one. “Why don’t we find a motel and spent the night together?”
“I was wondering how long it would take you to come to your senses,” Marla answered, smiling demurely. She had looked forward to falling in love with Ernesto for a couple of days.
The two bought a fifth of J&B scotch, checked into the Howard Johnson Motel on Layton Avenue and, after stocking up on ice, made a bee line for the bed. For the next several hours Ernesto tried his level best to make up for the past six year drought.
Early the next morning Ernesto found himself sitting on the side of the bed, unable to sleep, watching the snow on the muted TV set. Marla was sleeping peacefully on her side, facing him, one knee slightly cocked. Her hands were under the pillow and her face in repose struck Ernesto as being very appealing indeed.
Ernesto, for his part, was in culture shock. Less than twenty-four hours earlier he’d been in prison, tossing around an iron bed. The contrast between then and the present was too great to permit sleep to come easily to him.
They checked out of the motel the next morning but when they reached the terminal building they discovered that flight operations had been suspended. It was a work day for her, so Marla dropped Ernesto off and left him to wander about the terminal until the fog dissipated. It wasn’t until almost two o’clock in the afternoon that Ernesto’s plane took off. All the waiting around the airport increased his fear of flying dramatically. It was his first flight and he was scared stiff, almost as much so as he had been on that frightening ferry boat trip on Lake Michigan years earlier.
Rodriguez was delighted to survive the flight. He made the time pass faster during the short flight from Milwaukee to Lansing by thinking how much fun it would be to surprise his mother when he knocked on the door of her house on Westmoreland Avenue. Unfortunately, it was he who was surprised because Jesusa wasn’t home. Seeing her again was a pleasure he’d have to postpone.
Disappointed, Ernesto hailed a taxi and went to Sussex Street where Stella Almazan, the mother of his son, lived. He spent several hours visiting her and little Tommy, who was now six years old. After the thoughtful visit, that gesture to conversation, he headed for Diane Highfill’s, where he intended to stay. Diane, the reader will recall, was the woman he suspected of betraying him, six years earlier.
Several days later, he saw fit to drop off a pair of pants and several shirts at his mother’s house, in case his parole officer came snooping.
He had not been living with Diane long before he confronted her. Diane was shocked that Ernesto thought she was capable of such a low down trick, But he agreed not to bring it up again, whatever the truth really was.
Before leaving Fox Lake Ernesto had contacted Francisco Rodriguez in Madison to ask for his help in locating a job in Lansing. Francisco sent a letter to a man named Gilberto Martinez, a man Ernesto described as a “self appointed president” of an outfit known as the Quinto Sol Spanish Center.
Quinto Sol had been founded by Hispanics activists at Michigan State University who believed there was a need for an agency to help other Hispanics who had been left out of the system. For this purpose they raised twenty-seven thousand dollars, which sum they turned over to Martinez.
Martinez, being unemployed himself, was, of course, delighted. He banked the money, rented a building on Grand River Avenue, and that was the last time the contributors were able to get a full accounting of their money.
When the students, the ones who had raised the money, began asking questions about its use, Martinez complained that they were causing him problems and working against the center. One by one, they were eased out of Quinto Sol’s activities.
The first floor was equipped with radio and broadcasting equipment ostensibly there for teaching young Hispanics how to become disc jockeys and radio announcers. Martinez used the equipment to produce nineteen second political and commercial announcements which he sold to politicians and local business for seventy dollars apiece. The money realized went into his own pocket.
On the second floor there was a large typing space and room for two offices, One for Rogelio Garza, the nominal president, and the other for a Mary Halverson who ran the Minority Alcohol Project. Like others at the center, she had troubles with Martinez. Rumor had it that, Martinez had hired her because she was thought to have influence with David Hollister who was a county board supervisor. Hollister had the support of the Hispanic community and they helped him raise campaign funds.
It was thought that Hollister supported Mary Alice in her wish to head a minority alcohol project for which purpose five thousand dollars had been raised. That five thousand, according to Ernesto, was raised from drug dealers in the area with whom Martinez was always in close contact. The money became known as the “slush fund”. Once the alcohol project got underway, people at the center believed county monies would become available for its continued operation.
Rodriguez certainly had enough “street smarts to know who was dealing in heroin and who wasn’t. He was quite certain that a number of Martinez’ acquaintances were mixed up in drug trafficking. Several of them had been convicted and sent to prison. A totally amoral person, Martinez was, in Ernesto’s opinion, a cross between a rat and a chinche (bed bug), a little thin-faced man with a mean streak and a sharp bite. He was a man who attempted to extort salary kickbacks whenever he thought he could get away with it.
Mary Alice Halverson was fired from her job as director of the Minority Alcohol Project, but not until she had obtained a fifty-six thousand dollar grant from the county. Rogelio Garza, by now a good friend of Ernesto’s, recommended to the board of directors that Rodriguez be her replacement. He had always thought a Hispanic was better than an Anglo for that job. Martinez was in Texas at the time of Ernesto’s promotion or it’s doubtful Rodriguez would have been given the position.
Ernesto’s first responsibilities were to write a procedure manual for the alcohol project and to get a permanent operating license from the state, something essential for continued county support. He was in clover and doing the job well.
