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Missing Latino’s remains ID’ed in Texas, after 3 decades of mystery, grief

By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa


June 24, 2012: More than three decades of unanswered questions, heartache, and grief will come to an end later this week when the remains of a Toledo man are returned home to his family from Houston, Texas. A cousin will return with his cremated remains for a memorial service and a proper burial.


A cold-case squad in Texas identified the remains earlier this year of 22-year old Esaw “Chicken” Rodríguez, Jr. using DNA submitted by his mother Pauline and older sister Marta. But who killed Rodríguez during a cross-country hitchhiking trip may remain a mystery long after his burial in his hometown.

“My closure will be when I get to hold that urn and kiss him and tell him I’ll see him someday soon,” said his older sister Marta Rodríguez, 58. “When you’re missing a loved one, they never leave your heart.”


Rodríguez was hitchhiking to Louisiana/Texas in August 1980 to visit his cousins. Following a pay phone call to his mother Pauline from a Louisiana truck stop, he was never heard from again. He had told his mother two men in a green truck had been bothering him.


According to family, Pauline, now 79 years old, traveled to that Union 76 truck stop near Cajun country (Southwest Louisiana), but could not find her son. His mother filed a missing persons report with authorities in Lafayette, Louisiana. But the family years later learned the report was never entered into a national database.


The skeletal remains of Rodríguez were found in the Houston area in 1984—some 200 miles from Lafayette. According to his sister, some boys had been playing in the Buffalo Bayou when they stumbled upon the remains under some rocks. His murder remained a cold case homicide until 2008, when his remains were buried in an anonymous grave.


In 2010, a cousin, Sgt. Valentino Zavala, now retired from the Wyandotte, MI police department, started looking into the case.


“I just couldn't stand idle watching my aunt grieve for 28 years thinking that authorities were going to contact her,” Zavala told the Houston Chronicle.


Sgt. Zavala got a new missing persons report filed and placed in the national database, which he then scoured looking for a matching Latino male to no avail. He then

convinced Pauline and Marta to submit DNA kits to a Louisiana lab.


“A part of us all for 30 years had wondered ‘Where is he at? What are you doing? Are you OK? Did you eat?’ All the things you worry about your baby brother,” said Marta, thankful for her cousin’s assistance.


On Feb. 27 of this year—nearly two years after the DNA samples were submitted—Zavala received a phone call from a medical examiner in Houston, TX. Forensic anthropologists there had identified the remains of Rodríguez as a 1984 John Doe homicide—putting his family one step closer to closure after wondering for so long what had happened to him.


“We were happy, crying,” said Marta as she recalled the ensuing phone call from her cousin. “I asked him ‘Are you sure?’ He said ‘I’m not going to lie to you.’”

According to his sister, an autopsy revealed Rodríguez had suffered a fractured skull, possibly from a surprise attack from behind. Where the attack occurred and who is responsible for his murder remain unanswered questions. His sister believes his body had been dumped by his attacker(s).

“I want to know who did this and why,” said Marta.


Rodríguez, Jr. grew up in North Toledo, the youngest of four children and the only son. His sister Marta recalled that is how he ended up with the nickname of “Chicken.” His mother called him “pollito,” or “little chick.”


“It always stuck. But no young man wants to grow up being called ‘Chicken,’” recalled Marta with a laugh. “I always called him ‘Bro’ and he always responded ‘Yeah, man.’”


But she admitted there’s been an emptiness, a void for more than three decades without her younger sibling. Family gatherings, reunions, and holidays have come and gone; only pictures and memories remain of Rodríguez, who now would be 54 years old.

“Finally, he’ll be at the cemetery where my daddy’s at. I’ll take him his favorite candy, jaw breakers,” she said with a chuckle, explaining that her younger brother always had a fresh supply of jaw breakers for his young nephews growing up.

Esaw “Chicken” Rodríguez, Jr.


Marta explained the family is planning the memorial service as a celebration of the short life they had with Esaw. Instead of mournful music, the funeral home will be filled with his favorite rock-n-roll tunes from the late 1970’s instead of sad Mexican music.


“That’s not Chick. He sure liked rock-n-roll,” said Marta. “He liked Black Sabbath. He liked REO Speedwagon. My brother had an old AC-DC picture booklet.”


Marta described her brother as a bit of a “free spirit.” He never graduated high school, but had lots of friends and never was afraid to prove he could do something when challenged. The hitchhiking trip started with two of those friends with a destination in Florida. But he continued alone toward Texas when his friends decided to return to Toledo. He had planned to either visit his cousin Miguel in Houston or his cousin Carlos in San Antonio. Miguel now lives in Toledo.


“He liked being with the boys, the guy cousins,” recalled Marta. ”He was single and didn’t have a girlfriend. He liked cartoons. He was still somewhat of a little kid because he liked cartoons. He also liked card games.”


At the time of his disappearance, Rodríguez lived with his mom in a house on Kenilworth near Cherry St. The home has since been demolished.


“He told us ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,’” Marta recalled just before he left on his hitchhiking excursion that would result in his death.


Decades later, Rodríguez finally will return to Toledo, too, in an urn his mother chose. Marta jokingly described it as a “flying saucer” for its unique shape. But she stated her mother Pauline is “holding up” and ready “for him to come home.”


The remains of Rodríguez arrived at a Texas funeral home for cremation last Friday. A cousin who lives nearby will drive them to Toledo where a memorial service is planned next week at Coyle Funeral Home. Rodríguez will be buried next to his father in Forest Cemetery.


Marta expects “quite a lot of people, family” to attend the memorial service, because her brother left behind a big family that has only grown over the years.


In January of last year, a team of Houston-area forensic anthropologists used a grant to reopen hundreds of files involving unidentified remains dating back as far as 60 years—including Rodríguez. The effort has made a believer out of both Marta and Sgt. Zavala that loved ones of missing persons can find answers.


Marta readily admitted she had only seen forensic science work successfully on TV crime dramas. But she hopes her real-life experience can help others.


“I have never read of a Latino or a Mexican family ever going through this before,” said Marta. “There may be one out there right now that might have something of their loved one—a hairbrush, a toothbrush—something that has their loved one’s DNA. Go and have it tested to see if there’s a loved one out there. DNA works.”


“Folks who have been touched by a violent crime, including missing persons--either as victims or family members--should always persevere and never give up,” Zavala told the Houston Chronicle. “Esaw was somebody’s child, brother, nephew, grandson and cousin and didn’t deserve to be murdered - nobody does - and all of those lives are touched.”

Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/26/12 19:41:55 -0700.





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