In Harm's Way

Cerebral palsy left Jimmy Rodriguez unable to speak or control his limbs. The state allegedly left him with a series of molesters.

It was far better, Rodriguez now says, to live in a loving home with roaches than to be warehoused in a group home with strange male caregivers he could not deter.

And things would only get worse for Jimmy Rodriguez.

The state placed him in a west Phoenix home operated by Good Shepherd Lutheran Home of the West. All of the residents in the home were mentally retarded adults. One of the residents -- we'll call him "Jake" -- had a long history of sexual and physical aggression. Both Good Shepherd and DDD knew of Jake's propensities -- at least 20 incidents were documented in their files.

Operating the Liberator often causes Rodriguez's facial muscles to spasm
Paolo Vescia
Operating the Liberator often causes Rodriguez's facial muscles to spasm
The keyboard of the Liberator
Paolo Vescia
The keyboard of the Liberator

But neither DDD nor Good Shepherd advised Rodriguez's caseworker of Jake's history. In fact, the required "pre-placement meeting" between caseworkers and Good Shepherd staff was not held before Rodriguez was moved into the house. If the meeting had been held, Rodriguez might have been protected.

On June 5, 1996, Nadine Walls, a Good Shepherd caregiver, discovered Jake undressing Rodriguez.

Jake had unfastened the wheelchair straps and Rodriguez had slipped down in the chair -- one of the straps used to secure Rodriguez's chest to the wheelchair was wrapped around his neck. He looked terrified.

Jake explained that he wanted to help give Rodriguez a bath. Since Walls did not know of Jake's history, she said in a deposition that she was not alarmed. She says she gently rebuked Jake and resettled Rodriguez.

That same day, Jake's DDD caseworker wrote: "Inappropriate sexual aggression against weaker or helpless individuals remains an urgent concern . . . [Jake's ] inappropriate advantage taking of his defenseless roommate requires that staff be very aware of [Jake's] whereabouts in the home. He's very capable of using a lack of attention to the roommate's disadvantage."

Walls later testified that even after the June 5 incident, no one at DDD or Good Shepherd informed her of Jake's background.

Rodriguez's DDD caseworker, Laura Boyd, said in a deposition that she learned of Jake's history on June 14, 1996. Boyd said she wanted to move Rodriguez out of the house immediately but her supervisor nixed the idea.

Five days later, on June 19, 1996, Walls and another caregiver left Jake and Rodriguez in the living room watching television. Rodriguez did not have his Liberator with him. His legs and arms were strapped to his wheelchair.

When the caregivers returned to the living room after a smoke, Jake was masturbating Rodriguez, who had involuntarily ejaculated. Again, the expression on Rodriguez's face was one of terror.

The fact that Rodriguez ejaculated made the molestation all the more horrendous for him, says his attorney, Larry Tinsley.

"Victims of rape and sexual abuse sometimes have bodies that betray them," says Tinsley. "Jimmy was a teenager and lots of stimuli can cause teenagers to become aroused. His ejaculation is not equivalent to his consent."

Rodriguez himself will only say: "I am not gay. I like girls."

Immediately after this incident, Jake was sent off to summer camp. Rodriguez remained in the Good Shepherd home. Since the police had visited the home, practically everyone knew that Rodriguez had been molested.

Which may explain why on July 4, Rodriguez was allegedly molested again -- this time by a new male caregiver who, Rodriguez claims, tried to fondle him. Rodriguez and the caregiver were alone in the house. Rodriguez says he was in his wheelchair at the time, and that he managed to escape out to the sidewalk through an open door, where he was later found by staffers.

The caregiver denied molesting Rodriguez.

Police could not confirm that the molestation actually happened, and lawyers for Good Shepherd would later imply that Rodriguez was a homophobe who had made up the incident so the caregiver, who was gay and HIV-positive, would be fired.

CPS also accused Rodriguez of fabricating the molestation, according to the July 24, 1996, notes of Jimmy's psychologist, Lori Jordan.

"CPS stated that the . . . report was unfounded and the investigator felt Jimmy was manipulative and was lying. . . . I have concerns that official records erroneously state that he [Rodriguez] is a manipulative liar."

The notion that Rodriguez's molestation accounts are apocryphal surfaces over and over in court documents. For instance, in late 1999, Suire attempted to convince a criminal judge that Rodriguez had lied about all four claims of sexual abuse -- including the allegations against him.

But Superior Court Judge Anna M. Baca ruled against Suire. After studying documents pertaining to all four instances, she ruled in October 1999 that there was no proof Jimmy Rodriguez lied about anything.

After the last instance of alleged abuse, Jimmy Rodriguez was suicidal. He knew he could kill himself in only one way -- he would drive his electric wheelchair into rush-hour traffic. On days that he was particularly morose, Whitney would order caregivers to move him into a manual wheelchair, which he could not operate.The once-confident Glendale High student seemed to have vanished. He was often glum and timid and not interested in life. Other students no longer gravitated to him.

He underwent years of therapy to overcome posttraumatic stress syndrome stemming from the alleged sexual abuse, as well as his new feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.

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