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A Texas Killing and a Life of Triumph and Trouble

Pop music: Johnny Rodriguez's career began with promise. Now the '70s country star faces a murder charge.

September 23, 1998|CARY CARDWELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SABINAL, Texas — Frank Mull, a top country music promoter in the 1970s, was traveling with Merle Haggard while the singer played some south Texas dates three weeks ago when they heard that Johnny Rodriguez had been charged with murder.

"Merle was almost in tears about it," Mull said of the arrest of the dreamy-eyed singer and songwriter who became the first Latino to break into country's galaxy of stars with a string of hits beginning in 1972.

Like many members of the Nashville community, Mull has stepped across the threshold of the modest yellow house belonging to Rodriguez's mother, Isabelle, at 608 N. Pickford St. in this small town 60 miles west of San Antonio. This was the place Rodriguez considered his "hole in the wall" getaway when the pressures of career or family life got too great.

A lot of famous music has been written or played at Pickford Street since Rodriguez first went to Nashville in the early '70s as a guitarist in singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall's band and eventually launched his career in 1972 with a Top 10 single, "Pass Me By (If You're Only Passing Through)."

One enters the house through a side door under the carport, opening into the kitchen.

It was in that kitchen early on the morning of Aug. 29 that Israel Borrego, a Rodriguez drinking buddy, was found on the floor with a wound about belt-buckle high from a round fired from a .357 Magnum. Rodriguez had summoned the authorities, and he told police that he had surprised an intruder in the darkened home when he came home unexpectedly about 4 a.m.

Borrego died on the way to the hospital in nearby Uvalde and hours later Rodriguez was taken into custody. He was released a few days later when his quarter-million-dollar bond was lowered to $50,000.

The singer gave police a statement saying he had been playing music and drinking with three or four friends in a house across the street Friday evening and into Saturday morning.

Rodriguez's attorney, Alan Brown of San Antonio, said that Rodriguez returned to the Pickford Street house and entered the kitchen, surprising an intruder. He picked up a pistol at the home and fired once, hitting Borrego, Brown said.

Although Rodriguez admits he knew Borrego well, the unemployed laborer had been told numerous times in recent weeks to stay out of the yellow house by several members of Rodriguez's family. Rodriguez is one of nine siblings, several of whom have remained in Sabinal, including a former mayor and a current city councilman.

Brown points to the state's liberal home protection law that allows the use of deadly force for home protection.

"This law is uniquely Texas," Brown said. "Texas is known for protecting the notion that a person's house is their castle. That's the reason the tragedy we have here is not a crime."

Dist. Atty. Tony Hackebeil said it was not a hard decision to make to proceed with a criminal investigation. "I took a critical look, and the decision was made very easily that this matter will be presented to a Uvalde County grand jury," he said. That presentation could be made as soon as Thursday.

Family members had reportedly warned Borrego to stay away from the house because he was bringing drugs to Rodriguez.

It's no secret that Rodriguez has had what's come to be known in the business as "a troubled career." He has two failed marriages--including one to Willie Nelson's daughter, Lana--and numerous bouts with alcohol and cocaine abuse. He's been in treatment centers at least a dozen times.

"People came to Sabinal with Johnny to go on a three- or four-day drunk," Hackebeil said. Most recently, Rodriguez had been kicked out of wife Debbie's home near Austin, according to a close acquaintance. The two have an infant girl, Rodriguez's first child.

*

The arrest of Rodriguez is the latest sad incident in a career that began with high promise.

"When he's doing good, I hear from him," said retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, who is credited in country folklore with recognizing Rodriguez's raw talent when the youngster was in jail for stealing a goat (it was actually an unpaid fine, Jackson says), talking the sheriff into releasing him and introducing him to some movers in the country music world.

Going to Nashville with only $14 in his pocket, Rodriguez signed to play with Hall, and within a short time was signed by Mercury Records. With various labels, he had more than two dozen Top 20 country hits in the '70s and '80s.

But his luck began to run out in the late '80s. Rodriguez stopped writing new songs, and his professional decline was hastened by country's embrace of a new generation of performers. But in 1996, he released a well-received album, "You Can Say That Again," on the Hightone label. His latest recording, the Spanish-language "Coming Home," was released in the smaller Tejano market by Capitol/EMI.

Frank Mull and Haggard wanted to offer some comfort and encouragement when they were in south Texas earlier this month, but they were able only to contact one of the Rodriguez sisters.

So why wasn't Rodriguez living at home?

"What do you expect, with the threats being made against us?" said his wife, Debbie, when asked that question, referring to televised comments from the victim's family.

But, then, dropping out of sight has been Rodriguez's habit over the years whenever he got into trouble.

"I saw [Rodriguez] in Las Cruces [N.M.] about five years ago, and I haven't seen him since," said Ranger Jackson. "He never called, he hasn't written. But even in his bad times, I never knew him to be violent."

Meanwhile, Rodriguez apparently plans to continue performing. He has already done shows in Big Spring and Houston since the shooting. But Rodriguez has also lost a few bookings, including one in family oriented Branson, Mo.

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