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2. Running the Race | S2: New Folsom

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A man wearing a dark suit and a woman wearing a white wedding dress stand next to each other on the steps of a dais inside a cathedral. They are facing with their backs towards the camera, the man on the left and the woman on the right. The cathedral is ornately decorated with gold crosses, latin words embossed in gold stretching across a wooden beam and archway above the couple. An officiant stands before them, a man with gray hair and goatee and glasses. The wooden pews are filled with people.
Valentino and Mimy Rodriguez stand together on the dais of a cathedral in downtown Sacramento.

View the full episode transcript.

Consumed with stress and fed up with how he’s being treated, Valentino Rodriguez reaches a breaking point at work. A veteran officer and mentor to Valentino starts looking into the murder that happened in the dayroom. Valentino and Mimy get married, then Valentino goes in for a final meeting with the warden of New Folsom. 


Resources

If you are currently in crisis, you can dial 988 [U.S.] to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

SAMHSA National Help Line
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Helpline
US Health and Human Services
Warmline Directory

 

The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism was a key partner in making Season 2 of On Our Watch. The records obtained for this project are part of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of news organizations in California.

If you have tips or feedback about this series please reach out to us at onourwatch@kqed.org.  

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Episode Transcript

 

Producer: Before we start, I just wanted to give you a heads-up that this episode references violent incidents, discriminatory language, and substance use disorder. We also talk about someone’s death by fentanyl poisoning. If you or someone you know needs support, we’ve got links to resources in the episode description.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: Okay, so it’s me Sukey and Julie, and Steven, and we’re here at Julie’s house. Two days after, we saw Val and Erma and got the phone, and we’re just–

Sukey Lewis: We’re back from our trip to West Sacramento where I first got to meet the parents of Officer Valentino Rodriguez. And our reporting team is clustered around a computer screen. We don’t know exactly what we’re gonna find on the hard drive that Val Senior handed over in his office.

Sukey Lewis: Looking through kinda the materials that are on here that are many, many tens of gigabytes of information, um, and trying to figure out, like, what’s going on here.

Sukey Lewis: It contains evidence he’s been able to put together over the past two years as he turned from grieving dad into an investigator trying to solve the riddle of his son’s death and how it might be connected to the place where he worked, New Folsom Prison.

Julie Small: It’s a letter.

Sukey Lewis: Yeah, yeah.

Julie Small: Um, then a statement.

Sukey Lewis: Also on the drive is what we’re looking at right now – a duplicate of Valentino’s cellphone, with messages going all the way back to 2017.

Steven Rascon: Oh, incoming. Incoming, outgoing

Sukey Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Sukey Lewis: We’ve gotten hundreds of documents through public record requests. But they’re all steeped in official language, and some are so redacted they barely make sense. What Valentino’s phone promises is both so much more intimate and so much more telling.

Julie Small: What is that? Holy shit.

Sukey Lewis: About what it was like to work at New Folsom, but also about who Val was.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: [sings] Super dog, super dog.

Sukey Lewis: A guy who sings to his dog.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: This is about Daisy the super dog

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr & Jr: See you on the other side.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: All right, let’s go.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Lean back. Look behind you

Sukey Lewis: Zip lines with his dad.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: This way.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: Woo-hoo

Sukey Lewis: A man who was loved.

Mimy Rodriguez: Hello, my love, um, I’m gonna see you after work. Also, I’m-I’m gonna try to get off early so we can do something.

Sukey Lewis: And we can see his text messages with the guys he worked with at the prison.

Julie Small: Woah. It’s all of them, all the–

Sukey: Oh, all right.

Julie Small: Yeah, these are the group texts.

Sukey Lewis: And one message jumps out at us.

Julie Small: Interesting. When’s the date on that one?

Steven Rascon: Okay.

Sukey Lewis: It’s on the day, the day he died.

Steven Rascon: Oh, he texted Steele the day he died.

Julie Small: Wow.

Sukey Lewis: I think it’s from Steele.

Julie Small: Oh it’s from Steele.

Sukey Lewis: Sergeant Kevin Steele, the Bruce Willis-looking, former military guy who was kind of a mentor to Valentino. Just hours before Valentino died, in October 2020, the sergeant reaches out with this cryptic message.

Sukey Lewis: “I think you already know I did not set up the course, but I am running the race. Steele.”

Sukey Lewis: Valentino Texts back.

Sukey Lewis: “Awesome, I just hope that I am not mentioned at all to anyone, not even to those who know my involvement. Not even among people I trust. Iwish that for everyone on this side of the race, my name is left out of everything.” So, they’re talking in some kind of code, right? “I did not set up the course, but I am running the race.”

Julie Small: Right.

Sukey Lewis: But since both of these men have died, we’re going to have to figure out what these texts mean on our own.

[Theme music]

Sukey Lewis: As we sift through Valentino’s phone, his photos and videos, voice memos, and notes, along with the documents we’ve gotten from the prison, we’re hoping to find answers. What was Valentino going through? What would lead him to turn on his team? And what was the race he and Steele were running? And we’re also looking to understand the choices made by people in positions of power that he reached out to for help, people who were supposed to act and didn’t. I’m Sukey Lewis. This is On Our Watch, Season 2: New Folsom.