As he remembers it, the clover was knee deep. He had money in the bank, a beautiful black 1969 Cadillac, several expensive suits with matching accessories, and as many girlfriends as he could possibly handle, among them a newspaper reporter and a Marylin Rewitzer whom Ernesto loves to this day–a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration in Ann Arbor. He would visit with the pretty Marla on occasional weekends—six years in prison was a long time.
As a member of the Community and Police Relations Committee, he was in danger of becoming respectable. He was even allowed to visits the prisoners at Jackson, his old alma mater.
It was about this time that Ernesto began dating a women named Rosie DeLaPaz, the divorced wife of Johnnie DeLaPaz. Rosie was also the sister of a man named Arturo Gonzales, a henchman of Gilberto Martinez at Quinto Sol. Gonzales didn’t like Rodriguez because he suspected with rather excellent reason that Ernesto was having sex with his divorced sister Rosie.
One day Arturo approached Ernesto at Quinto Sol and told him that Martinez wanted Rodriguez to come to his office. Arturo accompanied Ernesto and when the three seated in Martinez’ office Martinez asked why it was that he, Martinez, had “bad vibes’ when was near him.
Ernesto, never a particularly tactful person, explained the phenomenon that bothered Martinez. “I know about the missing twenty-seven thousand dollars,” Rodriguez said, trying to catch Martinez darting eyes, “and how you got rid of the students. Then you wanted me to kick back part of each of my paycheck because you say if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have this job. I’m in the job because I qualify. You have other employee giving you their mileage and travel expensive. Recently we raised sixteen hundred dollars and you dipped into that and took over five hundred dollars of it to pay your rent and personal bills, even though you getting school loans and AFDC. You tell a lot of lies to people you work with.”
“You’re not for the Chicano cause. You’re for Martinez taking as much money as possible, and you’ll take the whole center with you when you go. We’ll all suffer and the people we serve will suffer too. Maybe you’d like to kick my ass of here because I’m being honest with you about my feelings but, believe me, when I go you’ll follow. I’ll tear this center down, brick by brick, and you with it. If I can’t get you politically, I will take it to the streets.”
Martinez responded to Ernesto’s explanation by saying that a man who never tries to do anything with his life never makes mistakes and that certainly he, Martinez, had made many. It would have been out of character for Ernesto not to point out to Martinez that honest mistakes were one thing, and outright stealing another. It would have also been out of character for Martinez not to begin planning for Ernesto’s early removal.
Carolyn Kigoma, an Indian case worker, quit the alcohol project. Next his secretary, Maria Rendon, was replaced by Jeannie Klotz, a good friend of Martinez. It was Martinez’ plan to surround Rodriguez with as many Martinez supporters as possible.
Despite all the maneuvering, Ernesto accomplished several things. A proposal he wrote for visiting Hispanic prisoners later received a grant of one hundred and twenty-two thousand dollars. Ernesto rescued a man from a fifteen year narcotic sentence and became his parole officer. And he assisted others in raising funds to provide food and shelter for the needy Hispanics, as well as helping illegal aliens in their court appearances.
Because of several court appearances he made in behalf of Quinto Sol clients, many of the uneducated illiterates thought Rodriguez was a lawyer, a great one. People would come to the center and ask to speak to “The Lawyer”. That, too, irritated Martinez, who wanted to be the most revered person on the premises.
It was at this time that Ernesto traded in his 1969 Black Cadillac for a much newer model, this one burgundy colored with white leather seats. It was a snazzy, showy car that revealed Ernesto’s eye for beauty. But the car sent Martinez into a rage.
“Don’t ever park that god dam thing in front of our place,” he ordered. “Park it down the street somewhere. How the hell do you expect us to raise funds if you go driving around in that?”
Besides having had trouble with Carolyn Kigoma, Ernesto soon found himself differing with Jeannie Klotz, Martinez’ Anglo protege. From what Ernesto could learn, Jeannie enjoyed sex wherever she could find it and was especially proud of and bragged about one of her conquests. It had involved one of her boyfriends who was studying for the priesthood. She claimed to have performed such an extraordinary act of oral sex for him that it “turned his attention away from God unto herself.” Ernesto had absolutely no interest in Jeannie because, as he said, “She suffered from some kind of bugs that got under her skin. Doctors couldn’t get them out. She was forever scratching and bleeding all over her body.”
It became more and more clear that Ernesto’s days at the Hispanic center were numbered. Rogelio Garza, the nominal president, resigned his position early in June of 1975 rather than fire Rodriguez, as Martinez had ordered. Someone else would have to do Martinez’ dirty work and that someone else would have to be Arturo Gonzales, Ernesto’s enemy, who was appointed acting president.
On June 6th Arturo wrote Ernesto a letter in which he fired Rodriguez. When Ernesto appeared before the board to defend himself against seventeen specific charges brought by Gonzales, half of the board members resigned rather than support their officers’ actions. The number of people willing to support Martinez was dwindling, only a small group remained.
To any non-Hispanic looking in from the outside, the conduct of Quinto Sol’s personnel could only be seen as sordid, amateur, and devious. They were a bunch of incompetents play acting at work, but able, none the less, to extract money from gullible outsiders. Their internecine games were more important to some of them than the needs of the center’s clients.
