Authorities say that after stabbing Patti Rodriguez 108 times, Michael Rodriguez fled from Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery in the early morning hours of Good Friday, April 13, 1979, his clothes covered in the blood of his estranged wife.
They say he disposed of his shirt, pants and most of his clothing from that night.
But not his leather jacket. That was the most prized possession in his wardrobe, they say, and he could not bring himself to get rid of it.
So instead of throwing it out, he had a friend clean it, authorities maintain, but not good enough.
When Lackawanna detectives later interviewed him, they asked if they could hold onto his jacket. He handed it over and it sat for decades in the evidence locker at the Lackawanna Police Station on Ridge Road.
Now that jacket is cited as key evidence that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“There was an article of clothing he had that has Patti Rodriguez’s blood on it,” a law enforcement official familiar with the cold case investigation said after State Police arrested the now 59-year-old Michael Rodriguez on Wednesday.
Two other police sources confirmed that traces of his slain wife’s blood were detected on the leather jacket through sophisticated DNA testing that did not exist 34 years ago.
Defense attorney Robert P. Johnson has a different opinion.
Johnson said that he is aware of the leather jacket, but has not yet seen the DNA test results on the blood.
“This jacket has been around for 34 years,” he said, adding that he looks forward to Wednesday, when he and his client will return to court to begin challenging the evidence.
The case against his client is based mostly on fiction and the fact that State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is seeking publicity, he said.
“This is a travesty,” Johnson said. “My client gave his DNA to put this behind him. I was there when he gave it. We did not object when the court order was issued for the DNA. My client is a family man, he has two beautiful young children and a great wife.”
Johnson added that the attorney general is ignoring the wise decision of Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who declined to prosecute the case because of questions regarding the evidence.
Johnson added that he has served as a lawyer for 40 years trying cases and has never seen the likes of this one.
“The nature of this whole, fictionalized production is being orchestrated by Mr. Schneiderman on the back of my client’s family and the back of that elderly woman, the mother of the victim,” Johnson said, referring to Patti Rodriguez’s 80-year-old mother, Patricia A. Scinta, who said her long-held prayers had been answered with the arrest.
“This is all for Schneiderman,” Johnson said. “He wants to make a big splash. How many other cold cases has he investigated from this area? Zero.”
The jacket garment is not the only evidence that Assistant State Attorney General Paul F. McCarthy will present in his efforts to convict Rodriguez of second-degree murder.
After more than three decades, State Police Senior Investigator Christopher Weber was brought in to reopen the case, and he was able to get some people to talk who may help McCarthy in his prosecution.
Their statements not only place Rodriguez with his then 20-year-old wife at a Lackawanna bar in the hours before the slaying, but also have the couple leaving the bar together and entering the nearby cemetery, where Rodriguez had previously worked as a groundskeeper.
“Rodriguez was one of the main people we were interested in from Day One ... people were very reluctant to speak up 34 years ago but have now been willing to talk,” said Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr., who asked state police to reopen the cold case in 2009.
At Rodriguez’s arraignment, where he pleaded not guilty and was held without bail, McCarthy told State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia that DNA from Rodriguez was also found on the victim.
In addition, Darlene M. Plewa, a friend of Patti Rodriguez, told The Buffalo News she has told authorities that she once saw Rodriguez stab his wife in the leg with a pocket knife.
“Patti and I were both pregnant, and it was the summer of 1974. We were wearing shorts. Michael and Patti were sitting on the steps of a store on South Park Avenue, and I walked up to them. I saw him pick up his hand and punch down on her thigh. He did it so fast, I thought it was just his fist. It was with his right hand onto her left thigh.
“Her eyes bulged right open and her mouth opened up. I thought she was going to scream and instead she jumped up. He pulled his hand up, and that’s when I saw it was a knife and it was all bloody. I was afraid of him to begin with, and I went home,” Plewa said. “When Mike was in a good mood, we hung around, but when he was in a bad mood, I would be afraid of him. He behaved violently.”
News of Rodriguez’s arrest, she said, has brought a sense of relief and a willingness to speak publicly.
Another of Patti Rodriguez’s friends recalled standing up to Michael Rodriguez and his companions.
“I called him and his friends all murderers and one of his friends spit in my face,” Colleen Steele said, after receiving the news that Rodriguez had been arrested. “Patti was my best friend, and when my daughter was born, I named her Patricia Christine in honor of Patti. I had her name tattooed on my left shoulder and it says ‘Patricia Christine II’ in honor of them.”
Her emotions since the arrest last week, she said, are a mix of happiness and sadness.
“I am so happy they finally got him. I almost ran him over once, but I decided I better not. You know I can still see Patti in her casket. She was wearing a beautiful yellow outfit.”
For Dana J. Britton, the director of public safety in Lackawanna and the lead detective in the homicide case at the time, the arrest of Rodriguez brought a long overdue sense of satisfaction, he said.
“We had a good case at the time. We were waiting for more evidence. With our manpower, you couldn’t dedicate two detectives full time for 30 years. That’s why we ended up seeking help from the State Police,” Britton said. “I was ecstatic that an investigator like Chris Weber was put on the case. He was relentless in his pursuit of justice. He’d call me on Sunday mornings, anytime he had a question, and I loved it.”
Nine years ago on the 25th anniversary of the slaying, Michael Rodriguez had spoken with The Buffalo News, saying he hoped for the sake of the two children he and Patti had together that the killer would one day be caught.
“It’s a loss. It’s something always in your heart,” he said. “They took my children’s mother away.”
A police official in case said the hope expressed by Rodriguez so long ago has now been fulfilled:
“He got his wish.”