Chowchilla, Calif. — Angelina RODRIGUEZ furrows her dark brow and places her hands over her eyes, smearing the mascara and eyeliner she had so carefully applied. She has been talking for hours, the drama of her stories escalating with every telling, her role consistent in every one of them -- the victim. She describes herself as a "people person," "the mothering type," an easy target for domineering, unfaithful men. "I'm not a violent person," she says. "That is not who I am."
Yet Rodriguez lives on death row here at the Central California Women's Facility, convicted of killing Frank Rodriguez, her husband of four months, in September 2000 by feeding him oleander soup and so much antifreeze-laced Gatorade that, as the medical examiner noted, the chemical seeped from his eyes. Seven years earlier, investigators say, she killed her toddler daughter by shoving a piece of pacifier down her throat, then successfully sued the manufacturer for its "faulty" product. Money was the motive in both cases. In his 20 years on the bench, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who sentenced Rodriguez, said he'd "never seen a colder heart."
It was a sensational crime, the stuff of pulp fiction. Court TV recently memorialized it with a moody reenactment titled "The Persistent Wife." And Rodriguez hopes the story's cinematic potential piques Hollywood's interest enough to benefit her appeal, which is still years away. For investigators, it was "a once-in-a-career case." Police had no physical evidence linking Rodriguez to the murder. Instead, it was her bizarre behavior that convinced them -- and a jury -- of her guilt and ultimately resulted in a death sentence.
Rodriguez is one of 15 women on California's death row, the nation's largest. They represent a fraction of the state's 637 death row inmates, and most expect to die of natural causes, not lethal injection. A woman hasn't been executed here since 1962; a man was executed Jan. 19. Despite America's preoccupation with serial killers and random murder, most women on the row are like Rodriguez, sentenced for killing children and husbands. Yet the real intrigue of this gothic tale lies in the portrait of the woman, not the crime.
She was so capable of blending into suburban life that even her closest relatives remember her as a caring mother who was easily bullied. She was a romantic, they say, despite a deeply troubled childhood and a series of bad marriages. She cried when her dog fell ill. She was so devout that she often wept as she prayed. She was a pretty girl whose only fault, it seemed, was an insatiable need for affection.
With a "high average" IQ of 112, Rodriguez is intelligent. But her doctors contend that for most of her life she has lived amid emotional chaos, overwhelmed by self-loathing and shame, the result of repeated incest and molestation in childhood. Still, Rodriguez was rarely out of work and never without a boyfriend. She joined the Air Force at 20 and later the Army National Guard, managed a fast-food restaurant, sold insurance door-to-door and earned a cosmetology license. She married four times and was engaged twice -- each man, she says, more demanding than the last.
Then there were the lawsuits. In six years, she won about $286,000 in settlement payments. She accused a fast-food restaurant of sexual harassment, Target of negligence after she slipped and fell in a dressing room and Gerber Co. of product liability after her daughter's death. When she was arrested in February 2001, investigators say, Rodriguez was preparing to sue her landlord for asbestos poisoning.
Sorting fact from fiction in Rodriguez's life has long been difficult for those closest to her -- and for Rodriguez. "She wanted a good life," says Rodriguez's sister Gigi Colaiacovo. "But I also believe that she felt that the world owed her something."
Rodriguez says all she ever wanted was a loving family. Yet each time she came close to that dream, catastrophe struck.
"When you try to sort through it all," says Rodriguez's former neighbor Betty Hailey, "you just get tired of trying to find the truth."
She was a 'dreamer'
Childhood, as Rodriguez recalls it, was a dark, confusing time. She grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., the younger and more troublesome of two daughters. Her father was Puerto Rican-born, a trucker and cabdriver, who left the family. Her mother was a nurse who worked day and night to send her daughters to Catholic schools and provide lessons in ballet, cheerleading and basketball.
"My sister was always the hopeful romantic," says Colaiacovo, now a real estate comptroller in West Babylon, on Long Island. "She was definitely the dreamer of the two."