There was much sound and fury as the Latinos fired charges and countercharges at each other. Ernesto was accused of propositioning Jeannie Klotz which, as he said, was ridiculous because, “I didn’t need to bed a female with bugs when I was dating half the city’s clean, choice females.”
When Ernesto left Quinto Sol he started up his own business which he named El Centro de Artes (The Center of Arts). It was located on Grand River Avenue across the street from the El Tango Café and in his new place, he painted signs and made and sold leather goods and other works of art. Many of the friends he’d made in his Quinto Sol days visited him in his new place and soon several of the community’s elderly women made it their daily place for coffee and friendly gossip.
What had begun as a small store and place of business became a new organization known as Trabajadores Por La Raza, a rival to the old Quinto Sol. Several months after Ernesto left Quinto Sol the Ingham County bureaucrats terminated their support of Quinto Sol’s Minority Alcohol Abuse Project because they did not like the way Martinez hired and fired people and they learned that he no longer had the support of the Hispanic community. The monies were transferred to Trabajadores Por La Raza (Workers For the People). Martinez would now do anything to get back at Rodriguez.
Martinez was having a difficult time paying the rent for Quinto Sol’s building. Although he had collected unemployment compensation insurance from his employees, the money had gone into his own “slush fund”, not to the state. When Rodriguez filed for unemployment benefits Martinez produced the seventeen silly charges he’d brought against Ernesto as reason for his dismissal. The unemployment office officials examined them, laughed, and ordered Martinez to pay. Ernesto was making more than one hundred a week from his old enemy. Martinez was not only making the payments on Ernesto’s burgundy Cadillac with white leather seats, he was also unknowingly helping to pay the rent for Ernesto’s new venture.
The sign business was owned by Rosie DeLaPaz. Rosie and Ernesto had an agreement that he would work for nothing for one year and that if the sign shop made a profit within the first year, he would be granted a partnership. The contract protected him from Martinez and it wasn’t long before Ernesto had ten thousand dollars in the bank. And Martinez, he of the shifty eyes and narrow face, was going downhill.
Gilberto and Arturo were doing everything they could to provoke Ernesto into taking some action that would cause his parole to be revoked. This included using Rosie’s ex-husband.
Before long Ernesto received a phone call from Rosie that she had been admitted to the General Hospital, in Lansing, after suffering from a brutal beating administered by Johnnie DeLaPaz. Ernesto was fighting mad at the news and Garza did his best to quiet him down.
“She’s not the right person for you. Believe me, I know. She will cause you nothing but trouble,” Roy warned.
Ernesto quieted down after a while and when he’d regained control he and Garza drove to the hospital to visit Rosie. She was black and blue from head to toe. Johnnie, as she described it, had broken in a window and, using a large wet towel, had beaten her and the three children. When he had finished with them he returned to her, using his fists. Before he left he cut up the furniture and slashed the pictures on the walls. Martinez’ plot was beginning to work.
Johnnie also stopped paying her child support. And it wasn’t long before she complained that she was unable to make the monthly payments on Johnnie’s life insurance, of which she was the beneficiary. Fortunately, her agent told her he’d advance the premiums until she could pay.
It wasn’t long before there was more trouble. It was early in the morning, 2:45 A.M., and a group of people were at the Centro De Artes when it occurred. Roy Garza, Lupe Castañeda, Rudy Vela, Rosie, her daughter Lisa, and Ernesto were gathered there when Rosie saw Johnnie park his car across the street and head towards them. Lisa and Rosie were at the Center of Arts because they were afraid to go home. Instinctively, Rosie moved to lock the door, but Ernesto told her to leave it open. It was, he knew, as good a time as any to “whip his ass.”
“Johnnie was shorter than I am,” Ernesto remembers. “He was maybe five foot six inches, stocky, and a bar room brawler type, when he came in I explained he was in my place of business and he’d have to leave. He ignored me entirely and yelled at Rosie, asking her what his daughter was doing there at that hour.
“‘You’re not welcome here—now get out!’ I told him.
“‘Who’s gonna make me?’ He wanted to know.
“Before I could say, ‘me’ he charged like a bull. I had a hammer in my hand and I gave him a shot to the head. It wasn’t a perfect blow, but part of the metal head, the wood handle, and my fist hit him on the left side of his head, spinning him around like a top. The hammer flew out of my hand, hit the wall, and then hit Lisa, cutting her head. While Johnnie was trying to collect his senses I ran a series of punches to his mouth and eyes. He charged me again, swing wildly, but I sidestepped him and kicked him in the gut. He kept coming back again and again; nothing seemed to stop him. When he tried to trip me up and get me down on the floor, I gave him a shot on the back of his head, kneed him in the teeth, and shoved him out the door. His arms, his nose, teeth, eyes, and his left ear were dripping blood as he crawled away, swearing that he’d kill me.
“It wasn’t long, of course, before word was being passed around the street that Johnnie had promised to kill me. He didn’t scare me, but I knew I’d have to keep an eye on him.”
Not too long after that Ernesto was talking to a customer, Bill Lyles, at the Center of Arts when more hell broke loose. Lyles wanted one thousand Open and Closed Michigan bicentennials signs. Ernesto heard the sound of running feet.
