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For Some Victims, Life Ebbs Slowly

Death isn't always quick for those mortally wounded in crimes. It's an ordeal for survivors.

October 06, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

In the space of an instant, a would-be robber discharged a bullet into Teresa Rodriguez's torso.

Thirty-seven days later, she died.

The case -- which started as an assault investigation and is now a full-fledged murder case -- illustrates one of the most excruciating and least visible aspects of urban homicide: Death is often slow.

Victims like Rodriguez, shot just west of the Harbor Freeway last month, frequently linger on life support, suffering slowly over hours, weeks or months as their families carom between hope and disappointment.

Rodriguez is but one example. One man shot last year in the same part of the city died after lingering for months on life-support machines. In yet another case in the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division, a person who died this year had been shot in 1994.

Experienced detectives in South Los Angeles realize that today's nonfatal assault may turn into tomorrow's murder. Similarly, surgeons familiar with this territory try to prepare families for the worst: They are aware that good news can turn bad quickly in the hours or days after trauma surgery.

And police officers know to avoid reassuring relatives at shooting scenes that their loved ones will be OK. There are too many uncertainties.

Rodriguez, 54, owned Petrie's Beauty Parlor in the 4300 block of Vermont Avenue, south of Martin Luther King Boulevard. That's where the mother of five was shot Aug. 19 about 6:45 p.m. Two women in their 20s entered and demanded money at gunpoint.

Rodriguez apparently did not give them the response they sought. They made the demand again, more roughly this time, then shot her once, detectives said.

Witnesses described the pair casually walking away, as if nothing had happened. They took no money, detectives said. They are still at large.

Relatives and co-workers described Rodriguez as a sweet, outgoing and ardently Christian woman from El Salvador. She had come to this country with nothing, raised her three children -- and taken in two others as her own. Eventually she bought the salon, where she worked with her daughter. She also did volunteer work for her church.

"She was a very happy person. Always reading the Bible, saying prayers in the morning and in the evening, and trying to help everyone," said Margarita Quijas, a beautician at the salon. The day after she died, Rodriguez's Bible was still upright on the counter, propped open on a stand.

Detectives said the bullet plunged through the internal organs of her lower abdomen, creating the kind of wound that trauma surgeons say is among the most difficult to repair and most prone to infection. Rodriguez died of pneumonia Sept. 25, Det. Don Richards said.

Between the day of the shooting and the day of her death, her family's spirits soared and plunged between hope and disappointment.

When niece Sandra Rodriguez first got word of the shooting, she was told her aunt was injured in the leg. But the wound turned out to be much more serious.

Doctors at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center later informed the family that the bullet had torn through the stomach, Sandra Rodriguez said, and that infections would probably result. Sure enough, within hours after emerging from her first, nearly six-hour surgery, Teresa Rodriguez was wheeled back into the operating room for a second operation because of severe infection.

After that, there was only waiting. For days on end, the family hoped and prayed, Sandra said, but her aunt never opened her eyes. She was on a ventilator. Doctors warned the family that she was in very critical condition.

They kept hoping.

In the third week of September, there was a breakthrough: Teresa opened her eyes. The family was overjoyed. She was conscious again, clearly recognizing the people around her.

She was trying to speak, moving her mouth, and gesturing. It seemed that there was something important she was trying to tell them. But the ventilator in her mouth prevented it. And when she tried to write, her hands proved too weak. It had been nearly a month since the shooting.

Days passed, and the family's hopes soared. But a week later, there was another abrupt change. Another infection set in. Sandra Rodriguez was called to the hospital with other relatives: Teresa had died that night. It had been eight days since she had first opened her eyes.

The death felt completely unexpected, Sandra said, despite the long vigil.

"I don't know how to talk about it," she said. "We hope no one goes through what we have been through."

Relatives feel particular anguish because Teresa had seemed anxious to speak, she added.

"That's what is so hard for us," Sandra said. "She had something to say, and we never heard what it was."

The slowness of such deaths often guarantees their anonymity. Only the victims, the families and those who deal with such cases regularly are there to see the suffering. The attacks, meanwhile, are overlooked among the scores of barely noted nonfatal assaults that rack up monthly in the city.

In South Los Angeles today, other victims are lingering. Richards, the detective, has kept tabs on a man who was shot when he was a healthy 18-year-old and is now a paraplegic who was hospitalized for years. Doctors believe the bullet that wounded the young man will eventually end his life.

Richards stays on top of developments, knowing he may eventually be investigating the case as a homicide.

A seasoned detective, he is matter-of-fact about this morbid obligation, just part of the job. But discussing it, he strays momentarily into reflection. He breaks off, and allows himself one spare commentary: "Can you imagine?"

Teresa Rodriguez is also survived by 11 grandchildren. Police ask anyone with information about the crime to call (213) 485-2417.

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