[Music]

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: You can read this so you get to know more about him.

Sukey Lewis: Yeah.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: What he was going through… but don’t-don’t copy this.

Sukey Lewis: Okay.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Yeah, or use it maybe– I mean, you can like, uh–

Sukey Lewis: We’d started looking into Valentino’s story to see if the death of this whistleblower was connected to all those cases we’d found showing off the charts’ use of force at New Folsom. But Val Senior was already way ahead of us in investigating his son’s death. So every few weeks, my co-reporter, Julie, would meet up with Val Senior to get more of the evidence he’d collected and she’d share what we were finding with him.

Julie Small: So we’ve started a database of the guard’s names and then different allegations against them. And then-

Sukey Lewis: Building this relationship with Val Senior has been tricky. He’s grieving and he feels like he was burned by other people who said they’d look into his son’s death and then dropped it.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Oh, I just-I just want this to work both ways–

Julie Small: Right.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Right?

Julie Small: Okay.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I need to know what you’re doing.

Julie Small: Okay.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: That’s all I’ve ever asked. I might even– I-I– nobody even knows we’re having these meetings other than my wife.

Sukey Lewis: He says he’s not trying to swear our reporting, and it doesn’t seem like he is, but it does feel like he’s still testing us to see how serious we are about this investigation.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: You go through stuff and you decide, right? I don’t want to paint a picture.

Julie Small: Right.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I never have.

Julie Small: Okay.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I’m not gonna bullshit nobody and, uh, ruin anyone’s lives. I just want-I just want the truth told, that– that’s all I’m doing.

Julie Small: Yeah.

Sukey Lewis: That’s what we want too, but after years of working as reporters, Julie and I both know the truth can be a really complicated thing. Take the harassment Valentino experienced from the squad. As we go through Valentino’s phone, we can see that he was called ugly names. But we can also see that Valentino sometimes used offensive language too, calling his gaming friend a homophobic slur or sending a GIF of a swinging penis.

These guys, ’cause they’re all guys on these text threads, work in a prison. Their conversations are dark and their jokes are not usually kind.

[Dramatic music]

But there’s also a particular edge of nastiness to some of the other guys’ texts that feels different than Valentino’s off-color joking. One of our producers agreed to read some of them so you can hear what was being said. Heads up, it’s vulgar, but we’ve bleeped the slurs.

Producer: “Is that the jizz from A Facility? Drink up. In your mouth, you f––. Tell your lady I said hi. You f––. Send a picture of your girl’s ass.”

Sukey Lewis: Those messages are all from this one guy, Daniel Garland. And Valentino doesn’t usually take the bait, but there is this one time where you can see he just snaps. It starts with Valentino texting the group something totally innocuous: how to log in to a new HR system for vacation requests. He’s just being helpful. And Garland writes back-

Producer: Who gives a fuck f––?!

Sukey Lewis: That’s when Valentino loses it and says, “Go fuck yourself, you dumb shit.” And this is what Garland does in response. He sends this weird video to the group, and it’s of a guy who’s probably in his early 20s, in a black and red sweatshirt at what looks like the gym talking straight into the camera.

Garland’s Son: If you ever get outta the pocket again I’m gonna slap your fat ass.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: You ever get out of pocket again I’m gonna slap your fat ass. That was a flat-out threat. And when he got to work, uh, they laughed at him. They laughed about it.

Sukey Lewis: The guy saying he was gonna slap Valentino was actually Garland’s son. For Valentino, this was the last straw. Garland had been insulting him since he joined the squad about a year earlier. CDCR does have a no-tolerance policy against discrimination and harassment, which these text messages fell outside the lines of. In an email, an attorney for Garland and some of the other officers in those text threads stated that her clients never bullied, hazed, or harassed Officer Rodriguez while he worked at the prison.

She said the officers coped with their stressful and violent workplace in different ways, but that they “Genuinely cared for and supported each other.” When Valentino first got that video from Garland’s son, he told his dad it wasn’t a big deal. But he told other people it really bothered him. It was clear he couldn’t take much more of this.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: In the back of my head, I kept thinking all the time, “Well, the warden knows who he is. He’s gonna take care of him. There’s people that’ll take care of him. That’s-that’s not the case.

[Droning music]

Sukey Lewis: Just after the new year, January 2020, Valentino had a lot going on. He was pissed off at the team about the Garland incident and he was stressed about that gruesome stabbing that happened in the day room. The one with the video that he showed his dad, Valentino was still working on writing his reports for that. He’d worked so hard to get here, achieved his dream of being an investigator. But now all he could think about was quitting. He wrote this note into his phone.

Julie Small: It’s entitled, “Reasons to Leave. Harassment, disrespect.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: “Disrespect, threats, whistleblower violations.”

Julie Small: “Whistleblower violations.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: “Voted off team.”

Julie Small: “Keep your mouth shut, or you’ll be fired. You do stupid work.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: “You do stupid work, they do important shit.”

Sukey Lewis: Just so you know, in his text messages, Valentino complains that the person telling him to stay quiet and demeaning his work was his boss, the new head of the unit, a guy named Sergeant David Anderson. Anderson was also on some of the terrible text threads, so it doesn’t look like Valentino felt like he could turn to him to step in. Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Valentino’s reasons go on.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: “Depressed.”

