The Prosecutor, July-August 2008, Volume 38, No. 4

They pieced together a puzzle, and a disturbing picture emerged

2008
Charming, respectful, good-looking—potentially the first Hispanic President of the United States. It’s not the usual description of a serial killer, but it was the picture of Rosendo Rodriguez painted by his family, friends, and victims. How Lubbock County prosecutors methodically uncovered this defendant’s dark side and secured a death sentence.

The first thing I remember were the smells. We had been called to the Lubbock landfill where a worker had discovered a suitcase containing the naked body of a young woman. At first, the worker had thought it was a practical joke. Apparently, it is common to find mannequins in the landfill. The worker initially chalked it up to another college prank but quickly learned this discovery was not funny in the slightest.

Investigators were left with an unclothed body, few clues, no identification except an ankle tattoo, and a crime scene that didn’t lend itself to finding any physical or biological evidence. After the body was removed, detectives started running down what few clues they had. They were able to identify the victim through the tattoo and fingerprints. Her name was Summer Baldwin. She was a local drug addict who had turned to prostitution to fund her habit.

Several things were learned at the autopsy. Summer had been severely beaten, had signs of asphyxiation, and had been anally and vaginally raped. She was also approximately 10 weeks pregnant.

Detectives believed that the suitcase in which Summer had been placed was new. The plastic tag on the handle was still there, and the interior was very clean. A small paper with what appeared to be a UPC number was hidden inside. From there, detectives determined the possible places someone could purchase this particular suitcase in Lubbock. I have always said that Lubbock is blessed with great law enforcement, and the next few days of the investigation put an exclamation point on that statement. After talking to several merchants, detectives concluded that the suitcase was bought from Wal-Mart. From there, Wal-Mart employees determined that two of those suitcases had been purchased over the past couple of days. Video was obtained of those two purchases. One buyer was a woman, and one was a Hispanic man with a close-cut hairstyle and a green shirt. The man had also been videotaped driving a red, full-size pickup truck. We didn’t have a name for this guy, but we noted that the purchase was at 3:30 a.m, and the buyer was extremely calm and collected, even ripping the paperwork off the suitcase for the cashier. (Remember, the plastic tag was still on the suitcase where this information would have been).

Here was the defendant’s first mistake. He purchased the suitcase and a package of latex gloves with his debit card. Through a federal subpoena, we determined his name: Rosendo Rodriguez. He had attended Texas Tech and was now living in San Antonio. He was in the Marine Corps reserves and had come to Lubbock for his monthly training the weekend Summer was murdered.

Warrants were issued for his arrest, and detectives went in many directions: to San Antonio, Midland, a Holiday Inn in Lubbock, and elsewhere to collect evidence. In San Antonio, the defendant was arrested, and he invoked his right to counsel. Several items were taken from the house he shared with his parents: his computer, his phone, a bus ticket receipt, a rental car agreement for a red pickup, and a green shirt that we had all seen before in a Wal-Mart surveillance video.

In Midland, the red truck that Rodriguez rented was photographed and processed.    

Through the debit card information, detectives learned that the defendant stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown. He was the only one of his unit who stayed at that particular hotel; everyone else stayed at a different Holiday Inn. We found blood in the room and, in a trash can outside the room, latex gloves with the victim’s blood and the defendant’s DNA on them. (I’m sure folks are wondering how the hotel maid didn’t see the blood. I remember some years back listening to Williamson County DA John Bradley say that the first thing he does when he stays in a hotel is take off the bedspread. Let me add to your nightmares. We learned the term “express cleaning,” which, in fact, is no cleaning at all. A maid has to be in and out of a room within seven minutes. No surprise the blood wasn’t discovered.) We also learned that a report is generated when a key card is used for a particular room. The report showed that Rodriguez had entered his room around 12:30 a.m. the day Summer was killed. We knew from a witness that Summer had been seen with a Hispanic man with a short haircut driving a red full-sized pickup at about midnight that morning. The key card also showed the defendant entering the room again at approximately 3:50 a.m., about 20 minutes after buying the suitcase. He left again at some point and returned to the room later that morning. He finished off the day eating two No. 1 combo meals at Chick-fil-A and watching a movie in his room.

On the defendant’s computer, we found searches for “Summer Baldwin” and stories relating to her body’s discovery in the landfill. We also found hits for websites involving searching for singles, military singles, and many others. We were discovering what type of individual we were dealing with. 

Approximately two weeks later, the defendant’s attorney turned over two knives that belonged to Summer Baldwin and stated that the defendant wanted to speak with investigators. The defendant’s story in a nutshell was that he and the victim had consensual sex and that afterwards she started smoking crack. The defendant, being the good citizen he is, took offense. He stated that he grabbed the crack pipe, and the victim came at him with two knives. It was at this point, the defendant stated, that he put her into a choke hold and she died while he was protecting himself. As the infamous line in My Cousin Vinny goes: “What that guy said is B.S.” However, we just wanted him down on video with some story—especially the part where he was with Summer when she died.

