By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
About 20 hanging baskets filled with plants line the roof of Aurelia "Lolly" Rodriguez's home. Another nine pots of blooming impatiens and spider monkeys sit on her grill. A red hibiscus blooms at the edge of the walkway. Up the path is a pink rose bush surrounded by banana leaves. Precious Moments decals are peeling off the front windows.
In past years, Lolly spent summer days weeding and planting more flowers bordering the liriope-lined path to her front door. But last summer, the 59-year-old let her garden go -- because she was too afraid to leave her house.
She was frightened of the man living in the car parked across the street from her home. From her front window, Lolly watched Roger Valdez walk up and down Jacqueline Drive laughing and talking to himself. Neighbors saw the 42-year-old man yelling when no one else was around -- sometimes ranting about people not obeying orders and delaying the 18-wheeler carrying his drug shipment.
A couple of Roger's teeth have been knocked out and he has a scar across his chin. He's five foot seven and about 130 pounds. He's been in the Harris County Jail for violations ranging from drug possession to felony assault. He wears his long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail -- in the summer he washed it with a neighbor's hose.
Two years ago, Roger asked Lolly if he could borrow her car. She said no. When she refused, she says, he pushed her to the ground, breaking her wrist and cracking her back. He spent the next two weeks living in Lolly's house before he was arrested. He killed her grandchildren's pet rabbit and hung it on the front porch.
Roger has been arrested twice for violating a protective order preventing him from being within 200 feet of Lolly's house. But when he's released from jail, he always returns to Lolly's house.
It's his home. Roger is Lolly's son.
Roger claims he works with the CIA and the FBI. He knows he's been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but he doesn't believe anything is wrong with him. He's been admitted twice to the Harris County Psychiatric Center and spent eight years as a Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority outpatient, according to medical records in court documents.
When a doctor tells Roger that his mother says he's sick, Roger asks how the doctor knows she's his mother. "People can be impersonated," he says. He insists that he's not paranoid, but he dug a ditch in front of Lolly's house because he believes the water supply is contaminated.
On an early afternoon, Roger is sitting on a red Coca-Cola crate outside the Diamond Shamrock on Wirt Road. The gas station is a few blocks from his mother's Spring Branch rental house. Nearby are a homeless shelter, a trailer park and a taqueria. Roger is wearing a red-and-black flannel shirt, dark jeans and new Converse All Stars covered in peace signs. He spent the afternoon watching Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke.
Roger says he's starred in several documentaries, martial arts movies and major motion pictures such as Traffic. "You can rent it at Blockbuster," he says.
"Do you know who Jennifer Lopez is?" Roger asks. She calls him all the time. He claims he possesses a Washington, D.C., driver's license that protects him from ever being arrested. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Texas driver's license wrapped in white rosary beads. He points to the Texas state seal and says, "See? Washington, D.C."
Repeat the conversation to his mother minutes later and she nods her head. "That's all untrue," Lolly says. "But that's what he believes."
When Roger was 14, he changed, Lolly says. Something went wrong. "Maybe it was the drugs," she says. Or maybe he was sick. Roger had been a popular football player and a decent student in junior high. Then he started cutting school and ignoring curfew, and his brother found some drug paraphernalia. No matter how Lolly punished Roger, he didn't care. Roger dropped out of school in ninth grade. He promised his mother and stepfather that he was going to get a job, but mostly he stayed home and slept. Lolly's husband kicked him out of the house a handful of times.
While exiled, Roger slept in his brother's tow truck parked across the street. Lolly took him food and blankets; on cold nights she secretly let him sleep in the garage. When her husband was at work, Lolly allowed Roger to come inside the house, shower and eat.
She and her husband fought because he said she was too lenient on her three sons. "He thought I didn't push them enough, and I wasn't stern enough, and I bowed to them," she says. "We started having troubles."
Her husband moved to San Antonio without her. But like her son, he eventually came back.