Julie Small: “No money, bad health.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I’ll work for Dad. Be happy.

Julie Small: Be happy.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: Around the same time that he wrote that note, he also texted a friend that he was getting out soon. He had a plan to stick around for a few months and then switch to a part-time position where he could work a few shifts and still get benefits. But a couple of weeks later, his plans to try and stick it out fell apart.

Mimy Rodriguez: I remember him coming home and telling me that he broke down to the assistant warden.

Sukey Lewis: That’s Mimy Rodriguez, Valentino’s wife.

Mimy Rodriguez: And he was sobbing and he had told her how he felt about things and he felt just like everything was kind of closing in on him.

Sukey Lewis: She tells Julie and me that Valentino had a really rough day at work. The person he fell apart in front of was Gena Jones, the chief deputy warden of the prison. She was in charge of the squad, the investigative services unit.

Mimy Rodriguez: And I remember sitting on the couch with him and him saying, “I left work. I left, and it’s gone. I’m not gonna be there anymore. I broke down to the assistant warden.” And I guess he opened up to her about everything that was going on. I remember this very clearly. He said, “This is my identity.” He’s like, “I feel like I’ve given up on everything. I feel like I gave up on my job.” And I was like, “No, you didn’t give up. Valentino, you’re doing this for you.” He’s like, “No, I gave up. This is who I am, and I-I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Sukey Lewis: Mimy says something else happened in this meeting too. She says Valentino made some serious allegations about his fellow officers.

Mimy Rodriguez: That officers could have been planting drugs on inmates, could have been planting drugs on, uh, other officers. And I know that he was very nervous to talk to anybody because he didn’t want anyone to retaliate.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy’s memory of this incident is all we have to go on, but this is important because from what we’ve been able to figure out, this would be the first time Valentino told higher-ups in charge of the investigative services unit that the squad, the very officers investigating crimes in the prison, might be committing serious misconduct. Mimy says at the time, she didn’t fully consider the implications of that—what kind of obligation to report or investigate that Valentino’s allegations might have triggered for Jones. But now she does.

Mimy Rodriguez: I do believe that at that time, she had a right to say something or at least reported, mentioned something, write it down, document it, if anything, but from what I understand, nothing was even documented, which I find very interesting.

Sukey Lewis: To be clear, Mimy says, Valentino also didn’t wanna make an official report. There’s an unwritten code among correctional officers: never tell on each other. But as a supervisor, Jones did have an explicit obligation to act immediately to stop the harassment.

Mimy Rodriguez: I remember specifically saying, “Valentino, if-if-if these people are bothering you and hurting you, you need to report that.” But he was– he didn’t want it to go back to him. He didn’t want it to get traced back that he had said anything about the team or that, um, any type of retaliation could have happened to him or his work.

Sukey Lewis: Now, everyone’s memory is imperfect and Mimy wasn’t in this meeting with Jones, so we don’t know for sure what he told her the day he broke down. But we did hear that this happened from another officer who didn’t wanna go on the record, but he confirmed that he’d also heard that Valentino had made these allegations to Jones.

We asked CDCR if Jones had been questioned about this incident or her knowledge of discriminatory behavior in the unit, but the agency declined to comment. We asked for an interview with Jones, but a CDCR spokeswoman declined stating that wardens can’t talk about personnel matters.

[Driving music]

The only action we know for sure the chief deputy warden took was to put Valentino out on medical leave for stress. That worker’s compensation claim was tied to an incident that happened years earlier, back in 2017, where Valentino wound up in the hospital.

Captain: Hey Rodriguez, just calling to see how you’re doing.

Sukey Lewis: A captain left this voicemail on his phone.

Captain: Good job toughing it out yesterday. But man, you need to take it easy. If, uh- if that really is a concussion, enjoy your time. Hopefully, uh, you catch up on any Netflix that you’re behind on.

Sukey Lewis: He wasn’t in the squad yet. He was still just a regular officer. And one day after yard time, they were lining up the incarcerated people to search them and escort them back to their cells. Among them was this one guy named Amon Morrison.

Amon Morrison: Hello?

Sukey Lewis: Hi, is this Amon?

Amon Morrison: It’s Amon.

Sukey Lewis: Amon, sorry.

Sukey Lewis: I actually tracked him down, a prison in Corcoran in central California. The call was really bad quality, but he says he had an illegal phone on him that day. So when they were lining him up to search him and take him back to his cell, he got paranoid and he ran.

Amon Morrison: I had the phone, I got paranoid, and they’re like here. I’m like, “Man, I’m good.” And then, you know, I ran- where I was gonna go, I had no idea. I wasn’t even, you know what I’m saying? Like where I’m gonna go?

Sukey Lewis: Of course, this is a prison. There’s nowhere to go. Valentino tried to tackle him and they both hit the wall.

Amon Morrison: We both ran into the wall– when we both ran into the wall, I heard his head hit, well I hit my head like- like with a loud noise. It was like a “clunk,” like a–

Sukey Lewis: “Clunk,” he says their heads hit the wall.