The plea deal

When all of this investigation was going on, I couldn’t help but think of a 16-year-old Lubbock girl who had been missing for about two years before we found Summer. Her name was Joanna Rogers, and she had last been seen around midnight in her parents’ home the night she disappeared. Rosendo Rodriguez’s name had surfaced during that investigation but only because he had been on an online chat page with Joanna.

Everyone reading this article who has been doing this job for a long time knows that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach that a defendant is involved in a crime. Even though you can’t prove it, you know he did it. This is the way I felt about Rodriguez with regard to Joanna Rogers. I thought that it was extremely important for her family and for our community to find her if at all possible. Therefore, after speaking with both the Rogers and Baldwin families, I made what I characterized as a deal with the devil. I told Rodriguez’s attorney that if the defendant had anything to do with Joanna Rogers’ disappearance and we could find her, I would offer him a life sentence in the Baldwin case and waive the death penalty. It is important to note that both Summer’s family and Joanna’s family were great throughout this process. They were in full agreement with this offer, trusting us 100 percent to do the right thing, and as we all know, having that support is a tremendous help.

The defendant agreed to the deal and told detectives how he met Joanna Rogers in the early morning of May 4, 2004, for what he said was consensual sex. He went on to say that after the victim demanded money, he choked her to death. He then went up to his room, found a suitcase, put Joanna in it, and threw her in a dumpster. He told this story like you and I talk about getting a cup of coffee. I was sick to my stomach. Never before did I feel someone was more deserving of a death sentence, but once again, we felt that the plea bargain was the only way we were ever going to find out what happened to Joanna. And the hard part was just beginning.

Searching for Joanna

Believe it or not, the landfill keeps pretty good records of where trash is taken. Detectives figured out which dumpster would have contained Joanna’s body and then the approximate area of the landfill where that dumpster would have been emptied. The problem was that we were talking about an area several football fields in length with two years’ worth of garbage stacked over it. Searching for Joanna Rogers’ body was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Our sheriff, David Gutierrez, along with Pam Alexander, victim advocate extraordinaire, secured a grant from the governor’s office for $100,000 to help with the cost of searching the landfill. The real heroes were the men and women who risked illness and endured shots, 100-degree temperatures, and body suits to search for the young woman. I will not elaborate on what they had to go through, but you can use your imagination. Two months into the search, we were running out of money and were in our last pocket of landfill to go through. In fact, the search was very close to being called off. Then we got our miracle from God. He used men to do it, but that is what it was, a miracle. We found our needle in a haystack: another black suitcase that contained a girl with beautiful red hair, Joanna Rogers. Nine hundred four days since she had gone missing, we brought her home.

I found a great deal of contentment seeing the Rogers family get to bury their daughter. It is hard enough to lose a child, but not knowing what happened or where they are is unbearable.

Only one thing was left, and that was to plead the defendant. On the day of his plea, defense counsel told me that he wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Rodriguez, a highly intelligent, college-educated Marine, stated he didn’t understand what was going on and would not enter a guilty plea.

All bets were off. I withdrew the offer and filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty that day. We were going to get the best of both worlds: We found Joanna, and we would let a jury decide if the defendant should get the death penalty for his crimes.

Change of venue

As you can imagine, these two crimes generated a great deal of publicity in our city. In fact, there were not many places you could go without seeing a missing poster for Joanna, one of which caused my youngest child to ask me one day when we were going to find that girl and what happened to her. We tried to seat a jury in Lubbock, but after reading the first 60 or so questionnaires, it was clear that was not possible. About 90 percent of the folks had already made up their mind, and there were even a couple of “I can’t do it during the week, but I can get down there on a Saturday” responses to whether they could assess a death penalty. The judge moved the case to Randall County, where District Attorney James Farren and his staff couldn’t have been better. The whole county, from the clerk’s office to the sheriff’s department, treated us great. Other than the expense of travel and not being at your home base, it was as good a situation as we could have asked for.

The trial

We picked a jury in approximately four weeks and started the trial. We had indicted the defendant on multiple paragraphs:  Paragraph one alleged the murder during a course of sexual assault. Paragraph two alleged the murder of two or more individuals, naming the unborn child as a victim, and paragraph three alleged killing a child under the age of 6. We waived paragraph three and proceeded on the first two.

The obvious issues were convincing a jury that you could in fact sexually assault a prostitute and that the defendant didn’t have to know that the victim was pregnant to convict him of murdering the unborn fetus. We also had to deal with the self-defense claim.

To prove the first paragraph, the sexual assault, we relied on the physical evidence and the pathologists’ testimony. The victim had more than 70 blunt force injuries on her body, blows to her back, stomach, legs, face, and head. She had deep blunt force injuries to her vagina and anus as well. She had suffered severe enough injuries to lose consciousness but no specific injury that would have caused her death. This fact lead Dr. Sridhar Natarajan, the pathologist, to the conclusion that because of the way Summer was stuffed in the suitcase, she died of positional asphyxiation. In other words, Summer was alive when she was put in the suitcase. (We showed the diagram, below, to demonstrate.) It was the first time the jury heard this bit of horror, and based on their reactions, the first time the defendant and his attorneys heard it as well. Obviously, this testimony destroyed the self-defense claim, especially because the defendant had only one small scratch on his entire body.

