Angelina RODRIGUEZ furrows her dark brow and places her hands over her eyes, smearing the mascara and eyeliner she had so carefully applied. She has been talking for hours, the drama of her stories escalating with every telling, her role consistent in every one of them -- the victim. She describes herself as a “people person,” “the mothering type,” an easy target for domineering, unfaithful men. “I’m not a violent person,” she says. “That is not who I am.”
Yet Rodriguez lives on death row here at the Central California Women’s Facility, convicted of killing Frank Rodriguez, her husband of four months, in September 2000 by feeding him oleander soup and so much antifreeze-laced Gatorade that, as the medical examiner noted, the chemical seeped from his eyes. Seven years earlier, investigators say, she killed her toddler daughter by shoving a piece of pacifier down her throat, then successfully sued the manufacturer for its “faulty” product. Money was the motive in both cases. In his 20 years on the bench, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who sentenced Rodriguez, said he’d “never seen a colder heart.”
It was a sensational crime, the stuff of pulp fiction. Court TV recently memorialized it with a moody reenactment titled “The Persistent Wife.” And Rodriguez hopes the story’s cinematic potential piques Hollywood’s interest enough to benefit her appeal, which is still years away. For investigators, it was “a once-in-a-career case.” Police had no physical evidence linking Rodriguez to the murder. Instead, it was her bizarre behavior that convinced them -- and a jury -- of her guilt and ultimately resulted in a death sentence.
Rodriguez is one of 15 women on California’s death row, the nation’s largest. They represent a fraction of the state’s 637 death row inmates, and most expect to die of natural causes, not lethal injection. A woman hasn’t been executed here since 1962; a man was executed Jan. 19. Despite America’s preoccupation with serial killers and random murder, most women on the row are like Rodriguez, sentenced for killing children and husbands. Yet the real intrigue of this gothic tale lies in the portrait of the woman, not the crime.
She was so capable of blending into suburban life that even her closest relatives remember her as a caring mother who was easily bullied. She was a romantic, they say, despite a deeply troubled childhood and a series of bad marriages. She cried when her dog fell ill. She was so devout that she often wept as she prayed. She was a pretty girl whose only fault, it seemed, was an insatiable need for affection.
With a “high average” IQ of 112, Rodriguez is intelligent. But her doctors contend that for most of her life she has lived amid emotional chaos, overwhelmed by self-loathing and shame, the result of repeated incest and molestation in childhood. Still, Rodriguez was rarely out of work and never without a boyfriend. She joined the Air Force at 20 and later the Army National Guard, managed a fast-food restaurant, sold insurance door-to-door and earned a cosmetology license. She married four times and was engaged twice -- each man, she says, more demanding than the last.
Then there were the lawsuits. In six years, she won about $286,000 in settlement payments. She accused a fast-food restaurant of sexual harassment, Target of negligence after she slipped and fell in a dressing room and Gerber Co. of product liability after her daughter’s death. When she was arrested in February 2001, investigators say, Rodriguez was preparing to sue her landlord for asbestos poisoning.
Sorting fact from fiction in Rodriguez’s life has long been difficult for those closest to her -- and for Rodriguez. “She wanted a good life,” says Rodriguez’s sister Gigi Colaiacovo. “But I also believe that she felt that the world owed her something.”
Rodriguez says all she ever wanted was a loving family. Yet each time she came close to that dream, catastrophe struck.
“When you try to sort through it all,” says Rodriguez’s former neighbor Betty Hailey, “you just get tired of trying to find the truth.”
She was a ‘dreamer’
Childhood, as Rodriguez recalls it, was a dark, confusing time. She grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., the younger and more troublesome of two daughters. Her father was Puerto Rican-born, a trucker and cabdriver, who left the family. Her mother was a nurse who worked day and night to send her daughters to Catholic schools and provide lessons in ballet, cheerleading and basketball.
“My sister was always the hopeful romantic,” says Colaiacovo, now a real estate comptroller in West Babylon, on Long Island. “She was definitely the dreamer of the two.”
The girls were always surrounded by relatives. When their grandfather baby-sat them, Rodriguez and her sister say, he molested her. The relationship began when she was 2 and lasted through high school, resulted in an abortion and the creation of an alter ego she named “Victoria.” She told several relatives of the abuse, she says, but nothing changed.
“She allowed it to happen,” Colaiacovo says. “She was always looking to be accepted and looking to be ‘Daddy’s little girl.’ ” The grandfather abused the other girls in the family, Colaiacovo says, but “we kind of stopped it when it was supposed to be stopped.”
Rodriguez says she first attempted suicide at age 8 with some over-the-counter pain relievers. At 16, hospital records show, she overdosed on sleeping pills and was hospitalized for depression. At 19, she married and divorced a neighborhood boy named Hector Gonzalez. After that, she says, she started “running ... to find my place.”