Amon Morrison: I heard another like “clunk,” and it sounded like it could have been his head or whatever it was. I don’t know. I didn’t know the cause of it, but then I fell to the ground.

Sukey Lewis: He fell on the ground. But Morrison and Valentino’s versions of this story are different. Valentino’s report, which we found a draft of on his phone, says that Morrison hit him with his elbow, knocking his head into the wall. Morrison says he never hit Valentino. He just panicked and ran. Still, he was charged with battery and assault.

Sukey Lewis: And what– ’cause I know you were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, right? Like what was the deadly weapon?

Amon Morrison: [laughs] I’m the deadly weapon. [laughs] I swear it’s like a game I like. I don’t, there is no deadly weapon!

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: We simply don’t know what exactly took place. But we do know Valentino went to the hospital with a concussion and that his report became the basis for criminal charges against Morrison, charges he’s still fighting.

Sukey Lewis: All right, bye.

Amon Morrison: All right, have a good day. Bye.

Sukey Lewis: At first, the incident didn’t seem like that big of a deal to Valentino. Over text message, he sounds upbeat and he tells a friend that he’s been prescribed some medication for his injuries. “They gave me Norcos though, and Valium,” he texted. “Whoop whoop.” Norco contains the opioid Hydrocodone. Eventually, a psychologist diagnosed Valentino with anxiety and depression, and at some point he started having panic attacks. Looking at his medical records, his symptoms weren’t all because of this one altercation, though. He also witnessed terrible things at New Folsom—homicides and beatings. And along with the rejection and alienation he felt from his team, it seems like this created a powerful and traumatic feedback loop.

[Music]

In January 2020, just before Valentino decided to leave the prison for stress, something else happened. One day Mimy came home from work and the house was completely dark.

Mimy Rodriguez: He was just sick. Like it was the kind of sickness I’ve never seen. It didn’t look like the flu because he didn’t- he wasn’t throwing up the way a flu would make you throw up. But he was sweating and he was attempting to throw up and he was crying and he was upset. And I got scared and I didn’t know what was going on. And I told him we should go to the doctor. But he said, “No, it’s fine.”

Sukey Lewis: The next day he wasn’t any better.

Mimy Rodriguez: I look at him and I go, Valentino, what’s going on? You’re- I’ve never seen you like this. Tell me what’s going on. What finally made him open up to me is I said, “It looks like you have something to tell me, but you just don’t wanna tell me.” And then he just told me, “I’ve been struggling with something.”

Sukey Lewis: He was in withdrawal. Like a lot of people affected by the opioid epidemic, Valentino had become dependent on pain pills. He’d dealt with this before, years earlier when he was in college. He called his parents for help and they got him into rehab. He told Mimy this time he felt like he could stop using on his own.

Mimy Rodriguez: And my goal was like, “Okay, what can we do to get past this? This– you bringing this up to me, okay, great, how can we do this? Well, we have to go to therapy. We have to do these things.” At one point I was like, “Well, rehab?” Because I know that’s common, right? He was like, “No, it’s not that bad,” or “No, it’s not to that extent.”

Sukey Lewis: In hindsight, after everything that happened, Mimy says she wishes she’d done things differently.

Mimy Rodriguez: I wish I would’ve reached out to his parents ’cause he-he told me not to say anything, but I just wanted him to know that he can trust me and that I loved him and we were gonna get past this.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy kept her word to Valentino. And though he was privately struggling, he presented a different face to most of his friends and family. His parents, Val Sr. and Erma, say they had no idea this was going on.

[Upbeat music]

They were happy he was out of the prison and even better, he was coming to work with them at the family pool business.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: When he quit over there, I just felt like I had him all to myself. He was coming here and working all the time with me and his brother, and, um, was always happy. He worked really hard. He was very thorough. My customers loved him.

Customer 1: Hi, Valentino. You were out here and gave us a estimate to resurface our pool.

Customer 2: Hi, Valentino.

Customer 3: Hey, Valentino.

Customer 4: Hey, Valentino.

Customer 5: Just checking in to see if you were able to send off the quote for us for a pool replastering.

Customer 6: I got the bid, I think I’d like to go with you.

Customer 7: Your family finished our pool on Tuesday, it looks great.

Sukey Lewis: Val Senior’s grandfather had gotten into the pool business years earlier and Val Sr. carried it on, creating generation pool plastering. Valentino’s mom, Erma, co-owns the business and largely runs the administrative side of things, and his younger brother, Gregory, is a skilled tradesman in plastering and pool construction. Val Sr. says Valentino’s specialty was sales.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: When he’d come in the office, sometimes he’d tell me what he did all day at work and I would- I would joke with him and tell him to turn around and I’d pat him on the back.

Sukey Lewis: Valentino loved getting his dad’s approval.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And he was just like, “Oh, that feels good, dad.” [laughter] I said, “All right.” [laughs] Yeah.

Sukey Lewis: Then COVID-19 hit and there was the statewide shutdown. The pandemic was scary and things were uncertain, of course, but Val Senior remembers it as this golden time that he got to spend with his kids. None of them had anywhere else to go. Valentino would come over and they’d just hang out in the backyard and swim in the pool. Val Sr. says it was on one of these warm summer afternoons in 2020, Valentino was over at the house and they were barbecuing.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: My world was just turning perfectly. Everything was just going good and we were swimming in the backyard and, you know, eating and just laughing.