One morning Lolly woke Roger and told him to go to work. She says he pulled a phone out of the wall and threw it at her. Then he followed her into the living room and threw an aloe plant at her chest. Her grandson was in the room, and she was afraid Roger would hit the baby.
A few months later, in January 1994, Roger was arrested and charged with unlawfully carrying a weapon. He spent almost three months at the Harris County Jail.
Lolly says Roger's court-appointed attorney asked if she thought there might be something wrong with Roger. She said yes. That's when Roger was first diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, she says.
Doctors explained to Lolly and her husband that Roger was sick, therefore his bizarre behavior wasn't necessarily his fault. Roger took his medicine every day in front of his stepfather. When his stepfather died five years ago, Roger stopped taking the psychotropic drugs, Lolly says. "The authority was gone."
Off the medication, Lolly says, Roger installed extra locks and wires inside his bedroom door. Lolly says she can tell when he's sick, because he gets a strange look in his eyes. And he had that look the day he pushed her to the ground, she says.
Roger's version of his mother's fall on August 7, 2001, starts the same as Lolly's. They both agree that he wanted to borrow her vehicle to go to the auto store and buy a part for his truck. "I told her I'd be right back," he says. She followed him down the sidewalk and started hitting him, Roger says. He acknowledges that he pushed her, and he admits she fell -- but he insists that she falls all the time. "She fell down in the kitchen when she was mopping," he says. "She's fell putting oil in the car. She's fell putting jackets on the kids." She didn't get hurt when she fell, he says.
Roger went to the store, came home, and his mother was gone. She had temporarily moved in with Roger's younger brother. Neighbors reported to Lolly that Roger moved her furniture into the garage and piled her things in the garbage ditch in front of the house. Then he killed her grandchildren's pet rabbit and hung it in a blue plastic shopping bag outside the front door.
On August 30, 2001, Roger was indicted for felony aggravated assault with serious bodily injury. In an affidavit, Lolly stated that Roger's actions scared her. A two-year protective order was issued by the 311th District Court preventing Roger from being within 200 feet of Lolly's home.
At the end of September, Roger's court-appointed attorney filed a motion asking that Roger receive a psychiatric exam. "He doesn't appear rational, he talks about CIA men and counter intelligence," attorney Hector Chavana wrote. "He needs medication."
Whenever Chavana consulted Roger about the case, Roger was angry, agitated, grunting and hollering, Chavana says. "It was a little scary," he says. "I was very grateful that there was a partition there between us." They never had a calm, rational discussion about why Roger was incarcerated, Chavana says.
MHMRA psychologist Ramon Laval noted in a competency evaluation that Roger said he needed to hire a detective. "Tangentially, he began to talk about how he had lost his driver's license and thus, someone may have committed crimes for which he will be wrongly accused," Laval wrote. Laval reported that Roger's thinking was disorganized, illogical and loose.
A jury found Roger incompetent to stand trial. He was committed to the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation's North Texas State Hospital in Vernon in February 2002. Three months later, psychiatrist Wassel A. Lewis wrote that despite both group and individual therapy sessions, Roger remained psychotic and needed more treatment. Roger told the doctor that he felt he was competent to stand trial. "He gave a description about his charge, but basically it was difficult to follow and even after several attempts to clarify what he was saying, I have no idea what he was talking about," Lewis wrote.
Roger also made what the doctor described as "delusional statements," saying he was sworn in as a plainclothesman in the army, according to the report. Roger was able to name the past three presidents, locate the state capital and the Golden Gate Bridge. But he had no idea who was governor or the Eiffel Tower's location. He told the psychiatrist that he didn't need medication because he didn't think there was anything wrong with him, the report says.
In June 2002, Laval re-evaluated Roger, who insisted that his mother just lost her step, fell down and hurt herself, the report says. Roger was alert, coherent, and his speech and thinking process were logical. The evaluator wrote that Roger wasn't suffering from a mental disease or defect severe enough to prohibit him from standing trial.
The week before Thanksgiving 2002 Roger was deemed "marginally competent" to stand trial. Laval reported that Roger didn't appear to be "actively psychotic," just mistaken. Roger insisted that he had served his time and should be released.