“When I turned to see what was going on,” Ernesto recalls, “I heard a voice yell at me, ‘Don’t move or I’ll blow your fucking brains out!’
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bearded character with long hair, short jeans, and a torn T-shirt. He was wearing sandals. He had a sawn off shotgun in one hand and a snub nosed .38 in the other. I thought for a moment it was a hit, not a robbery, because there wasn’t any money around. I thought about making a mad dash for the door but the bastard yelled , ‘I said don’t move motherfucker!’ Then I heard a police radio and knew they had to be narcs.
“There had been two other people out in back of my store at the time, Lupe Castañeda and a guy by the name ‘Fat Freddie’ Velasquez. We were all taken to jail. What I learned in jail was that Fat Freddie had tried to sell several ounces of heroin and cocaine to a person who turned out to be an undercover cop.
“Fat Freddie said the stuff belonged to Lupe. Me and Lyles were released after a couple of hours, but Lupe got four years at Jackson. Fat Freddie was kept in jail until he agreed to testify against Lupe. As things turned out, Freddie had been paid eighteen hundred dollars by the narcs to bust any drug dealer in town. He cooperated with them when they promised to drop other charges he had pending. Freddie was even allowed to keep a machine gun in the trunk of his car for cooperating with the narcs and for his protection.
One of the men who made leather goods for the center was a man Rudy Vela. When he wasn’t at Ernesto’s, Rudy sometimes dropped in at the Shamrock Bar, a place also frequented by Johnnie DeLaPaz. On one of those occasions Johnnie approached Rudy Vela and asked whether he did work for Rodriguez. Learning that he did, DeLaPaz grunted and returned to his pool game. A few minutes later he returned unnoticed and sucker punched Rudy. Johnnie continued to kick Rudy who was helpless and lying on the bar room floor.
Ernesto, incensed by the attack on his friend, took revenge the next night. He and Vela poured five pounds of sugar into the gas tank of Johnnie’s car.
According to Ernesto DeLaPaz suffered with an alcohol and drug addiction. He also had a mad and crazy violent streak about him. This mental illness seemed to increase as the time went by. DeLaPaz beat up the woman he was living with and had cut up her furniture as he had done to Rosie’s. He had large gambling debts which he refused to pay, and his enemies were becoming more numerous. Ernesto hoped that perhaps someone would get to him before he had to stop DeLaPaz from attacking him.
“I suggested to Rosie that she should apply for a gun permit. She was told it would take several weeks before it would be granted, so I bought a .38 caliber, got a box of shells. I couldn’t take any chances with the bastard.
“One of Rosie’s friends came up to her about then and told her that her ex-husband would die before Christmas—She had dreamed it.”
October 7th began calmly enough. Rosie called Ernesto at the Center and said she would not be coming in, that she was tired and wanted to spend time with her daughter Christina. She was a very emotional girl for her age and often required extra attention. Ernesto told Rosie he would see her the following day.
Ernesto was a good friend to Gary Young, a young black man who managed a coffee shop (The Hut) across the street from Ernesto’s shop. It was located on the corner of Larch and Grand River Avenue.
Not long after two steaming mugs of were placed before them, Ernesto’s eyes were attracted towards one of the front windows where DeLaPaz was glaring at him. He was accompanied by another Mexican Ernesto had never seen. Both men were trying to get inside the coffee shop which was locked up for cleaning. Denied entry, DeLaPaz moved over to the window nearest Ernesto and made threatening gestures which indicated they wanted to beat up on him.
Always one to respond to a challenge Ernesto soon slipped out the back door and went hunting for DeLaPaz, with his .38 concealed in his sheepskin jacket and the word was out that DeLaPaz was also carrying a gun. Ernesto had had enough of DeLaPaz and decided to fire the first shot.
Johnnie and his companion were nowhere to be seen when Ernesto took off down the street looking for them. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, DeLaPaz was in Papageno’s Bar, which Rodriguez checked, but neither men saw the other.
Ernesto returned to his shop where his anger diminished.
At about seven o’clock that evening, two very ugly prostitutes appeared at the main entrance of Ernesto’s place, each carrying a bottle of wine. Ernesto refused to let them in because he didn’t want people to think he was involved in prostitution. Not wishing to be rude to them, he asked them to go around the shop to the back door when they explained that they wanted to drink wine with Bill Lyles. There was a chance, he thought, they would not be able to find the back door, but they did. Soon they were in the shop.
“My girlfriend owns this place and could come in any minute,” Ernesto explained to the ladies of the night. “She would kill me if she found you girls here.”
When neither of the girls seemed to get the message, Rodriguez grabbed one by the arm and barked, “Hit the door! Now!” This time they got the message and both stomped out angrily.
At about midnight, Julius, a black neighborhood character whose specialty was running errands for local businesses, saw the light on in Ernesto’s shop and dropped in to visit. A few minutes later Julius, Bill Lyles, and Ernesto decided to go over to the Hut and get themselves a cup of coffee. Ernesto didn’t want to go to the El Tango Café because there had been a fight and they had called the police. Carrying a gun, as he was, Ernesto didn’t want to get frisked by the cops.