Sukey Lewis: But then he noticed he hadn’t seen Valentino for a couple of hours.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And I says, “Where-where’s– where the hell is Val at?” And he’s in front, he’s on the phone with the prison. I says, “What the hell do they want? He left that job.”

Sukey Lewis: Valentino had been out of the prison for a few months.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So I walked out to the front and he was talking and talking, and I just looked at him and moments later, he-he came in the backyard and I said, “What-what’d the prison want?”

Sukey Lewis: It was Sergeant Kevin Steele, his old mentor, who was still working in the investigative services unit at New Folsom.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He goes, “Oh man, dad,” and he told me about the Aguilar homicide. The video he showed me-

Sukey Lewis: The one he showed him at the Christmas party—of the man, Luis Giovanny Aguilar, being stabbed while he was shackled in the day room.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: It was, according to Kevin, was actually orchestrated by officers to get rid of that inmate.

Sukey Lewis: What Valentino was telling his dad was that this guy, Sergeant Steele, had found evidence that officers had played a role in that brutal murder.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He said, “Kevin, unveiled this, uncovered this, and now those guys over there at the prison, they-they don’t like him too much because he’s-he’s turning in this information, this-this evidence.”

Sukey Lewis: Clearly, Steele was making a really big allegation that officers set up a man to be murdered in prison. CDCR said it cannot comment on this case, and CDCR officials have denied these allegations in court filings. However, multiple sources have told us the FBI is investigating the incident and the prison is still facing a federal civil rights lawsuit from Aguilar’s family. We’re gonna talk to the people that Steele talked to and share the evidence we’ve uncovered in a later episode. We really wish we knew what Valentino knew about this incident and if this call from Steele was the first he’d heard of allegations about officers’ involvement in the killing, but we just don’t. It’s a crucial question because Val Senior would come to believe that his son’s death may not have been an accident—that his son was targeted at least in part for what he knew about this incident. To date, we have not uncovered any evidence that Valentino was purposely killed. But in order to help Val Senior understand what happened to his son, we also needed to understand how he came to believe this. At the time, Val Sr. says Valentino downplayed his role in the incident.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Are you gonna be in trouble for that? And he goes, “No, dad, I-I wasn’t there. I just did what they told me to do and wrote it the way they told me to.”

Sukey Lewis: If Valentino did know something was off from the beginning, it’s not reflected in the reports that we’ve seen, which were leaked by a confidential source. In these documents, Valentino writes that Luis Giovanny Aguilar was in a prison gang and that he was killed by rival gang members. Aguilar’s family disputes this version of events. Valentino doesn’t write anything about guards being behind the murder.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I just stayed in my own lane and just continued on with my day and my own life. That’s Val’s world. Uh, he’s got it handled. The state of California’s got it handled. The warden’s got it handled. All that’s being taken care of… and it wasn’t- it wasn’t taken care of.

[Dramatic music]

Sukey Lewis: Val Senior says they never talked about the homicide again and he thought his son was doing fine.

Mimy Rodriguez: He was doing really well for his dad, but I can tell that as much as he loved working for his father- ’cause he did, he loved his dad. He wanted– he missed his job.

Sukey Lewis: At home, Mimy could tell Valentino was not fine.

Mimy Rodriguez: He wasn’t at the prison physically, but mentally he was still there. He was still talking to people from the prison. He was still reaching out to people- people from the prison were reaching out to him, telling him what was going on within the prison. He-he had not at all let that go.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy tells my reporting partner, Julie, that Valentino’s health at this time wasn’t good. His doctors were concerned about his blood pressure and he’d gained a lot of weight. She says he was also getting increasingly paranoid and frightened. He would rarely leave the house and even at home, he’d set up elaborate security devices.

Mimy Rodriguez: He was nervous about anybody coming to the house. At one point, he had put things at the door, so if someone opened it you can hear the door open. He also– like he had a gun and he would sleep with it just to make sure. And I’m like, “What? Who’s coming?” And I would ask him, like, “Is everything okay? You know, who’s– who are you nervous about coming? What is going on?”

Julie Small: Would he ever answer that question?

Mimy Rodriguez: No. He would just tell me not to worry.

Sukey Lewis: She did worry. But she also saw that he was taking steps to get help: seeing a therapist, taking medication, and trying to eat healthier.

Mimy Rodriguez: I just kept reassuring him like, “Just let– let’s let this year pass. We’re almost there. Just breathe.”

[Upbeat music]

Sukey Lewis: Mimy was trying everything she could, and she thought maybe if they finally made things official, it could jumpstart their future together and they could leave behind the things that were holding him back. They’d been engaged for over two years now, but had put their wedding on hold because of COVID-19 restrictions. As the summer of 2020 went on, it looked like things might be opening up again and they decided to go for it.

Mimy Rodriguez: We ended up just saying, eff it, we’re just gonna- we’re just gonna get married.

Sukey Lewis: Even if they couldn’t have a huge gathering inside, they could have the reception at the family business on the patio and grassy lawn next to the warehouse.

