Loyalty and Allegiance

Deputies feel betrayed after county supes write letters on behalf of a man who allegedly shot at an officer

Michael Rodriguez was a quiet superstar while working for Dan Eckstrom until the county supervisor's retirement in September 2003.

He spent the first half of his teen years gracefully fielding constituents' concerns, building toys for children in the community during the holidays and performing other tasks as Eckstrom's paid intern; he was also a whiz on computers, helping Supervisor Richard Elias set up his office after his election.

Neither Elias nor Eckstrom can put their finger on what would bring this boy wonder to allegedly--while clad in body armor--shoot at a Pima County Sheriff's deputy during an early morning chase on Aug. 15. Rodriguez is being held on $100,000 bond, charged with crimes including first-degree murder, aggravated assault and misconduct involving body armor, stemming from the incident when Rodriguez, 23, and Ralph Martinez III, 22, were cruising in a Cadillac Escalade on the northwest side.

Deputies can't fathom why county officials would stick up for two suspects who tried to kill one of their own. Eckstrom wrote a page-and-a-half character reference to help Rodriguez in his bond reduction hearing in September; so did Elias and County Community Resources Department Director Kate O'Rielly, both using county letterhead.

Pima County Sgt. Jim Pratt, who heads the Pima County Deputy Sheriff's Association, said the letters worsen the morale of the already sagging department.

"If this were a citizen that were the victim, they would be legitimately upset if they found out this happened," he said. "Here's an officer who put his life on the line, and he finds out the people he basically works for have taken this stance."

Pratt said he would have agreed with them writing a character reference if it were prior to sentencing, but the actions and language in all three letters indicate wishes for a lesser penalty prior to trial.

"And if these two letters weren't covered all over with the seal of Pima County, things would be different also," he said. "But this just hurts morale."

Pima County Deputy Sheriff's Association Steward Chris Rogers expressed concern about the incident.

"I mean, we're all on the same team here, and they go back on us like this?" he asked.

Twenty-six pages of reports obtained from Pima County Sheriff's Department paints the scene as follows:

Deputy Larry Summerfield had just finished eating breakfast with deputies at Denny's at River and Oracle roads when an Escalade blasted through a red light while going south on Flowing Wells Road.

The Escalade, owned by Martinez's dad, pulled onto a side street, and Rodriguez jumped out and started running. Summerfield commanded him to stop; Rodriguez responded by firing the Glock 9-millimeter he was carrying, reports stated. Summerfield returned fire as Rodriguez jumped back in the Escalade.

Officers who were eating with Summerfield rushed to the scene and stopped the truck at Quik Mart at Flowing Wells and Roger roads. After being taken into custody, body armor fell from Martinez's shirt; both he and Rodriguez were allegedly wearing the armor. Martinez then went on to taunt police, according to reports.

Rodriguez "lethargically" stepped out of the truck and went into custody quietly. He later reportedly told deputies he fired shots because he "freaked out." He also said he was afraid to lose his academic scholarship. More body armor was also found under the passenger seat, along with a 9-milimeter, a shotgun and several rounds of ammunition.

Martinez was taken to the Foothills Station for questioning. He reportedly explained that this incident and his arrest were a part of the "thug lifestyle."

"He was laughing and almost manic, saying that, 'that's the thug lifestyle,'" according to an interview conducted by another officer at the scene. Later, Martinez reportedly said: "Yeah, that cop's lucky he didn't end up like (murdered Tucson Police officer Patrick) Hardesty," He then opted to stop talking with police without talking to his attorney.

The "thug life" phrase was coined by rapper Tupac Shakur as being born with nothing and doing whatever it takes to become successful.

Rodriguez relayed a message via the jail that he would not comment for this story until he was able to consult with his attorney. Martinez relayed a message that he refused to comment.

Elias was quick to say that Rodriguez was not an employee of his office and that he should pay for the crimes he committed, but he added the letter he wrote to Judge Davis was completely honest.

"In the time I've known Michael, I have always known him to be respectful of the law and of other elected officials with whom he has come in contact," Elias wrote in the letter.

In response to deputies' concerns of feeling backstabbed by the District 5 supervisor, Elias agreed that "we are all on the same team.

"I wrote a character reference, and that's what I observed when ever I came into contact with him. If found guilty, he should pay for what he did like everyone else."

Eckstrom echoed Elias, saying he didn't know much of the specifics on the incident. However, he added that Rodriguez's dress and demeanor led him to believe Rodriguez wasn't living the "thug lifestyle" while working with him.

"He had no unusual haircuts, and he always dressed good," he said. "That says something about people sometimes."

He said officers who are concerned about him writing a character reference should look deeper.

"People have to realize that when someone is asked to write a letter like this, they need to write what they know about the person," Eckstrom said. "There are two sides to every story."

Rodriguez's mother, Elaine Blankenship, was Eckstrom's executive assistant when he worked at Maya Construction, and was also his assistant during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. Attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.

O'Rielly's letter expressed how surprised she was when she heard about the incident.

" ... I have worked as a juvenile probation officer both here in Tucson and in Oakland, Calif., and I believe that young people who are close to their families and involved in their communities are less likely to become involved with the justice system, especially for such a serious reason."

O'Rielly went on to praise Rodriguez for helping her out with projects and helping his mother raise his younger siblings.

While both Judge Davis and Pima County Deputy Attorney Kellie Johnson declined to comment on the issue, Rogers said the written character references were futile.

A recent check of court records found that both were still being represented by public defenders. According to Johnson, their trials are scheduled for later this month.

Tucson City Court records show that aside from a civil infraction, Rodriguez started getting in trouble with the law in 2003 when, according to Tucson police reports, he was arrested at the Clarion Inn, 86 E. Broadway Blvd., for vandalizing cars and hotel doors with an etching tool.

The Tucson City Prosecutors Office said Rodriguez still faces a warrant for failing to appear in court on those misdemeanor charges in July.

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