Once again he found the Hut closed for a few minutes while it was being cleaned for the next shift. It would be open in a matter of minutes so Ernesto and his friends joined a man by the named Norton and his two young teenage sons who were also waiting to enter The Hut. It was a cool and quiet evening.
It didn’t stay quiet for very long. There was a sudden squeal of tires at the Grand River Avenue entrance to the parking lot which separated the El Tango Café from the Hut and without any warning a speeding car headed straight for Ernesto. Leaping behind a steel post supporting the Hut’s roof, Ernesto protected himself and the others scattered like chickens. The man behind the wheel was Johnnie DeLaPaz who had coming courting death.
DeLaPaz backed up, went out again on the Larch Street exit of the parking lot and then came roaring back. This time to escape, Ernesto jumped on top of a two foot high concrete barrier which protected the east wall of the El Tango Café. Rodriguez was now ready to kill his tormentor. If someone else didn’t kill DeLaPaz first, Ernesto would.
A couple of minutes later, at 12:20 A.M. on October 8th, to be exact, Johnnie DeLaPaz parked his car on Grand River Avenue and headed for the El Tango Café, a distance of no more than thirty feet or so. The streets were deserted, there was practically no traffic, and the police shifts were changing. It was an eerily quiet morning in a usually raucous neighborhood. When DeLaPaz reached the dark alley or parking lot which bounded the El Tango on the west, on the opposite side of the building from where all the excitement had taken place a few minutes earlier, a figure stepped out of the shadows and squeezed off eight shots at point blank. Seven of the shots struck home and Johnnie DeLaPaz gasped out his last breath and died in the gutter. Before dying he no doubt identified his killer but didn’t live long enough to mention his name to the people who had quietly surrounded him to watch him die.
Ernesto claims he was with Diane Highfill in the Hut’s parking lot when he heard the shots. Diane, who had bought Ernesto’s Black Cadillac, claimed she had driven over to talk to Ernesto because she was mad at him for not giving her even “a lousy phone call” for such a long time. She suspected, with reason, that Rosie had replaced her.
With the sound of gun shots the evening came quickly to life. Moments before the murder occurred, a group of young people had been fighting among themselves in the Hut’s Parking lot. The shots interrupted the fight and all of them, joined by Ernesto, went to investigate the source of the trouble.
Julius took Ernesto by the arm and told him to get the hell out of there because Ernesto was on parole and that fact alone might excite suspicion. Rodriguez didn’t need any further persuading because if they caught him with the gun he was carrying, he’d be in deep trouble. He asked Bill Lyles to leave with him.
The two of them drove to Ernesto’s mother’s house. Ernesto wanted to tell her that someone had shot DeLaPaz and that if the police came around asking her if she had ever seen him with a gun, she was to say no. She agreed and told him to be careful.
Before he left the house he found a piece of wood about a foot long and a length of tape, both of which he planned to use in disposing of his revolver. That was a must.
Bill Lyles asked Ernesto to drive him back to the shop. Rodriguez dropped Lyles off on Cedar Street, a block away from the shop, from where he could see the police cars crammed around the scene of the shooting. He circled back to Grand River Avenue and parked his car some distance away from all the confusion.
Ernesto taped the gun to the piece of wood and tossed it into the Grand River and hoped it would float out of town. Feeling clean he would now return to his mother’s house to await the coming of the police who would suspect him due to his relationship with Rosie DeLaPaz.
Ernesto was absolutely sure he would be accused of killing DeLaPaz. All the Hispanics in the community knew of the bad blood between the two men and Ernesto knew that Gilberto and Arturo would point at him. Fortunately, Ernesto thought, he was not alone in wishing the bastardies. DeLaPaz had many enemies and his death would be looked upon with pleasure by a number of men and women.
Ernesto returned home. He parked his Cadillac in a space he rented from an elderly woman a couple of door down the block.
Keeping his underwear on he climbed into bed. Before he could get comfortable the night turned into day. The “eye in the sky” flooded the neighborhood. The armed SWAT teamed rushed the elderly woman. Finding they had the wrong place and after scaring the elderly woman half to death, they rushed to the Enriquez’ residence on Westmoreland Street.
Ernesto was told they had a warrant for his arrest and they waved a piece of paper at him.
“Bullshit” Ernesto told them. “Before you can get a warrant you have to give the judge reliable evidence that the person has committed a crime.
“Shut up and get your clothes on. You are going downtown on a first degree murder charge!”
One of the arresting officers asked Jesusa if she had ever seen Ernesto carrying a gun. She replied, “Si, si.” and ordered Chico to show them the gun.
The pistol she showed was a .22 blank calibre starter pistol.
“I was taken downtown and questions for several hours. I was photographed. They never gave me my right to keep my mouth shut, but that is what I did I never said one word. They showed me photos of DeLaPaz and asked if I knew him. They told me he was dead and that I would be charged with first degree murder, unless I cooperated. After several hours I warned them that they were giving me the 3rd degee which was illegal and demanded to be booked or release.
“I was moved to a receiving area and as I was falling asleep, the jailhouse photographer called my name and asked me to hold out the hand I had shot him with. I urged him to go away, that I was in no mood to be entertained by a jailhouse clown.
“At last I was placed in an empty jail cell with only a roll of toilet paper which I used for a pillow. I was placed in a cell next to two prisoners, George Hall and Leo McGill. They were being charged with killing seven men and wounding another in a poker game gone bad.