Mimy Rodriguez: They have a little– they have like an outside venue. They have a little patio, they have a little patch of grass. Like it’s a- it’s a really nice little spot.

Sukey Lewis: They organize the wedding in a month.

Julie Small: Full-size render… movies.

Sukey Lewis: Okay, could we go back to the chats for a second?

Sukey Lewis: As we look through Valentino’s phone from this time period, September, 2020, we can see it’s all a flurry of invitations: getting the taco guy to cater, a bachelor party near Lake Tahoe… But then we find a long text exchange that’s got a very different tone.

Julie Small: Uh, this is the beginning of the conversation with Strohmaier. This is shorter, but, um–

Sukey Lewis: Brandon Strohmaier is a Sergeant Valentino knew from the ISU squad, but from a different division. Importantly, Strohmaier worked in internal affairs.

Julie Small: He tells him that he’s gonna get married. He is, you know, moving on and he’s just started therapy. And Strohmaier says, “It sounds great. You left a place that isn’t good for everyone, and I think you made a good decision that will benefit you in the future. Congrats on the marriage.”

Sukey Lewis: In response, Valentino launches into all the stuff he’s kept in about his boss, Sergeant David Anderson.

Julie Small: “Yeah, bro. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t respected, and I was being fucked with like crazy by Anderson and the guys. Some unbelievable shit. Threatening to be fired with my job dangling in front of me daily, couldn’t get help, and had expectations placed on me way higher than everyone else. I kept it all to myself and tried to power through it, but at the end, it was too much. And it wasn’t worth losing my fiance or maybe even someday my life over.” Oh God.

Sukey Lewis: Mmm.

Sukey Lewis: This text thread goes on for pages. Valentino tells Strohmaier the homophobic slurs that Daniel Garland would call him and about how another guy named Marcus Jordan would also use the “N” word and call Black incarcerated people monkeys. And Valentino tells Strohmaier these guys would say explicit and demeaning things about Mimy too. That she was, “Sucking and fucking other men,” and repeat anti-Black, and misogynist stereotypes.”

Julie Small: “I hated it, man. I loved the work. I loved the investigations. I loved winning. But I hate being in that office.”

Sukey Lewis: He tells Strohmaier how Anderson threatened him.

Julie Small: “If you say anything or open your mouth, I’ll fucking replace you like that.” Snap finger.

Sukey Lewis: Again, Anderson has not responded to requests for comment. Over text, Strohmaier says he wishes he knew all this was going on. “I put zero blame on you,” Valentino texts back.

Julie Small: “I’ll say this, though. That team is broken. There is shit they do, say, or don’t do that could cause everyone from the warden down to get the boot. It’s my fault for not standing up to begin with. I sold my pride for the job, and it wasn’t worth it.”

Sukey Lewis: But he ends on a positive note.

Julie Small: “My life’s good now, man. I’m a lot happier. My relationship is 1,000 times better than before. She’s happier. My family is happier. They had been worrying about me for a while. I’m moving forward.”

Sukey Lewis: We check out the date on these messages.

Julie Small: That’s 9/19/2020. So a month before– a month, and a day before he’s dead.

Sukey Lewis: In her email, the lawyer for Jordan, Garland, and two other officers denied that her clients harassed Valentino. And she also said there are, “No allegations or findings that any conduct by my clients in any way contributed to Officer Rodriguez’s death.”

[Music]

Emcee: So it is my privilege to introduce to you Mr. And Mrs. Valentino and Irma Rodriguez. You may kiss the bride. Un beso.

Sukey Lewis: On a hot day in early October, Valentino and Mimy, whose given name is actually Irma, just like his mom, got married.

Mimy Rodriguez: I wore this big white ball gown with– it was– it had a cream undertone, and then it had, like white lace and it sparkled. It was- it was really nice.

Sukey Lewis: Her long veil covered the dais steps in the cathedral in downtown Sacramento.

Mimy Rodriguez: The church was beautiful. I mean, so many people showed up. My parents, were- they both walked me down the aisle, and then at the end of the aisle, I got to say, you know, I got to see his parents, and it was just nice.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy and Valentino rode to the reception in one of Val Sr.’s classic cars, a ’64 Impala.

Emcee: Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor for me to introduce Irma and Valentino’s first dance as husband and wife.

[Music]

Song: I would need a million words

If I tried to define

All the things you mean to me, yeah

For you, I’d die a thousand lives

Mimy Rodriguez: Our song was 17 by Pink Sweats. So I just wanted to commemorate how this song was us being young and in love. And I was gonna love him until the very end.

[Music]

Song: Special kind of energy

‘Cause love is born when hearts collide

Every time you touch me

You remind me that I’m still alive

Mimy Rodriguez: He wrote me a letter the morning of our wedding and same thing, just I love you. And it was- it was beautiful. But the speech was amazing.

[Music]

Song: So promise you’ll never change

And I’ll always be the same

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: Check, check. I want to thank everyone for coming tonight.

Sukey Lewis: In this video of their wedding reception, Valentino holds Mimy at his left aside.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: I have a great partner in life. I couldn’t ask for anything different.

