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Victoria man arrested by mistake; drug charges dropped

By Sonny Long
July 15, 2011 at 2:15 a.m.

Steven Rene Rodriguez looks toward his wife Judy during a news conference in the office of Victoria attorney George Filley III. DeWitt County Justice of the Peace  Bill Robinson dismissed charges against Rodriguez and the dismissal acknowledged Rodriguez was mistakenly arrested and charged.

Steven Rene Rodriguez ate a good meal and got a restful night's sleep Thursday for the first time since June 26.

Rodriguez said he has lost 16 pounds since he was arrested that last Sunday in June and charged with manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance in a DeWitt County roundup called Operation Pill Crusher.

But the wrong man was arrested.

On Thursday, the charges against Rodriguez, 36, were dropped on a motion from DeWitt County District Attorney Michael Sheppard and approved by Judge Bill Robinson, the DeWitt County justice of the peace who had initially authorized the arrest warrant.

According to the motion to dismiss the charges, Rodriguez was arrested by "accident" or "mistake."

"I called the sheriff's office and they confirmed to us that they had arrested the wrong guy," Sheppard said Friday. "We immediately dismissed the case upon confirmation that the wrong guy was arrested. I have yet to see the file on the case."

Rodriguez's attorney George Filley III had requested an examining trial to review the evidence and Robinson had set it for Friday morning before the motion to dismiss Thursday.

THE ARREST

During a news conference in Filley's office Friday, Rodriguez recalled the night of the arrest.

"We had just gotten back from Houston. We went to an Astros game," he said.

Victoria County Sheriff's deputies served the warrant from DeWitt County.

"It was heart-breaking," Rodriguez said. "I went inside and told my wife, and she thought I was kidding. They handcuffed me and took me down. It was a scary feeling."

The arrest took place in front of his wife, Judy Rodriguez, and the couple's 4-year-old son.

"He was terrified. He didn't understand what was going on. He kept asking where daddy was going. My son went to bed without daddy home," Judy said. "This has completely ruined our life for three weeks.

"I didn't know where they were taking him, what they were doing. I didn't know what to ask for. If I should see something before they should take him. It was very scary.''

FALLOUT

After spending a few hours in jail on Sunday night, Rodriguez's family posted bail with a $50,000 bond, which required a nonrefundable payment of $5,000.

The next day, Rodriguez visited Filley to discuss his case. Two days later, he had an MRI on an injured knee and was fired from his job as a car salesman at a Victoria Atzenhoffer dealership.

"My manager is a dear friend, but what can he do? He had no choice." Rodriguez said. "I can't blame them, but it was hard.

"Me being fired; my pride was crushed. It was heartbreaking," he added. "I was a hermit. I didn't want to leave my house."

"It was hurtful. It's hard to describe. To have to prove that I'm innocent, it's taken a lot. I'm tired of having to explain myself over and over and over," he said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'These people don't believe me.'"

Rodriguez said he has not talked to his former employer about returning to the job he held for five years.

"I hope they do," he said. "They are part of my family. I spent more time with them than I do with my family. If they ask me back, I would love to."

WHAT HAPPENED?

Filley said in a telephone conversation with DeWitt County Sheriff Jode Zavesky, the sheriff acknowledged that the investigation and arrest was an error and expressed regrets over the matter.

"The whole problem is Steven's drivers license was used to identify him, and that photo released to the news media," Filley said. "How in the world did that happen?"

Filley, who had 30 years experience in law enforcement and is also a former Victoria County district attorney, said part of the problem is that evidence is not reviewed thoroughly before a warrant is issued.

"In some of the outlying counties, the district and county attorneys do not review the complaints or applications for warrants before the warrant is issued," Filley said. "In this case, this is a direct filing. An officer swears out a complaint before a magistrate and based on what the officer swears to, the magistrate issues a warrant. That's frightening. That could be any one of us.

"It's never been reviewed by the prosecutor. Never been reviewed for sufficiency of evidence. That's how you can get into mistakes. In this particular case, it resulted in a terrible miscarriage on justice."

Zavesky was apologetic.

"The DeWitt County Sheriff's Office deeply regrets the arrest of Mr. Rodriguez. There was a misidentification of Mr. Rodriguez during our investigation and as soon as we were made aware of the situation, all charges were dismissed. Actions have been taken to correct process and to assure that it does not happen again."

Another man named Steven Rodriguez continues to be sought in connection with the undercover investigation.

A total of 39 warrants were issued for 24 individuals.

WHAT NOW?

Filley said a lawsuit against DeWitt County for the false arrest could be an option for Rodriguez.

"It is premature to discuss that, but certainly it is a remedy that may be available to Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez," he said. "We've not discussed that. Our main concern now is to get Steven's name cleared."

Filley said Rodriguez did incur the expenses of posting bail, hiring an attorney and losing wages.

Judy Rodriguez said when Filley called her Thursday and told her the charges had been dropped, she called her husband with the news.

"As soon as I told him, he sounded like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders and I could hear a smile through the phone," she said.

Rodriguez said he slept soundly for the first time after receiving the news.

"And I actually ate my whole plate," he said. "I'm glad it's out in the open now. Today is the start - I can't start completely over - but I feel better about it.

"You really find out who your true friends and family are. ... Yesterday I finally rode down Navarro with my windows down. I'm OK to show my face."

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