“Later George Hall was convicted but since the survivor could not identify McGill he went free.”
Rodriguez’ arraignment took place on October 9th in Judge Terrance Clems’ court. Ernesto was interviewed by a Mexican lawyer who demanded 50 dollars to take his case. Ernesto decided to sign an indigent form and take his chances with a court appointed lawyer.
The lawyer assigned to him was Donald Martin of Lansing, Michigan. Ernesto liked him on sight, especially after Martin described himself as the best lawyer in town. Martin demanded a yes or no. Ernesto agreed and the relationship became a good one.
The “tank” in the Ingham County Jail of Mason Michigan was a miserable place which held some twelve men. There were six upper and lower bunks on each of the cell’s two long side walls. Security was provided by a heavy steel door and sanitation facilities included toilets and two wash basins.
His roommates represented a cross section of society’s lower elements that he knew quite well. Several of the men played poker or chess for cigarettes and the others sat about idly discussing their respective cases. Sometimes there were arguments and even fights.
Two episodes remained fresh in Rodriguez’ mind. The first involved a young man who made the mistake of calling a man some fifteen years older than he, “Pops”. Pops resented and beat the hell out of the young man. After forcing his victim to the floor where he rolled up like a ball and covered his head with his hands, several of the cellmates, who knew Pops was a homosexual, urged him to rape his victim as a finale to the beating. The sex part, Pops reasoned correctly, would come later on that night.
The second episode was a man who refused to bathe. The man seemed to also be suffering from chronic flatulence. There wasn’t much his cellmates could do about that but cleaning him was well within their competence. Using a stiff-bristled toilet brush and industrial strength toilet cleanser they scrubbed him until he sparkled.
Ernesto’s trial began on February 22nd 1976 in the Ingham County Court presided over by the Honorable James T. Kellman. If the Mexican defendant experienced any feelings of déjà vu it was understandable because he was being tried in the same courtroom in which he had been convicted of kidnapping twenty years earlier. Same room, different judge.
Jury selection had been a long drawn out process which Donald Martin dragged out for over a week. Martin rejected fourty-six people for one reason or another, but mostly because they had too little education. The final panel selected was comprised of two blacks, four women and others were white males. In questioning prospective jurors, Martin asked each one how he or she would find the defendant if they had any doubts about his guilt. “Not guilty” they all replied and that, of course, that was what Martin wanted them to become practiced in saying.
As a precaution against Ernesto being convicted of murder, an insurance, Rosie hired a Hispanic sorceress of sorts, to sit in the courtroom. Ernesto wasn’t nervous or anything, but just in case La Curandera was in a slump, he prayed in earnest for the first time in twenty years.
Ernesto squirmed in his seat. Two sisters of the murdered man were sitting directly behind him and he could hear one whispering things to the other that Ernesto was the killer and that he would surely be convicted.
The prosecutor, Frank DeLuca, was a short fat man with a small Hitler-like mustache.
He told the jury that he would prove without a doubt that Ernesto had been witnessed by people he would produce. Rosie was the first witness to be called. DeLuca immediately went for her jugular. He accused her of being involved in the murder because of the large amount of money she stood to gain. And, under questioning, Rosie freely admitted she had tried to buy a gun, but explained that she wanted it to protect the business.
The testimony that followed did the prosecution no good. Choking back tears, Rosie described in vivid detail the frequent beatings she and the children suffered at DeLaPaz’ hand. She told of the times he had broken into the house and raped her. She told the jury of her marriage years when he frequently engaged in bar room brawls. Sometimes he would rush into the house, grab his shotgun and rush out again. Many people, she explained, had threatened to Kill DeLaPaz. Score one for La Curandera.
The prosecution was trying to prove that Ernesto had lain in wait for DeLaPaz in an alley or narrow lot on the west side of the El Tango Café. When DeLaPaz parked his car and reached the dark alley Ernesto, he claimed, had stepped out of shadows, emptied his a .25 automatic into DeLaPaz, executed him, and then ran. He had run up the alley and, having passed the back of the El Tango Café and the Hut, joined the group of young people who had been fighting near the Hut. When they went to investigate the sounds of fire crackers or gun shots Ernesto was with them.
When the older of the two Norton boys who had been standing outside the Hut with their father the night of the murder was on the stand De Luca began putting words in the boy’s mouth.
“Objection, your honor,” Martin said, raising to his feet. “He is leading the witness. The prosecutor is saying that my client was in the alley, held a gun, did the shooting, and the witness is merely responding with a ‘Yes’. Mr. DeLuca may ask who was in the alley but certainly he may not put words in the witnesses’ mouth.”
The prosecutor concluded by asking the young Norton, “Can you point to the man you saw doing the shooting? The youth nodded and pointed to Ernesto.
It was Martin’s turn next. “Did you, or did you not,” he asked the witness, “make two different statements to the prosecutor. In the first statement you said you saw nothing, But in the second statement you claim you saw Ernesto do the shooting.
“Yeah,” answered Norton.
“Since you made two different statements, can you tell the jury which one is the truth?”
The young man refused to answer for a moment then said, “I lied,” and began to cry.