Sukey Lewis: His arm wrapped around her, he’s wearing a burgundy shirt and a black vest.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: You know, this-this whole wedding, I felt it strange that I wasn’t nervous or I wasn’t dreading the day. I was excited and I wanted it to happen. Uh, and it clicked with me when I was standing up there on the altar today that I’m right where I’m supposed to be in life.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy leans her head into his shoulder. She’s changed out of the white gown into a dress covered in black lace.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: I love you, Erma.

Mimy Rodriguez: I love you too.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: You are truly the love of my life. I’m excited to spend the rest of my life with you. I can’t wait to make babies, and see where the future goes. [cheering]

Sukey Lewis: He hands her the mic.

Mimy Rodriguez: You know, I– when I first met Val, I loved him. I’m going to be honest with every single one of you and just as my sister said she thought it was crazy but honestly I didn’t. I wake up every day and I look at him and I just– I don’t want to look at anyone else.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: I told her on our third date, which was our third day knowing each other, that I loved her. So that’s how that’s how much I knew.

Mimy Rodriguez: Yeah, he’s crazy.

Sukey Lewis: Mimy thanks everyone including family members who came all the way from Mexico.

Mimy Rodriguez: [Spanish language]

Sukey Lewis: Valentino thanks Mimy’s family, and he thanks her friends for keeping her company when he couldn’t be there. And he toasts his parents.

Valentino Rodriguez, Jr: It’s one of the first memories I have with my dad is us go– walking into a movie theater on a rainy day. A man taking off his jacket, holding it over his date’s head. And my dad stopped and said, “No matter what you do in life, I want that you to be a man like that, that cherishes your woman.” Please, have a good rest of the night. We’ll party until we run out of money for the DJ or we run out of alcohol. Cheers.

[Music]

Mimy Rodriguez: It was a perfect day. For a long time he was so stuck on the prison, and I think for that day specifically, it just kind of brought him into a place of, like, “I am getting married. I’m moving forward with my life.”

Sukey Lewis: But less than two weeks after his wedding day, on October 15th, Valentino went back to New Folsom to meet with the warden, the man who’s the head of the whole prison, Jeff Lynch.

Mimy Rodriguez: He told me that he went to go talk to the warden about all the corruption that was going on within the prison, at least within the officers that he was working with.

[Dramatic music]

Sukey Lewis: Strohmaier, that internal affairs sergeant, had forwarded that long text thread between him and Valentino with all the names and the slurs straight to the warden. Now, Valentino was in the warden’s office, telling him in person about the harassment he’d received.

Mimy Rodriguez: He told me that he had told the warden about this one sergeant. I believe he was the sergeant of that team, how he put his hands around his neck. And he said, “I can make it look like an accident.”

Sukey Lewis: We only have Mimy’s account of this specific allegation. But we do know that Valentino talked about threats from Sergeant Anderson and members with the squad. Documents and recorded testimony Warden Lynch later gave about this meeting largely corroborate Mimy’s account of what was discussed. Valentino told the warden that ISU officers planted contraband on incarcerated people.

Mimy Rodriguez: He spoke to the warden for some time, so I’m assuming there was a lot more said.

Sukey Lewis: CDCR did not respond to questions about this meeting and said the warden can’t comment on personnel matters. As Valentino was leaving the prison, he texted the internal affairs Sergeant Strohmaier, “Let me know how things turn out. Also, I’m not telling Steele or anyone I was up there.” “10/4,” Strohmaier responded. When Valentino got back home, Mimy says he seemed lighter, like a big weight had been lifted off his chest.

Mimy Rodriguez: He felt confident that the warden was gonna help.

Julie Small: Mhmm.

Mimy Rodriguez: He was happy coming home.

Sukey Lewis: And that evening after the prison, Valentino texted his dad.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Uh, October the 15th. And, um, he just texted me out of the blue, “I love you, pop.”

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. texted him back, “I love you too, kiddo.” Val senior says his son mentioned the meeting to him too. He says he told the warden everything.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And when he emphasized everything, he’d always say everything.

Sukey Lewis: What Valentino meant by “everything,” we still don’t know. One thing we really wanted to know is did Valentino talk to the warden about the murder of Luis Giovanny Aguilar. But so far, none of the documents or testimony we’ve been able to get address this, and Mimy and Val Sr. say they don’t know. We do know that after the meeting, the warden had asked Valentino to write up all his allegations into an official report.

Mimy Rodriguez: He was asked to write a memo, but he didn’t do it. He should have done it. But he never got a chance to write the memo.

Sukey Lewis: Six days later, on October 21st, 2020, Mimy came home from having dinner with her girlfriends and found Valentino slumped over in the bathroom and called 911.

911 ER: Edward 20. Edward 25.

911 Dispatch: 20.

911 ER: They’re saying this male is unconscious. We’re giving CPR instructions.

911 Dispatch: Copy.

Sukey Lewis: It was around nine o’clock at night, Val Sr. remembers. He was already in bed, watching TV after a long day.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: The phone rings.

Sukey Lewis: It’s his other son, Gregory. A friend had heard something on the police scanner and texted him.

Gregory Rodriguez: I call my dad and I go, “Hey, uh, we need to go down to Val’s house.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And he just says, “Dad, there’s something going on at Val’s.”