In the second paragraph, we relied on the definition of “individual” from the Penal Code which includes an “unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth” and a great couple of cases on transferred intent. The best case on point was Norris v. State out of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Closing argument was easy. If you can’t argue these facts, you’re in the wrong business. My chief investigator, Todd Smith, who can compete with the best of them in PowerPoint, created some great slides for closing. I remember everyone not wanting to touch the suitcase because of how dirty it was and where it had been, but I grabbed it and talked about us being afraid to get our hands or suits dirty and that this suitcase was meant to be the final resting place for Summer Baldwin. I ended my argument by placing three roses on Summers’ coffin, the suitcase. One was for Summer, one for her child, and one for a victim the jury never got to hear about, Joanna. Most of the jury was crying, which was more emotion than the defendant ever showed.

They were out about three hours before returning a verdict of guilty on both counts.

Punishment

While getting ready for this trial, we were constantly contacted by folks who had dealt with the defendant. These included his first high school girlfriend whom he had sexually assaulted and four other women he had terrorized and raped during his time at Texas Tech. None of these rapes had been reported to law enforcement.

The defendant’s friends also testified about a man who didn’t have any problems “getting” women and who described sex as “a handshake.” They also stated the defendant bragged about having prostitutes and killing kids in Iraq with the Marine Corps. (The only problem with that claim was that the defendant had never been deployed anywhere, much less Iraq.) Anyway, what kind of individual brags about killing kids?

My trial partner, Tray Payne, prepared and did the direct examination on all the sexual assault victims. He did an excellent job. If there were any doubt in the jurors’ minds that the defendant was a predator and a future danger, Tray removed it. The rape victims told basically the same story: The defendant would use his charm and looks to get them to have sex with him. However, the sex would quickly turn violent, and each victim testified how the defendant would continue to rape them despite their fighting and pleading with him to stop. The victims testified that they did not tell anybody about these rapes because they were terrified of Rodriguez. He had a great ability to pick “perfect victims” who wouldn’t report his crimes.

One of Rodriguez’s victims told a completely different story. This young lady worked three jobs and lived at home when she attended Tech. She decided during her senior year that she needed to experience some of the “fun” aspects of college, so she joined the Chi Rho fraternity where she met the defendant. Being very naive, she quickly fell in love with him. He had said and done all the right things, even asking her father permission to date her. After she learned the defendant was cheating on her, she went to his apartment to confront him and end the relationship. It was there that the defendant held her down on the couch and raped her—her first-ever sexual experience. He then walked her to the car, patted her on the head, and told her “she would be all right.” The victim said that the trip home was the longest 30-minute drive of her life. She went in the house, told her parents good night like she always did, then went upstairs to her room where she lay in her closet, curled up in the fetal position, and cried herself to sleep. After seeing just this witness’s testimony, a prosecutor from the Randall County DA’s office remarked about the jury, “They are going to kill that S.O.B.” That was the only witness she saw.

One of the best pieces of evidence was from the defendants’ phone. Detectives had taken all the text messages and pictures off the phone, and there was one picture in particular we wanted to show the jury (the one at the right). It was of the defendant in mirrored sunglasses smiling; he had taken the picture of himself. He was in the same green shirt he wore in the Wal-Mart video and was on a bus back home to San Antonio. This picture was taken the day after he killed Summer. This smiling picture clearly showed the defendant’s true character; in his mind, he had simply taken out the garbage.

We were never able to put on the defendant’s confession regarding Joanna’s murder. The law is clear that his statement was not voluntary because it was part of a plea agreement. Even though the defendant backed out of the plea, it was still inadmissible. I can’t tell you how much we researched this subject and cussed and discussed it. This is a messed-up area of our law.

After we rested, the defense put on multiple family members who described a very loving, caring, and intelligent defendant. They also described a pretty good home life but that it included a drunk, abusive father who beat all the kids and their mother—the same man who had been a defense attorney for 20-plus years and was in the courtroom all week holding hands and hugging all these people who hated him so much, including his wife of 36 years. Finally, the defense put on the same old experts to show that the penitentiary is really a safe place to live. Of course, our expert, A.P. Merillat, ended that discussion pretty quickly.

The jury took about 2½ hours to give the death penalty and almost shouted “yes” when polled about their verdict. Justice was finally obtained for Summer and Joanna. Even though we had to get there in a roundabout way, we got Joanna home and the verdict that the defendant clearly deserved.

During the victim impact statement, the jury learned for the first time from Joanna’s father that the defendant had killed his daughter. A couple of them wanted to come over the rail. Some of the family members said that they will be there when the defendant is put to death. For the first time in all the death penalty cases that I have tried, I might join them. ✤