Longform

Hiding In Plain Sight: Cops Finally Apprehend a Killer, Now 82 and Ailing, Who'd Been on the Lam for 22 Years

A bailiff in a beige uniform opens the door next to the courtroom's inmate-seating area, which is empty for the moment. It's Monday at the Maricopa County Superior Court, and the inmate galley begins to fill up for the morning's hearings.

"It might be easier to get him through this way," says someone from the hallway beyond the door.

Finally, an old man in a wheelchair rolls through the doorway, pushed by another inmate.

Like the much younger defendants shuffling through the door in chains, the elderly man wears a striped jail uniform over a pink, long-sleeve undershirt. He has thick and long-ish white-gray hair and two or three inches of white beard. He twists in the chair to thank the inmate who helped him, then looks to the visitors' section, smiles, and waves. His daughter, Connie Watkins, a heavyset, middle-age woman in a pantsuit, waves back.

Maricopa County Superior Court Commissioner James Rummage takes his seat on the bench, then does a double take when he looks at the number of the first case before him. The case number includes the year of the alleged offense. Rummage stumbles: "I'm sorry, CR 1987?"

The date of the crime and age of the defendant aren't the only weird things about the hearing: The old man's lawyer claims authorities have the wrong man in custody. The 23-year-old case names Roger Cook as the defendant, but the inmate says he's Richard Earl Rodgers Sr.

"That's the name I was born with," the man tells the judge in a strong voice.

Yet if the man in the wheelchair is Richard Rodgers, then where is Roger Cook, the nasty guy who gunned down an unarmed young stranger those many years ago at a downtown Phoenix apartment complex? The case wasn't a whodunit: Witnesses back then all agreed that Cook had leaned over a second-floor balcony and fired his .357 Magnum at 23-year-old Terance Keenan, who had done nothing but taunt him from a parking lot below.

Cook was arrested at the time but disappeared soon after a judge released him on an unsecured bond.

Watkins whispers to a reporter seated on the bench next to her that Rodgers couldn't possibly have committed the crime.

"He wasn't living here in 1987. He was in Long Beach," she says. "He had heart surgery in 1989. This is a case of mistaken identity and abuse of an elderly person."

She's in town from California, where she'd been living to be near her aging father. Now she's doing whatever she can to help him during his incarceration. Her brother, Thomas Rodgers, uses his blog to repeat the claim that their father is falsely accused.

A big man with the face of a boxer and a scar on his nose, Rodgers grew up during the Great Depression, joined the Navy in the late 1940s, and worked as a truck driver for 50 years. He lived and worked in Phoenix for at least 11 years and has been retired in Long Beach for more than 20, spending the past 15 in the same senior-living apartment.

In August, authorities rousted Rodgers from his home and checked the semi-ambulatory old man into a medical ward at the local jail. Three months later, he was placed on a private flight (at taxpayer expense) and found himself booked into another medical unit, this time in the Maricopa County jail.

The retiree had been living on a fixed income and couldn't afford a lawyer, so his case was assigned to John Curry, a public defender. Curry was, in fact, the same public defender who handled the Cook case two decades ago, when he was fresh out of law school. An experienced lawyer now, he tells Commissioner Rummage that he doesn't recognize anyone in the courtroom from 1987.

"We're not sure why the state thinks he's Roger Cook," Curry says.

The prosecutor, Deputy County Attorney Bernita Clark, says she can't immediately provide proof of the man's identity.

But that's okay with Rummage, who isn't buying the mistaken-identity angle. Rummage acts as though the defendant's true name is a moot point. And it is a moot point, except as a Hail Mary defense tactic.

Rodgers admitted before his 2009 arrest that he was the man in the 1987 booking photo, according to a report published by police weeks earlier. Fingerprint evidence confirmed it, even if Clark didn't have the documents in front of her at the hearing.

Curry, Watkins, and Thomas Rodgers are just doing what comes naturally for defense lawyers and kin — covering for the old guy, hoping they'll get away with it.

Fact was, cops knew in June 2009 that they had their man. Their dilemma centered on what to do with him.

Rodgers was 81 at the time. He used a motorized scooter to get around, received treatments at a California Veterans Affairs hospital for various ailments, including congestive heart failure. He took handfuls of medications daily. Ultimately, it was decided to take him back to Maricopa County.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.