She was 17 years old, pretty, energetic and lived in Shafter. But who and why would someone kill Maria Rodriguez in such a brutal and horrific fashion? This Aug. 2 will mark 32 years since her body was found at an isolated canal hangout visited by teens near Highway 46 and Interstate 5. Rodriguez had been beaten and shot to death.
Just two days after her death, Kern County sheriff's investigators thought they had their suspect and arrested 17-year-old Offord Rollins of Wasco. Prosecutors charged him with killing Rodriguez.
What followed was one of Kern County's most notorious murder trials in recent times. After all was said and done, it ended truly unresolved with no closure for families of the victim or her alleged killer. How could that be?
Rollins was convicted at his first trial in 1992, but that was later overturned on appeal due to juror misconduct. His second trial in 1996 ended in a mistrial with the jury split 6-6. Rollins, now 50, has been free since then.
A new podcast released Feb. 9 brings to light not just the controversial tactics used by Kern County sheriff's investigators in 1991, but also new information about the possibility it was someone other than Rollins who was responsible for Rodriguez's death.
The podcast, "In the Shadows," was produced by Ottavia McHenry, an investigative journalist and criminologist, and is available on Wondery. Full disclosure: I was one of several journalists who covered this murder case and was interviewed for this podcast. No financial payment was made.
It is Maricza Hinnah, niece of Maria Rodriguez, who for the last few years has been on a mission to get her aunt's case reopened by the Kern County District Attorney's Office. Hinnah was just 3 years old when her aunt was killed. She believes Kern County investigators did a poor job in handling the case. While not ruling out that Rollins may be responsible for her aunt's death, Hinnah does not rule out the possibility that her biological father, Victor Perez, may be the one who committed the murder. But no such evidence ever saw the light of day during Rollins' murder trial. More on that in a bit.
This nearly 32-year-old murder case still resonates with many for various reasons. For one, Rollins was a 17-year-old star athlete at Wasco High School, an All-American in track and field and the national triple jump champion. Shortly after sheriff's investigators identified the body of Maria Rodriguez, lead investigator Randy Raymond went to her mother's house in Shafter and spoke with Miriam Rodriguez, Maria's mother. But Miriam did not speak or understand English and so the detective relied on the translation services of Perez, who at the time was living at the Rodriguez home and at one time had been Miriam's partner.
He was also 15 years younger than Miriam. Apparently unbeknown to Raymond was that Perez, according to Maria's family, was an intimidating, manipulative man with a history of domestic violence who also preyed on and beat Miriam's daughters while living with her. In a bizarre twist, Perez wound up parting with Miriam and coupled with one of her daughters named Marisol. The pair had a child, Maricza.
The podcast reveals the frightening life Maria Rodriguez experienced as a young teen as Perez was still living in the house. Maria feared for the safety of her niece, Cathy Chavez. According to Cathy, Maria was protective of her. The two shared a bedroom and Maria would take Cathy into the bathroom while she was showering so as not to leave her niece exposed to Perez.
Marisol explains in the podcast she was subjected to documented beatings as Perez ruled the household by intimidation and fear, carrying a loaded gun. And Perez was angry Maria was seeing Rollins, who is Black.
As I recall this case, it always seemed odd to me that rather than call in a bilingual investigator, the Kern County Sheriff's Office relied on someone else to translate for a key witness. Someone who may have had a hidden agenda.
Maria was last seen around 10 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1991, at the park across the street from her house. She told her mother she was going to meet with and talk to Rollins. Rollins claims he never went to the park that day and there is no evidence he was seen with Maria that day.
According to family members, Perez deliberately bent the truth when he was translating for Miriam Rodriguez as she was interviewed by sheriff's investigators. Perez told Raymond that Maria and Rollins had been having problems because Maria had been seeing someone else.
But as the podcast points out, there is nothing in the court record nor testimony at either trial to support that. Further, during his translation services, Perez mentioned to the detective that Maria's aunt, Luz Brown, had told him she had seen Rollins and Maria together shortly before Maria was murdered. But the aunt told podcast producer McHenry she never said any such thing.
Perez had presented both motive and evidence implicating Rollins. Detectives also had a witness who claimed he saw a maroon-colored car suddenly drive out from the dirt road leading to the crime scene at around 2 p.m. Aug. 2 and that the car had front-end damage, but he could not identify the driver. When detectives interviewed Rollins, they noticed he had a maroon car with front-end damage, which he had borrowed from his father. Rollins was arrested and booked on suspicion of murder.
Apparently Perez had an alibi for his whereabouts on Aug. 2. Claudia Madera, Maria's sister-in-law, told detectives in 1991 that Perez was at home all day. Miriam Rodriguez initially said the same thing.
Then-prosecutor Lisa Green, who went on to be elected Kern's district attorney from 2011 to 2019, persuaded the trial judge not to admit into evidence anything about any other potential suspects. According to the podcast, Green successfully argued that any information suggesting a possible motive and propensity for violence by Perez was insufficient because there also would have to be actual evidence suggesting that Perez could've killed Maria. Besides, Perez had an alibi as provided by two family members. Covering this case, I recall that nothing was ever brought up about another possible suspect.
According to the podcast, Madera now claims Perez told her to lie to investigators about his whereabouts on the day Maria was last seen.
"I was like 16 or 17 years old at the time and I was scared of him and he told me, 'You better tell them that I was here, because I have a record and they're going to try and pin it on me,'" Madera said on the podcast. She said she is now speaking out because she no longer fears Perez.
Additionally, during the retrial, Miriam denied ever saying to investigators that Perez was with her that whole day and testified she was alone and went looking for Maria when her daughter did not return home.
I asked Kern County Assistant District Attorney Andrea Kohler recently if her office had any new leads on this case.
"We did quite a bit of investigation, and we did speak to a number of witnesses and family members, but I don't feel like we got much there at all," said Kohler.
And what about Victor Perez? Was he among the persons interviewed? According to Kohler, Perez left Kern County some time ago and she does not know his whereabouts. The podcast mentions Maria's family suspects he may be somewhere in Florida, but no one has been able to track him down and podcast producer McHenry was likewise unable to find him for comment. I recall Perez was not present in court during Rollins' trial; it was usually Maria's mother, Miriam, and another family member.
I asked whether there’s any chance the case might be reopened.
"At this point, based on what we found, there's nothing to believe it should be reopened, but I won't say it's completely closed," Kohler said.
Yet Hinnah remains steadfast because it's such a tremendous personal case for her. She is now the program director for a domestic violence shelter in Clarksville, Tenn. Looking back on her life, she now understands what her aunt Maria went through growing up in a home with domestic violence and how it placed her aunt in a vulnerable position. If her biological father, Perez, is responsible for Maria's death, she said she wants him punished. And she's forging ahead with her mission to get justice for her aunt.
"I do want this to shed light and let the DA know that, hey, there's a possibility that there is someone else who could've killed my aunt Maria," Hinnah said.