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Rodriguez found guilty of second-degree murder in 1979 ‘cold case’ slaying

An Erie County Court jury found Michael Rodriguez guilty of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his estranged wife 108 times more than 35 years ago in a Lackawanna cemetery.

Sighs went up in the courtroom as the verdict was announced at about 4:30 p.m. after about three hours of deliberations.

Rodriguez bowed his head and looked at the table in front of him and his current wife, who was sitting in the front row, cried. He is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 21. He faces a minimum of 15 years to life and a maximum of 25 to life.

Moments after the verdict was read in court, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, whose office had prosecuted the case, put out a statement announcing the guilty verdict.

“Our goal in bringing this case was to get justice for Patti and I hope today’s verdict brings a small measure of comfort to her family and friends,” Schneiderman said. “No murder should go unsolved. Today’s verdict is a reminder that we will never stop seeking justice for victims and their families.”

The jury began its deliberations early this afternoon after receiving legal instructions from Judge Michael L. D’Amico and hearing closing statements from attorneys in the murder case.

One of the questions the attorneys focused on during their summations today was whether Rodriguez had a motive to kill Patricia Rodriguez on that Good Friday morning April 13, 1979 in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Defense attorney Paul J. Cambria said the evidence showed his now 60-year-old client had no motive to kill the 21-year-old mother of his two children.

He told the jury that witnesses who saw them at Danny Boy’s bar in Lackawanna the night before the victim’s body was found testified they were dancing, laughing and getting along.

“There was no bad blood between them that night,” he said.

The couple even had consensual sex that night, the attorney said, and there was no indication that Patricia Rodriguez suffered any forcible injury during sex.

“You need to have a motive to stab someone 108 times, and there is no evidence of that whatsoever,” Cambria said.

He dismissed testimony by a jailhouse informant who said Rodriguez told him that he killed the victim after she refused to kiss him and after he told her he wanted the money he gave her for child support because he felt he was supporting her boyfriend.

He also questioned the testimony of one of the defendant’s former girlfriends who said he told her that he killed Patricia Rodriguez after she made him angry.

“Where did that come from?” Cambria asked the jury. “Everybody said they were getting along.”

Assistant Attorney General Diane M. LaVallee said that while the prosecution doesn’t have to prove a motive, it can be found in a defense exhibit – a document from Erie County Child Protective Services. The document shows that Patricia Rodriguez’s two children were removed from her home Feb. 23. 1979, during an investigation into allegations that they were being neglected.

But it also shows that a Family Court judge ordered them returned to their mother March 16, 1979.

“Less than one month later, she was butchered,” LaVallee told the jury.

The prosecutor acknowledged that Patricia Rodriguez could have been a better mother, “but no one deserves to die for that.”

LaVallee cited the testimony of two of the defendant’s former girlfriends that he told them he killed Patricia Rodriguez.

Donna Williams, who was 19, pregnant and living with Michael Rodriguez at the time of the killing, testified that he called her at her mother’s house around 3 or 4 the morning of the murder and told her to come home because he had just killed his wife in the cemetery. She said he later told her that he killed Patricia Rodriguez because she made him angry and that he had thrown away the knife in a creek behind their apartment.

When she got to their apartment, she said he was passed out on the bed. She said she found blood in the bathroom and on his brown leather jacket and cleaned it up.

But she mentioned none of that in her statement to Lackawanna police, telling them he came home, said he had been out with friends and went to bed.

Cambria said Williams’ testimony made no sense, questioning why she didn’t wake him when she returned home from her mother’s following his phone call and ask him right away what was going on. Instead, she started cleaning the bathroom. He also attacked her credibility, saying she gave two inconsistent statements, one to Lackawanna police in 1979 and another to State Police in 2009 about Michael Rodriguez’s alleged admission that he killed his wife.

LaVallee mentioned the testimony of another former girlfriend, Mary Lou Dotegay, that after she started dating Rodriguez in 1983, he became violent, beating her and threatening to kill her “like I killed my children’s mother.”

Dotegay also testified that the defendant told her he killed his wife because he didn’t like the way she was raising their children and didn’t like her boyfriend, who used drugs and had a criminal record.

LaVallee noted the testimony of Richard Brady who said the defendant told him last winter at the Erie County Holding Center that he pulled out a knife and attacked his wife after she refused to kiss him and return the money he gave her.

Cambria questioned both those witnesses’ motives for testifying against his client.

Also at issue was the testimony of Edward J. Murphy Jr., who said he saw the Rodriguezes at Danny Boy’s that night and later saw them get out of a car on Dorrance Avenue and go into Holy Cross Cemetery. He said he was 300 to 400 feet away from them, couldn’t see their faces and was “buzzed” after he had four or five tea and vodkas at the bar.

Cambria questioned the reliability of the identification under those circumstances. LaVallee said the finding of Patricia Rodriguez’s body in the cemetery shows Murphy was correct about seeing her enter the cemetery.

LaVallee told the jury that DNA testing in 2009 showed Patricia Rodriguez’s blood on the lining of the jacket the defendant was wearing that night.

Cambria said the DNA was unreliable because the testing was conducted 30 years after the jacket was seized as evidence and because authorities might have mixed the jacket with the victim’s bloody clothing.