One of the next witnesses was a young lady named Carol Clarke. She testified that she worked at the El Tango Café and that she had been cleaning a table when she heard shots and moments later had seen Ernesto, wearing a white T-shirt, run past a nearby side window. Martin, who didn’t believe a word of her testimony, arranged to have the jury visit the scene of the crime and the interior of the Café. It became immediately clear that Carol Clarke could not have seen anything outside from where she claimed she had been standing. Not only did the glass reflect the interior light, but most of the window was filled by an air conditioning unit. Ernesto’s bag of magic was working like a charm. At this point Ernesto began to wonder if Martinez and Arturo had paid these witnesses to testify as they did.
Police Officer Polk, a veteran of eighteen years on the force was next to testify. It was he who had arrested to arrest Ernesto at Jesusa’s house shortly after the murder. Martin asked the officer to tell the jury in detail how the arrest had been made, what the defendant was wearing, and other things he might remember. When Polk was firmly on record, Martin demolished Polk’s credibility by proving that Rodriguez had not been wearing the clothes Polk had claimed he had. Polk, having read Carol Clarke’s testimony, testified that Ernesto had been wearing a white T-shirt—he even showed how the accused had put it on—but the pictures taken when Ernesto arrived at the jail showed the prisoner wearing a conventional, button-down-the-front, white silk shirt with a collar.
There had been no arrest warrant issued on the first house call, and when the police returned a second time with a warrant to look for incriminating evidence they found none. Unfortunately, Polk had written a detailed report on his first house call, but had neglected to write a report on the second visit and to put in the record that no incriminating evidence had been found on the premises. Donald Martin thought that was an important omission.
Next, when the younger of the two Norton boys took the witness stand he had grave differences, too. He had testified under DeLuca’s questioning that he and his brother had been driving past the scene of the crime and had heard the shots, seen DeLaPaz fall, and Rodriguez run away.
“Mr. Norton, Tommy,” Martin began, “You have testified today that you saw Mr. Rodriguez shoot the deceased. Now let me ask you whether there is anything in your testimony you might want to change or add to?”
“No, sir. I’ve told the truth as I saw that night.”
“I’m giving you a chance now to either add to your story or back track and leave anything out which is not true. Again, do you have anything to add or change in your testimony today?”
“No, I’ve told you the truth.”
“Are you sure that you’ve told the court here today is the whole truth?”
“Yes, why should I lie?”
“Are you lying here today?”
“No, no,” Norton replied quickly. He was beginning to fidget.
“You say you saw my client and another man in the alley, that one of the two men was killed, and you saw it happen?”
“Yes, yes, I did.”
“Do you want to change that testimony now?”
“Are you sure you don’t?”
“Okay, son, okay. Did you make a written statement to the police the night of the murder?” Martin asked evenly, waving a piece of paper in his hand.
“Did you tell the police in that statement that you saw the shooting as you testified here today?”
“I don’t remember what I wrote, it’s been a long time.”
“That’s not true. It’s the very same statement you were reading two hours ago, just before you came in this courtroom, true?”
“Well, yes sir.”
“Then why did you just tell us you couldn’t remember what the statement contained?”
“This statement says you saw one Mexican man come out of the El Tango Café and no one else. Right?”
“But now we have a different story. According to this statement you did not see the murder, you did not see the shooting, you did not see a man fall, and you didn’t see Mr. Rodriguez running away. You say you were driving by you saw only one man come out of the El Tango Café. You didn’t say it was my client. When you were riding down the street, your brother said he thought he had heard shots and turned around and drove back. That’s when you saw my client get into his car and drive away,”
“Yes, sir, that’s what I said that night.”
“But these are two different stories. Were you lying to the police or to this court?”
“I’m just saying what I saw.”
“Did you lie to the police or are you lying now? That’s my question.”
Norton refused to answer the question.
“Answer the question to the best of your ability,” Judge Kellman instructed the Norton youngster.”
“I guess I’m lying,” Norton said weakly.
“The witness may step down from the witness stand,” the judge suggested mercifully.
When it was Diane Highfill’s time to testify, De Luca went after her tooth and nail, trying to destroy her credibility.
“The defendant has been your lover for nine years, Mrs. Highfill. Is that right?”
“I’ve known him for about nine years.”
“Have you ever been intimate with him?” De Luca wanted to know, pointing his finger at Rodriguez.
“I loved him very much. But—”
“Mrs. Highfill, have you not been lovers for nine years or so?” the prosecutor interrupted.
“But he left me for another woman and I could care less what he does. I don’t love him anymore,” Diane declared defiantly, looking directly at Ernesto.
“Was that other woman you refer to Mrs. Rose DeLaPaz?”
“Yes,” Diane answered.
“Are you testifying the way you are because you still love Mr. Rodriguez?”
“No, that’s not true,” Diane snapped back.” I was there and I know he did not kill that man.”
“Well why didn’t you call the police and tell them how innocent he was under arrest?”De Luca asked, sensing victory. “Why did you wait for several weeks before volunteering this information?”
“I did call the police.”
“Oh, did you now? Who did you call?” the attorney asked, his voice heavy with skepticism.
“His mother called me as soon as he was arrested and I called City Hall, the police department. I—”
“With whom did you speak?” De Luca interrupted again.