At that time, Roger understood the roles of the judge, jury and attorneys. He also knew what he was charged with, his lawyer says. "It wasn't like, 'Yeah, I pushed her down and I hurt her because a big purple bunny told me to do it,' " Chavana says. "That was not the case."
A jury trial was scheduled for December 9, 2002. But the week before, the district attorney's office dismissed the felony charge. The case was refiled with the charge of misdemeanor aggravated assault. For assault with bodily injury to be classified as a felony, there has to be permanent damage or disfigurement. In the case file, the only injury Lolly listed was a broken wrist. "Although injuries can sometimes seem very serious, they are not necessarily going to be serious bodily injury," says Danny Dexter, Harris County assistant district attorney, second chair in the 228th District Court. "We can't maintain the charges if we can't prove the elements of the crime."
Roger pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and received the maximum sentence of one year in the Harris County Jail. Since he had been incarcerated for 16 months, he was released the first week of December 2002.
The day after he was released, Roger checked into a homeless shelter directly across the street from his mother's home. The Turning Point Center was once a crack den. Now the sign says the shelter turns lives around. The brick apartment complex has bars on the windows and statues of angels in the courtyard. A guard at the front gate requires residents to take a Breathalyzer test before re-entry.
The founder, Isha Salas, says she started the shelter after seeing a woman her mother's age begging on the streets of India. The shelter is geared toward homeless people over the age of 50. Roger didn't meet the minimum age requirement, but Salas made an exception. "I knew he was not going to be here long," she says. On the sign-in sheet he wrote that he collects a $542-a-month SSI check. And he looked healthy enough to get some sort of job.
Lolly stacked boxes filled with Roger's tools and clothes and shoes in front of her garage so Roger could pick them up. She bought Roger new clothes and sent her grandchildren as couriers to leave them with the security guard at the shelter's front gate.
Roger stayed at the shelter about a month. When his disability check arrived after New Year's, he disappeared, Salas says. "Normally, people when they have a habit, they get their check and they're gone," she says. "If you leave for three days, we consider you gone. We pack your stuff."
When Roger returned, he had a "confrontation" with the guard at the front gate, Salas says. She claims Roger was under the influence of some substance and refused to take a drug test or go to rehab. Plus, the shelter doesn't house people entirely for free. Roger had income, Salas says, but he didn't give any of it to the shelter.
Salas remembers Roger. And she remembers later watching the police handcuff him in front of his mother's house. "We won't take him again," she says.
Parked between two pine trees is a matte gray Mitsubishi truck. The windshield is cracked. The truck doesn't run; it doesn't have a clutch or a gearshift. "One weekend we heard a loud backfire -- he actually got that thing started for about five seconds," says neighbor Shannon Casto, a high school journalism teacher.
Red quarts of oil sit beside the truck, and red plastic dice are on the roof. The cab is filled with newspapers, a box of Salem Black Label cigarettes and a 36-pack of rolling papers. Formerly an auto mechanic, Roger constantly works on the truck. The truck used to be red, but he painted it the unfinished color his neighbors describe as "Bondo gray." "He even takes engine parts out and paints them," Casto says.
After the homeless shelter kicked him out, Roger lived in his truck. With Roger across the street, Lolly was afraid to leave the house. She gave a copy of the protective order to her next-door neighbors and told them to call the cops if they saw Roger. Casto says she called the cops and reported Roger twice. Once, he vanished before the police arrived; another time, he was walking down the street and she pointed him out to the cops.
Roger was arrested for violating the protective order on January 21, 2003, at 9:15 a.m. Officers wrote in a report that they saw him sleeping in the truck's cab. He was sentenced to 45 days in the Harris County Jail.
Released in March, Roger moved back into his Mitsubishi. About a week later, he was arrested again for violating the protective order. That time, he spent 60 days in the Harris County Jail before returning to the truck.
Gradually, Roger began knocking on his mother's door, asking if he could have a Coke or money to buy cigarettes. He didn't hurt her, so she became less afraid of him. Her two-year protective order expired in September. She decided not to renew it.
