He spoke often of marrying Brenda, if not this year then next.

With nothing else, climbing palm trees was how he showed her he was brave, Marrufo said.

"He liked it when people told him, 'You already go up in the palm trees? You're not scared?' " said Brenda, 17.

Yet Rodriguez was still learning the trade. Before he died, "I think he'd cut maybe four palm trees," Nunez said.

The job on which he died was no different from many others: It was done without insurance or a contractor's license.

"Employees need to be insured," said Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. Without it, "if something happens, that homeowner could be liable if it were to get to a courtroom."

Fatemeh Mahmoudi, the owner of a duplex on Hammel Street in East Los Angeles, needed a tree cut down and two palm trees pruned. Guerrero and Rodriguez negotiated the work for $1,500, Guerrero said.

That day, Brenda called Rodriguez about 3 p.m. and asked if he wanted her to take him lunch. He told her it was too far away and he'd be by later.

About 4 p.m., Rodriguez scaled the first palm. He called out to Guerrero below to take his picture with his cellphone.

"He said, 'I'm going to wave my hand like I'm waving goodbye,' " Guerrero said.

Guerrero snapped a photo. Ten minutes later, the skirt of fronds collapsed on Rodriguez.

About that time, Brenda was dialing his cellphone.

"I kept calling and calling," she said, "and nobody answered."


THE young man who sought his future in the palms of Southern California is buried in the cemetery in Refugio Salcido.

The gardeners from the village donated $100 apiece to fly his body home. Most of the village turned out to walk him to the grave site.

Nunez, Marrufo and their sons remember the humble and friendly youth from the village who unexpectedly entered their lives and left it the same way.

"We all loved him here," Nunez said. "He earned it."

Two weeks after he died, Gallegos, in her red dress, attended her senior prom alone. "Everybody went to the after-party, but I just went home," she said.

Cal/OSHA fined Mahmoudi $630 for not providing safety instructions and a certified tree worker to explain the hazards of the job to Rodriguez and Guerrero, as state law requires.

Mahmoudi denied knowing anything about the accident for which she'd been fined. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "I don't have to talk to reporters."

Six weeks after his friend's death, Guerrero saw another man fall to his death from a palm tree.

Still, he remains undaunted. Many gardeners from Refugio Salcido have left Los Angeles for Phoenix, where they install marble. He has no plans to follow them.

Now caring for an ailing grandmother in Durango, Guerrero said he'll soon return to Los Angeles to trim trees again. Palms, in particular, he views as a challenge. He has no special training but trusts in his ability to tame them.

"I don't think anything will happen to me," he said.