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Victim's Words Open O.C. Trial

An ominous diary entry of the Placentia woman is read as the murder trial of her ex-boyfriend begins.

September 24, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

"He's gonna kill me," Sarah Jennifer Rodriguez wrote in her journal on March 27, 2003, hours after her ex-boyfriend allegedly tried to strangle her. The next day, after handing him a restraining order, she wrote: "He told me I didn't want to do that, that I was just making it worse for myself."

Two weeks later, the 21-year-old Placentia preschool teacher's aide was dead, shot as she drove home from McDonald's with her new boyfriend. The two planned to have a quick take-out dinner before going to Bible study.

In his opening statement Thursday in Orange County Superior Court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Conway read passages from Rodriguez's diary to show jurors how Richard Joseph Namey's escalating anger drove him to stalk and kill his ex-girlfriend.

"Sarah is speaking to you from the grave through her journal," Conway said. "This is Sarah coming into the courtroom the only way she can."

Namey, 27, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he murdered Rodriguez and tried to kill her boyfriend, Matthew Reid Corbett of Westminster, then kidnapped a driver in Santa Ana and stole his car.

Namey's lawyer, Senior Deputy Public Defender John Zitny, argued that the crime was manslaughter -- not murder -- and portrayed Namey as a man acting out of passion and anger -- not malice -- over what he believed was his betrayal by Rodriguez.

In his own opening statement, Zitny told jurors that Namey spent the hours before the slaying in his Tustin apartment writing suicide notes. He had planned to find Rodriguez and kill himself in front of her, Zitny said. As Namey wrote, he stared at photographs of Rodriguez, memories of their yearlong relationship taunting him to the breaking point, Zitny told jurors.

" 'If Sarah won't have me, if Sarah won't take me back,' " Zitny said his client was thinking, " 'I'm going to make a grand-finale exit.' "

After failing to find Rodriguez at her work, Namey drove to her house. Then, when he saw her with Corbett, he snapped.

"He shot them," Zitny said. "I'm not saying he didn't. The only issue to decide is whether it was hot-blooded or cold-blooded."

The prosecutor rejected Zitny's suggestion that jurors could arrive at any verdict but first-degree murder.

While Zitny described a sudden, passionate crime, Conway said Namey showed thought and deliberation. He boxed in Rodriguez's car on Hill Street two blocks from her home, Conway said, then got out and approached the open passenger window.

"What's up, dawg?" Namey asked Corbett, then 20, before shooting him several times in the head, the prosecutor said. Corbett, who is expected to testify next week, is now blind in one eye and uses a wheelchair.

Then Namey went to the other side of the car, Conway said, and, as Rodriguez screamed, lowered the .357-caliber revolver to her left temple and pulled the trigger.

"She's going to pay for trying to leave him, and she's going to pay with her life," Conway said. "It's the classic [vow that] 'If I can't have her, no one can.' "

After the shooting, Namey fled in his sister's black Nissan Sentra.

Three days later, his lawyer said, Namey drove to Santa Ana to buy drugs. There he robbed a man who offered to sell him heroin and stole his red minivan, Zitny said. The lawyer disputed police accounts that Namey kidnapped the man at gunpoint. Using an anti-theft device on the minivan, police tracked the northbound vehicle on the Costa Mesa Freeway between Santa Ana and Tustin.

After following the minivan for 42 miles on freeways and city streets at speeds of up to 120 mph, officers found Namey in a 42-inch-high drainage tunnel near Foothill High School in Santa Ana.

At his arrest, Namey was on probation for brandishing a replica handgun at another ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

During testimony Thursday, Namey listened intently, his mouth slightly open. His parents sat behind him, and across the Santa Ana courtroom, relatives and friends of Rodriguez and Corbett packed three rows of chairs.

The night before Rodriguez was killed, Conway said, she was relieved she hadn't seen or heard from Namey in several days. "He hasn't bothered me for two weeks," she wrote. "Maybe he's going to leave me alone." The next night, April 16, 2003, she was dead in her car, bags of food from McDonald's sitting uneaten in the back seat, her wounded boyfriend's head resting on her shoulder.

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