Neighbors told Lolly they felt "eerie" having Roger live outside, she says. Her landlord told her that he was getting complaints and he didn't want to have complaints, Lolly says.
When the weather turned cold in November, Lolly asked her two other sons to let Roger live with them. "That truck doesn't have any insulation," she says. She told her sons that they didn't have to let him stay inside all the time, just give him a place to sleep, then kick him out in the morning when they left for work -- like it was a flophouse. "He's your brother," she told them. "He needs help." They said no.
The week before Thanksgiving, Lolly let Roger move back into her house. She made him sign a sheet of paper promising he wouldn't hurt her and he wouldn't do little things that irritate her, like smoke cigarettes inside the house. Her eldest son told her to get it notarized. She didn't.
Lolly is a woman who throws bread crusts out for birds. She has two cats, a flea-market bunny rabbit and a parakeet. "If I can take care of pets," she asks, "why can't I take care of my own son?"
Roger says it was humiliating for his mother to make him sign the I-promise-I-won't-hurt-you contract. He says he's the best one of her three sons -- because he's always treated her with respect and kindness. He says he makes about $800 a week working at the Diamond Shamrock station picking up glass and cigarette butts in the parking lot. He's staying with his mother only until he can find a place of his own.
Roger still doesn't take his medication. "I don't like the feeling," he says. "I can't stand no goddamn drugs." He throws dice, shoots pool, reads the newspaper and watches sad movies. "I don't like violence," he says. "I like anything with suffering, abused, victimized [characters] with a good ending. Something happens for the best."
Lolly says she doesn't want to get married again, or even think about dating, because she's afraid suitors would say nasty things about her kids. She doesn't want people judging her children. Asked what she does for fun, she says, "Nothing." Sometimes she watches Spanish-channel soap operas. Her favorite now is Te Amaré en Silencio ("I Will Love You in Silence").
She says the rabbit Roger killed had an ear infection, and besides, it was old -- maybe two or three years old. In Roger's mind, he was probably helping the rabbit stop hurting, she says. "He just turned his little neck," she says.
Lolly went to visit her sister in San Antonio; Roger stayed home to take care of her pets. He was supposed to scrub the kitchen walls while she was gone, but he didn't. She figures if she climbs up onto the ladder and tries to scrub them herself, Roger will see her and help her. Roger fixed the fender on Lolly's truck; when she returned from her San Antonio road trip, he washed the truck.
Lolly's eldest son, Benjamin Valdez Jr., has two children. Lolly adopted the elder, a boy, but she didn't adopt her granddaughter. "Which I regret with all my heart. I wanted to give my son another chance," Lolly says. "But I'm the one that's doing everything still for her and for him."
Lolly felt fairly safe letting Roger move into the house, because at the time, her youngest son, Joey Rodriguez, was living with her. But shortly after Roger moved in, Joey was arrested. He's currently at the Harris County Jail.
"You know how you play the if-I-win-the-lottery game? She's always at the top of my list. I would buy her a house -- on the condition that none of her sons lived in it," says next-door neighbor Casto. "She's heartbroken all the time. They disappoint her."
Lolly's back constantly hurts. It takes her seven hours to iron her family's clothes. Her doctor prescribed her codeine to dampen the pain, but she doesn't take it. She just takes ibuprofen in the morning to get through the day and again at night before she goes to bed. "I want to go dead to sleep," she says. When she tucks her grandson in at night, he tells her he will see her in the morning. "If God is willing," she responds.
Doctors tell Lolly that her back will never properly heal. Neither will her son, she says. Psychiatrists told her that Roger will never be cured. He'll never be the same. "They can control the sickness, but they cannot cure it," she says. "Just this morning I asked Roger, 'You will never hurt me again. Please, Roger, don't hurt me no more. I love you too much.' "
Letting him sleep on the couch, Lolly says she knows she's playing with her life.
"I don't think he'll hurt the kids," she says. "He'll hurt me."