She moved to Florida and enlisted in the Air Force. She fell in love with Tom Fuller, a good-looking, athletic “Mr. Right,” while both were based in Colorado. Within three months, she was pregnant. They got married and moved to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. Two years later, Rodriguez was raising her daughter Autumn and her premature newborn, Alicia. The baby’s first four months were spent in and out of the hospital with several health problems, including bradycardia, an abnormally slow heartbeat. Yet Rodriguez remembers this as the happiest time of her life.
“She really seemed to be as grounded as I had ever seen her,” Colaiacovo says. “If she could have had any job she did perfectly, it was as a mother.”
Inside the marriage, however, the relationship was disintegrating. Rodriguez became especially protective of the girls. In an interview, Fuller says that she became preoccupied with their afterlife. “They had to be christened,” he says. “ ‘Just in case anything happened.’ ”
On the morning of Sept. 18, 1993, when Fuller was out of town on business, Alicia choked to death on the plastic nipple of her pacifier. Rodriguez told police she found the child dead in her crib, the pacifier’s shield lying on the floor. “They’re going to pay for this,” she said of the pacifier’s manufacturer, Gerber, according to police reports.
Weeks later, Fuller learned that Rodriguez had purchased a $50,000 life insurance policy for the child. But it wasn’t until the investigation of Frank Rodriguez’s murder that Fuller recalled a waitress’ warning, months before Alicia died, that the pacifier had been recalled because the nipple sometimes separated from the shield. That memory still plagues him.
“There’s times when all I want to do is see her dead,” says Fuller of his ex-wife. “Then there are times I’m just not 100% sold on it. And then maybe I’m in denial that I could marry someone who could have done something like that.”
Colaiacovo still can’t believe her sister killed Alicia. Just the memory of those accusations makes her cry. “There is no way,” she says. “That is ridiculous. I would stake my life on it.” Colaiacovo sat through every day of her sister’s trial and sentencing, heard the wiretapped recordings of her sister plotting to kill a witness, heard the judge call her coldhearted.
“She really is a good person,” she says. “I know that sounds ironic. She wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody. If she did, in fact, do it, who knows what she was thinking? She could never do something like that. She’s not smart enough. I can’t imagine what would possess her.”
During an August interview, Rodriguez shed no tears as she recalled her daughter’s death. “If I’d wanted to kill my daughter,” she said. “I could have just let her die from the bradycardia.”
In an October letter for this article, however, her tone was tender. “I love my girls more than anything or anyone,” she wrote. “They are my breath, my heart, my life. I had never felt so alive as I did with them. Finally, I had the love I wanted.” As for grief, she wrote, “it’s not that I don’t feel it. Hell, sometimes it’s screaming out so loud inside me, I get sick.”
Deception as a way of life
After the 1993 death of Alicia, Rodriguez’s world shifted radically. She and Fuller divorced. They settled their case against Gerber for $750,000; Rodriguez got about $250,000, according to court records. She bought a house, a car and a boat.
Lying became a way of life, according to friends, relatives and investigators. Friends say Rodriguez started telling people she was pregnant with twins, even though most of them knew she’d had an operation that left her infertile. When the babies never arrived, she told them she had fallen down a flight of stairs and miscarried. When she totaled her car, she said a boyfriend drove her off a cliff.
She got a cosmetology license, married a trucker named Don Combs, and then divorced him a few months later, she says, because he was too possessive. She joined the Army National Guard, fell in love with another man, who she says deserted her after she loaned him $20,000.
“She became flighty again,” Colaiacovo says. Despite the settlement, Rodriguez always had a hard-luck story for her family, she says. She always needed money. “She is the boy who cried wolf,” Colaiacovo says. “I definitely lost trust in her.”
Betty Hailey met Rodriguez around 1997 at a school-bus stop. Rodriguez had just put her well-landscaped, four-bedroom home in Paso Robles on the market, a house she bought with the settlement money from Alicia’s death. Hailey bought the house, and soon the two women became friends. She was impressed by Rodriguez’s lifestyle -- the cars, the clothes, the furniture. “Whatever she wanted, she bought,” Hailey says. They prayed together. They baby-sat for one another. Rodriguez took Hailey on a cruise to Mexico. And when Rodriguez married Frank, Hailey was her matron of honor.
Yet Hailey says she never really trusted her impulsive friend. She wouldn’t leave her husband alone with Rodriguez because she suspected her neighbor might try to seduce him. When Rodriguez found out Hailey’s son was single, she invited herself to his Washington, D.C., home for Thanksgiving. “I prayed with her and I counseled with her, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t know that much about her,” Hailey says.