“I was told they would not give me any information at all when I asked what he had been charged with.”
“Who was the officer you spoke to, Mrs. Highfill?”
“He wouldn’t give me name and he hung up the phone when I insisted on knowing what the charges were.”
“Why didn’t you call again?”
“I knew Mr. Rodriguez would contact me through his attorney, so I waited—”
“You don’t love him anymore?”
When it was Martin’s turn to question Diane he had an entirely different mannerism, less accusatory and confrontational.
“Mrs. Highfill, will you please tell the court what kind of automobile you drive?”
“A black Cadillac, Coupe de Ville.”
“Can you tell us in your words what happened when you drove into the Hut’s parking lot, please?”
“Well, I stopped because I saw Ernesto’s car parked there. When I pull in I stopped because I saw him on top of that cement barrier that protects the El Tango. When he saw me he started walking towards me so I parked and waited for him. I rolled the window down and we started talking.”
“Can you tell me, more or less what the conversation was about?”
“I was mad at him. I knew that Rosie and he were more than business partners. I asked him if he was so busy that he did not have time to give an old friend a phone call once in a while.”
“What did Mr. Rodriguez say to you?” Martin asked.
“He told me he had been working long hours trying to make a go of the shop.”
“Well, we hadn’t talked very long before I heard something that sounded like four or five firecrackers going off.”
“How many did you say you heard?”
“I guessed about five.”
“What did you do next, if anything?”
“Ernesto walked away, like he was going with the crowd. I drove off. I was kind of mad at him.”
“Then what did you do?”
“I drove out on Grand River Avenue and headed for home.”
“Mrs. Highfill, did you see a crowd of people in front of the El Tango Café?”
“Yes. As I drove out I noticed a crowd was gathering and there was a man lying on the ground.”
“You didn’t go look?”
“No. I wasn’t really thinking. I just drove off in the opposite direction. I didn’t pay much attention. I guess, because drunks are all over the place down there and I didn’t find out what happened until later when Ernesto’s mother called me to tell me about the murder.”
“You were at the parking lot between 12:20 and 12:30 A.M.? Is that correct?”
“And that’s why, you say, Ernesto couldn’t have done the shooting.”
“No, he couldn’t.”
Judge Kellman thanked the witness and asked her to step down. Diane’s testimony had helped enormously and Rodriguez needed all the help he could get. There were no other suspects.
The next witness was a young black man, Gary Young, the shift manager of the Hut who had admitted Ernesto and Bill Lyles, but denied entry to DeLaPaz and his companion. Young had referred to the police as “pigs” in answering one of De Luca’s questions and that triggered off an explosion.
The prosecutor was storming back and forth between his table and the witness. “Pigs? Pigs? You mean you call law officers pigs?”
“Yep,” Gary Young replied, unperturbed.
“Because you’re black you believe it gives you the right to call police officers, pigs?”
“Nope, not because I’m black. It’s because people like you, break into our homes and arrest us for no good reason and then you come into court lying as you’ve in this case. That’s why I hate pigs and that’s sho’ nuff the truth. You axed me and I told you.”
“Then are you testifying for Mr. Rodriguez because you hate law enforcement officials?”
“I’m testifying cause I know he didn’t kill nobody—testifying to what is the truth!”
“You just happened to be out there when the shots were fired?”
“Yep. I seen him there with that white woman in the black Cadillac.”
Every day of the trial, Ernesto dressed in three piece tailor made suits and matching ties. Stella made sure some of his shirts were starched. He had a wonderful collection of Arrow shirts. He was so well dressed that he believed he looked more like an assistant attorney instead of a defendant on trial. He took notes and shared them with Donald Martin when he needed to review someone’s testimony.
During a couple of jury recesses three different females sitting in the jury went to Mr. Rodriguez, touched his arm and assured him that there would be no conviction. Rodriguez surmised that the ladies considered DeLaPaz a woman beater who got what he deserved regardless of who did the shooting.
After hearing the testimony of more than one hundred witnesses, some claiming Ernesto was guilty and some declaring him innocent, the jury retired to begin their deliberation.
Diane’s and Gary Young’s testimony had been enormously helpful. They were able to place Ernesto in the Hut’s parking and away from where the shooting took place. Ernesto sensed that in his haste to convict him, the prosecutor had been hurt by his own witnesses.
Donald Martin, who had formerly worked in the D.A.’s office and was familiar with police department operations, had done his homework meticulously. He had made mincemeat of De Luca’s witnesses under cross examination.
Nine hours after jury deliberations began the two lawyers were told that the jury had reached a verdict. Rosie DeLaPaz, Donald Martin, Ernesto, and La Curandera were seated on a wooden bench in the corridor outside the courtroom door waiting for the jury to return. It was a tense time.
Having been barred from the courtroom because of their conduct, DeLaPaz’ two sisters sat outside the courtroom as Ernesto waited for the verdict. “You’ll be found guilty, you bastard” the sisters said.
After the jury had taken their seats the judge faced them. “Mr. Foreman has the jury reached a verdict?”
“Yes your Honor, we have.”
“And what is your verdict, Mr. Foreman?”
“We the jury find the defendant—” the foreman paused when his eyes met Ernesto’s—“not guilty, your honor.”