It is hard enough for Gloria Elena Rodriguez to imagine the death of her 16-year-old son, who jumped off a bridge over the Occoquan River and drowned early Saturday after being arrested at a traffic stop.
But the real torment begins where her imagination leaves off.
How did the teenager, handcuffed and seat-belted in a locked patrol car, open the door? Why would he have jumped into the river, which, his mother swears, he knew was there?
“I need to know what happened,” said Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish, in an interview in her Dale City home Monday. “He couldn’t have thrown himself off. He knew the river was there, and he couldn’t have harmed himself.”
Roger Rodriguez moved to the area from Honduras 16 months ago, said his mother, describing her only son as “very attached” to her.
The teenager attended Gar-Field Senior High School and most recently New Directions alternative school. During the times he did not attend school, he helped his stepfather, Gilton Acosta, in his construction business, or spent the day chatting online with friends and family members in Honduras. He was affectionate, his mother said. He loved dancing.
Police dragged his body from the Occoquan Saturday morning, after he escaped from a Virginia State Police cruiser and plunged — handcuffed — 62 feet into the river.
Frustrated by a police account she believes is inaccurate, Gloria Rodriguez said she was looking for a lawyer to “help clarify things.”
State police are conducting an internal investigation into the incident, which is standard when anyone is injured or dies while in police custody. Police are adamant that there is no indication of negligence on the part of the arresting officer.
The teenage Rodriguez, behind the wheel of a 2001 Nissan Pathfinder, blazed by a state trooper on Interstate 95 around 3:20 a.m. Saturday, according to Sgt. Terry Licklider, a state police spokesman. Joshua Smith, the trooper, clocked Rodriguez at 90 miles per hour, and arrested him for driving under the influence and driving without an operator’s license.
Licklider gave this account of the arrest: Smith handcuffed Rodriguez’s hands behind his back, placed him in the front passenger seat in his cruiser, fastened the seatbelt and locked the doors. The trooper then left Rodriguez to check on the Nissan for damage, and when he looked back he saw the right front door of his cruiser open. Peering over the concrete barrier on the bridge, Smith saw Rodriguez struggling below in the water.
The medical examiner’s office determined drowning as the cause of death. The results of a blood-alcohol test might not be available for four to six weeks, police said.
Three days after Rodriguez’s death it is still unclear to police how the teenager escaped. The door lock buttons are on the driver side of state police cruisers, Licklider said, and Rodriguez would have had to either reach across the driver’s seat and hit the unlock button, or manually unlock the passenger side door.
“He could’ve used his elbow,” Licklider offered. “A small person can easily wiggle themselves, unlock the seatbelt and open up the door.”
The cruiser was equipped with a video camera, but the camera only films what is in front of the car. The video showed nothing to “indicate him jumping,” Licklider said.
Putting a suspect in the front passenger seat is common procedure, the police spokesman added, because there is no partition that would prevent someone from kicking a trooper in the head.
Rodriguez was not alone in the Nissan when Smith pulled him over. Also present was Cristian Vardales, a friend, who has been staying in the same Dale City home where Rodriguez lived with his family.
Vardales, 17, declined a request for an interview, but others who live at the Dale City residence shared what Vardales told them when he returned without Rodriguez early Saturday.
The two teenagers left the house late at night to pick up a friend in Springfield, said Gloria Rodriguez, 48, and Acosta, 37, while the two adults were sleeping. The teens took the car of an older friend, who was spending the night at their house. Roger did not have a driver’s license, his mother said. Although she did not see them, Gloria later found bottles of beer that the pair had apparently consumed.
At about 4 a.m. Saturday, Vardales called Kenya Urbina, a friend of his who lives in the split-level home where Rodriguez and Acosta also live. Rodriguez had been arrested, and Vardales told Urbina that he needed her to pick him up.
Vardales instructed her not to pick him up at the scene, according to the police officer’s orders. Instead, a tow truck dropped Vardales off at a Shell station on Dale Boulevard, and Urbina met him there.
Vardales told Gloria Rodriguez and Acosta that Roger had been arrested for drunken driving. When Vardales left, Rodriguez was sitting in the patrol car, they said.
“I slept because I knew he was in the hands of the police,” said Gloria Rodriguez. “Supposedly he was safe.”
“He committed a crime,” said Acosta. “He had to pay for it. But …” he started, then trailed off, his eyes filling with tears.
Staff writer Elisa Glushefski contributed to this report.