Rodriguez has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders several times since childhood. After her arrest, doctors concluded that she also suffered symptoms of manic and borderline personality disorders but was competent to stand trial. During jailhouse interviews with forensic psychiatrist William Vicary, transcripts show that Rodriguez told him, “I have remorse in my heart.... I’m sorry for what happened to Frank.” But she wouldn’t acknowledge any guilt.
“If I admit responsibility, then I’ll lose everything. I lose all hope,” she told Vicary.
“She’d lose hope of ever having a chance for some kind of freedom or life,” Vicary said in a September interview. “And she cannot stand she might lose what little affection and support she has from her own family.... That’s all she’s got left.”
Joking about murder
The courtship of Angelina and Frank Rodriguez was so brief it shocked their friends and relatives. They met in February 2000 at Angel Gate Academy in San Luis Obispo, a boot camp for wayward youth operated by the California National Guard and the Los Angeles Unified School District. They were platoon sergeants when Angelina accused another staffer of sexual misconduct with a student. No one but Frank believed her. Soon they were dating.
Frank was a devout Christian who insisted they save sex for marriage; Angelina says they spent a lot of time praying together. She wasn’t in love, but Frank was smart, grounded and loved Autumn.
On the surface, they had a lot in common. The oldest son of six children, Frank also grew up in a chaotic family, moving from Connecticut to Texas and finally settling in central Illinois in the 1970s. His father, Jose Francisco Rodriguez, was a doctor and, relatives say, a jealous, abusive man with a drug and alcohol problem, who later deserted the family. His mother, Janet Baker, was a lab technician who raised her children alone.
Relatives say Frank was a quiet, trusting man who took responsibility for his siblings. He left home to join the Navy, married a hometown girl, earned a teaching degree from Southern Illinois University and tried to finish law school. Eventually he became a teacher with an affinity for troubled kids.
After 14 years, his marriage to Judy Adams ended, devastating Frank. Baker says the settlement left him penniless but desperate for a fresh start and a family of his own. He joined a Pentecostal church and stopped drinking and smoking. He became a rape hotline counselor, she says, even inviting one victim into his home who ultimately tried to stab him. Later, Frank moved to San Luis Obispo and became engaged to another teacher at Angel Gate, but, Baker says, she fell in love with someone else and broke it off.
Then he met Angelina. “He was looking for love,” Baker says. “Someone who would love him, for him.”
Frank and Angelina exchanged vows in an April 2000 ceremony at his small church in Paso Robles. Within days, they moved to Montebello into a house they could barely afford, given Frank’s new teaching job at a local middle school. For a while, life was stable. But Angelina says Frank became intolerably possessive and overly strict with Autumn. He insisted on being the sole breadwinner. “He was everything,” she says. “I was nothing.... I just wanted out.”
Frank’s family says the trouble came from Angelina. “He was so patient,” says Frank’s sister Carmen Pipitone. “He would have given her anything.”
In July, at Angelina’s urging, Frank bought a $250,000 life insurance policy for himself and made her sole benefactor. And, as her friends would later testify at her trial, Angelina starting talking about killing Frank. “Well, he’s got a life insurance policy,” she told one friend, according to prosecutor Doug Sortino’s opening statement. “I ought to just kill him and get it over with.” Everyone thought she was kidding. They joked about murder methods and told the story of a woman arrested for using oleander to poison her husband, testimony shows. “Whatever you do,” one friend said, according to court transcripts, “don’t use oleander.” They talked about some vicious neighbor dogs who deserved to die by antifreeze-soaked hot dogs.
“Why would anybody eat something with antifreeze?” Angelina asked, according to prosecutors. “Don’t you know?” said one friend. “It tastes sweet. It says so right on the label.”
In August, Angelina says, she started an affair with Matt Morones, an ex-con and old friend from Paso Robles. She says she swiped one of Frank’s paychecks, hid the money and made plans to live with Morones’ family. Around the same time, testimony shows, Frank found natural gas leaking from their dryer during a weekend Angelina was away.
On Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000, Frank Rodriguez woke from a nap feeling ill -- again. Angelina later told police that it had been days since he’d felt like himself. He’d had a headache and couldn’t keep his food down. In fact, she told them, he’d come home two months earlier with similar symptoms, suspicious that someone at school was trying to poison him, and they had rushed him to the hospital.
This time, Angelina dragged him to the emergency room again. According to police, she told the doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve tried everything I know. My mom was a nurse. I tried. It didn’t work.” Food poisoning, the doctor said. Go home, rest and drink lots of fluids, especially Gatorade.
So, Angelina says, she put her husband to bed and for the next two days she and her daughter Autumn nursed Frank with Gatorade and soup, every four hours. At about 3 a.m. Saturday, Angelina says, she woke up to find Frank face down on the bedroom floor, dead.