Gregory Rodriguez: Goes, “What am I supposed to do?”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I didn’t feel panic or anything, I just stayed really quiet.

Gregory Rodriguez: I go, “Dad, just pick me up. Let’s go.” He goes, “Okay.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: “Yeah, let’s-let’s go over there.”

Gregory Rodriguez: We get there and, um-

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And then an ambulance was leaving with the lights off. So I remember feeling relieved, like, “Oh, good, nobody got hurt.” So I started to pull up. It was really dark.

Gregory Rodriguez: We get out and there’s a cop that meets us at the end of the driveway.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I asked, “Is Val here?” He says, “My sergeant will come on and talk to you.” So Greg says, “Come on man, tell us something.” He kind of grins.

Gregory Rodriguez: My dad asked where Val was, and the cop used a term like he was dead.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Just says he’s deceased.

Gregory Rodriguez: Right away, my dad just fell to the ground and I was in shock. You know, I just couldn’t believe it. Uh, when I say I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it was literally I could not believe it.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. thought his son’s body must have been in that ambulance.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Uh, I just started to think, “I need to tell my wife.”

Gregory Rodriguez: I go, “Hey, just go home to mom.” I go, “I’ll stay here.” And I was there for about an hour by myself.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And I walked in and my wife was on the couch sitting on her legs, and she looked at me and she’s, “What happened?” And I-I just told her, “He died.” I didn’t know how else to say it. I remember standing there. She passed out. She woke up and she was crying, “Where is he? Let’s go see him at the hospital. Is he still alive?” And then I realized, I don’t even know where he’s at. And, uh, the phone rang, it was Greg, and he says, “Dad.” I go, “Yeah.” “Val’s here. He’s in the house.” I can’t remember who the heck was driving, but we drove.

Gregory Rodriguez: My mom and dad and my sisters pulled up to the house and my mom took off running in the house and-

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And there he was on the floor with his arms stretched out. And, uh, he was all purple. I just- I just looked at him, you know, and she jumped on him right away and started holding him, crying, saying, “He’s cold, you know, wake up, Val.” She was telling me to wake him up. I had to reach underneath her arms and-and pull her out.

Gregory Rodriguez: Finally, she gets up and they take off.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: On the way out, I looked at the cop and I says, “I-I want a full toxicology report.” And he says, “Oh, yeah.”

Sukey Lewis: Eventually, they all went home and Valentino’s body was taken to the coroner so they could do an autopsy and start doing those tests. The coroner’s report notes that the house is still full of wrapped and unwrapped gifts from the couple’s wedding. Valentino’s mom has difficulty speaking about that night. It’s almost too much for her to put into words. And after they went home, she called his phone three times. She gave us permission to play one of the messages she left for him.

Erma Rodriguez: “Val, you can come back. I know you can. Please. Please. Please, come back. Please.” [crying]

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: After Valentino’s death, calls of condolence came in and people stopped by the shop, but there was one call in particular that Val Sr. kept waiting for.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: It didn’t ring like-like it never happened. And I says, “Man, this is really weird. It’s like, I haven’t got a phone call from the prison?” I was under this stupid impression that the warden would call me and say, “Hey, you know, I’m sorry about your son. Um, he was a good man. We’re gonna make sure we’re gonna find out.” You know, nothing. It was just-just complete silence.

Sukey Lewis: The warden never called.

[Theme music]

Sukey Lewis: Coming up next time, Val Sr. reaches out to a source inside New Folsom.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I text him and I asked him, “Are you still running the race?” He said, “What race?”

CDCR Agent: You are hereby directed to cease all communication with any and all employees of California State Prison Sacramento regarding Correctional Officer Valentino Rodriguez.

Julie Small: The allegation is about ordering murders are-are very shocking. To have a correctional officer, a high-ranking sergeant in an investigative unit, releasing this kind of, uh, detailed report about misconduct, illegal activity, even murder. I don’t Know of another time that that’s happened.

[Credits music]

Sukey Lewis: You’re listening to On Our Watch Season Two: New Folsom from KQED.

If you have any tips or feedback about the series, you can email us at: onourwatch@kqed.org. You can also leave us a review in Apple podcasts.

The series is reported by me, Sukey Lewis, and Julie Small. It’s edited by Victoria Mauleon. It’s produced and scored by Steven Rascón and Chris Egusa. Sound design and mixing by Tarek Fouda. Jen Chien is KQED’s director of podcasts and she executive produced the series. Meticulous fact checking by Mark Betancourt. Additional research for this episode by Cayla Mihalovich, Kathleen Quinn, and Laura Fitzgerald—students in the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, whose chair David Barstow provided valuable support to the whole series.

Special thanks to Rahsaan Thomas of Ear Hustle, Sandhya Dirks of NPR and KQED Health Correspondent April Dembosky.

Original music by Ramtin Arablouei, including our theme song. Additional music from APM Music and Audio Network.

Funding for On Our Watch is provided in part by Arnold Ventures and the California Endowment.

And thanks to KQED’s Otis R. Taylor Jr., Managing Editor of News and Enterprise, Ethan Tovan-Lindsey our Vice President of News, and chief content officer Holly Kernan.

Thanks for listening.

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