Days later, she told Frank’s mother she was pregnant with twins -- a story she’d told friends after the death of her daughter. “She wanted to know if I would help her out with her maternity stuff, monetarily,” Baker says. “I said, ‘Angelina, you bring me a report that says you truly are pregnant and a DNA report that says that it’s my grandson and then we’ll talk.’ ”
At the funeral, friends and relatives noticed that Angelina looked relaxed, even content. She was telling people she suspected Frank had been poisoned by a vengeful co-worker at Angel Gate. In the limo ride to the cemetery, Frank’s sister Shirley Coers asked: “How can someone just poison somebody?” “There’s lots of things you can use to poison people,” Angelina told her, according to Coers’ testimony. “Botanical things. Oleander, for example.”
Investigators say if it wasn’t for Angelina’s tenacity and greed, they may never have determined what killed Frank. County toxicologists tested Frank’s blood for all the common poisons -- PCP, heroin, methamphetamine, arsenic, cyanide -- but found none. And without a cause of death, police told her the insurance company wouldn’t release any money to Angelina.
Almost immediately after Frank’s death, according to investigators’ transcripts, she started referencing oleander and antifreeze. “It could be anything,” she told investigators. “It could be the flowers on the road.... What the heck are those? You know, they grow in the middle of the highway?”
She claimed to have received an anonymous call on her cellphone from someone who knew how Frank died. “All I heard was, um, ‘Ask them about antifreeze,’ ” she told them. “Does that help, you think? If they test [Frank] and say, ‘Yeah, it’s there, maybe that’ll be enough for them to say, ‘This is the cause of death.’ ”
Toxicologists took her recommendation. They determined Frank had received a massive dose of antifreeze four to six hours before he died. Angelina was arrested a few weeks later.
Investigators never determined how Angelina got the poisons into Frank. He had been dead for two days before they searched the house. They found oleander plants within arm’s reach of her back patio but no antifreeze.
“Just the way we had to work the case, we had to lie to her,” says Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Det. Brian Steinwand. “We had no witnesses. Our only witness was her.... She provided us with the poisons. [County toxicologists] check for standard ones, but they don’t check for oleander and antifreeze. We knew she was the only one alive that knew what poisons were used.”
Tears and excuses
As Angelina recalls Frank’s last days now, there are no signs of grief. She says he committed suicide because she wanted a divorce. The marriage was so bad, she says, she started mixing painkillers and alcohol, spending long afternoons alone, sobbing. All of this, she says, points to her innocence.
“How could I have gotten all that green goop into this intelligent man?” she asks. “I might have been depressed. I might have been sad. But I’m not an idiot.”
But if she thought Frank committed suicide, why did she tell police he had been poisoned by a vengeful co-worker? Her answer: It was only in retrospect that she realized how desperate Frank had become.
If she was innocent, why did she try to arrange the murder of a witness in her case, suggesting the killer use “what I killed my husband with ... antifreeze”? Her answer: She was overmedicated, incoherent and didn’t know what she was saying.
What about testimony from friends claiming she talked about killing Frank? Her answer: All lies.
And why did she take out a $50,000 life insurance policy on the 13-month-old just days before the child’s death? The insurance money was a college fund, she says.
When the line of questioning creeps uncomfortably close to incriminating her, she stops talking and stares at the wall. She rubs her temples and sighs loudly. Then she puts both hands on the table and says, “I did not kill my husband. I did not kill my daughter. I’m so tired of feeling guilty.”
Most everyone from Rodriguez’s old life has cut ties with her. Only Rodriguez’s stepfather, Jose Rivera, who has paid for her paralegal studies, keeps in touch. Still, for this article, she provided a long list of old friends and close relatives in the hopes that they would attest to her character. “Maybe,” she says, “if they hear you aren’t really looking to prove my innocence, they will relax.”
Today Rodriguez has nothing but time. She can’t afford an attorney. But even if she could, there’s not much one could do for her now. The California Supreme Court won’t even consider the automatic appeal of her case -- which is required by law after a death sentence -- until 2009.
Rodriguez’s conviction has devastated almost everyone close to her. Her mother, Anita Rivera, died of emphysema and pulmonary disease soon after Rodriguez was sentenced to death. Fuller says their daughter, Autumn, who is now 13, is tortured by the possibility that she may inadvertently have helped her mother kill Frank. She recently told Rodriguez she never wants to see her again.
Colaiacovo says she broke off contact with her sister after Rodriguez demanded costly care packages -- a television, a VCR and expensive perfume. This, she says, after the family drained its savings to fund her defense. Still, Colaiacovo struggles with guilt over not rescuing her little sister from their grandfather. Rodriguez was never equipped to handle the harsh truths of the world, she says.
“I don’t think she had a true grip of reality,” Colaiacovo says. “I think she lived in a dream world. I think she made up stories and believed them. Truly believed them.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.