Johnny on the Spot

A country music superstar in the seventies, a journeyman in the eighties—and a murderer in the nineties? Early next year, a jury will decide the fate of Johnny Rodriguez, who could soon be singing the saddest song of all.

December 1998By Comments

AT 4:17 A.M. ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, THE Uvalde County sheriff’s dispatcher radioed Sabinal officer Guillermo Quirova to say that a 911 call had come in: A man had been shot on North Pickford Street—the second time in several weeks that the police had received a report of gunshots at that address. The wood-frame house, with faded, peeling yellow paint, belonged to country singer Johnny Rodriguez’s mother, who is eighty and lives in a San Antonio nursing home; in recent months Johnny had been living there. When Quirova arrived at the scene, according to the complaint he filed, he “witnessed a gun shot victim known to me as Israel AKA Bosco [sic] Borrego. Also at this time an individual by the name of Johnny Rodriguez was physically assaulting said victim and stating in abusive language that nobody comes into my Mother’s house.” At 6:25 that morning, 26-year-old Borrego died at Uvalde Memorial Hospital from a single bullet to the abdomen. Later that day, 46-year-old Rodriguez was charged with murder.

Word spread quickly. Even though his chart-topping days have long passed, Rodriguez is still a local hero. And Sabinal, which has a population of just 1,700, is the sort of place where everybody knows everybody—and everybody’s business. It’s a ranching and farming community that sits mainly on the north side of U.S. 90 about sixty miles west of San Antonio, where the live oaks of the rolling Hill Country yield to the scrub brush and mesas of the Wild West; the big event of the year is the wild-hog-catching contest in March. Nearly anyone in town can give you good directions to nearly anyone else’s house without mentioning a street name or number.

Both the Rodriguez and the Borrego families have strong ties to Sabinal. Reynaldo Rodriguez, one of Johnny’s brothers, served two terms as mayor before deciding last May not to run for a third; another brother, Ricky, serves on the Sabinal City Council; and his sisters Antonia and Eloisa work in the Sabinal public schools. Borrego, a carpenter and construction crew flagman, was married with two young children at the time of his death. His mother, grandmother, and sister all live in Sabinal, as do three of his four brothers. “You could go talk to almost any Hispanic person in Sabinal, and it’s likely he’s related to one or the other family, even if it’s two or three times removed,” says Sabinal police chief James “Red” Evans, who helped Quirova seal off the crime scene and gather evidence. “This is a quiet little town,” says the current mayor of Sabinal, George Lee Moore. “Something like this doesn’t happen every night. There was a lot of shock, but mainly there was confusion.”

IT WAS A CONFUSING SITUATION. TEXAS RANGER COY SMITH, who is helping with the investigation, cites “a series of events beginning that afternoon and culminating in the shooting” but will say little else. Both men had been drinking, reports Uvalde County district attorney Tony Hackebeil. Toxicology tests showed that Borrego’s vitreous alcohol level (taken from behind the eye and considered more accurate than blood alcohol level) was .331, more than three times the legal limit. Rodriguez’s blood alcohol level is unknown because state law doesn’t require that murder suspects be tested.

According to his lawyer, Alan Brown, Rodriguez says he was on his friend Carlos Tovar’s porch when he heard a noise at his mother’s house across the street. (Rodriguez, who would only be interviewed in the presence of Brown, would not discuss the shooting himself.) As he walked in the door to see what was happening, he picked up a .357 Magnum that was kept near the door. When an intruder came toward him in the dark, he fired one shot, not realizing who he’d hit until afterward. The two men knew each other, Brown maintains, but not well, and Borrego had been warned several times by Rodriguez and other members of the family not to come to their mother’s house. “A late-night intruder in his house, one shot. It’s a very regrettable accident, but the Texas Penal Code says very clearly that you can use deadly force in this situation,” Brown says.

Tovar, a childhood friend of Rodriguez’s who has known  him since he answered to El Charro (“The Rider”), confirms that he and Johnny and two of their friends were sitting on his porch—drinking beer, playing acoustic guitars, and singing—when Borrego had arrived earlier in the evening. At first they tolerated him, but when Borrego went into the house and began busting up furniture, Tovar and Rodriguez ran him off, with Tovar beating him up a bit on the edge of the lawn. Their friends left, but Rodriguez and Tovar stayed on the porch, drinking and singing until about four. Because they were going to see Merle Haggard at John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes that night, Rodriguez decided to sleep at Tovar’s. Before going to bed, he crossed the street to secure his mother’s house because little things—a clock, a box of CDs—had been disappearing lately. And that’s when the trouble began.

Israel Borrego’s family tells a different story. “My husband had been spending a lot of time with Johnny the last two or three months, drinking beer,” says his widow, Anita. Meliton, one of his brothers, says Israel “would party at Johnny’s two or three days straight and then sleep there”; he knows this, he says, because he often hung out with his brother and Rodriguez, drinking and singing songs at Tovar’s or at Rodriguez’s house. In Meliton’s version of what went down that night, Israel and a friend drank awhile at their grandfather’s house before going to Tovar’s; when they arrived, the friend was told to leave but Israel was allowed to stay. So why was Israel in Rodriguez’s mother’s house? One theory—not discouraged by Ranger Smith—suggests he was fixing breakfast for his friends, as he often did when he partied there. (“Alan Brown keeps trying to stage this as an unfortunate incident involving an unknown intruder,” Hackebeil says. “I don’t believe Borrego was an intruder at all.”)

Whatever happened, tensions between the Borregos and Rodriguez are running high. On Wednesday, September 2, the same day the Borrego family buried Israel using $2,000 raised at a bake sale and a barbecue, Rodriguez was released from the Uvalde County jail after making $50,000 bail. As he left the building—wan, disoriented, lines digging deeply into his leathery face—he ran into Benito Borrego, another of Israel’s brothers, who was there with his uncle Baltazar trying to claim commissary money left over from his own six-week jail stint. When Benito and Baltazar saw Rodriguez, they started cursing at him and making obscene gestures. Sheriff’s officers had to move them away, and deputies followed Rodriguez’s car to the county line.

“I’m waiting for the legal system to take care of everything because I believe in justice,” says Anita, who has filed a wrongful-death suit against Rodriguez. “I hope they judge Johnny on what he did and not on who he is. Because if it had been the other way around, if my husband had shot Johnny, he would still be in jail.”

NOT MUCH IS KNOWN ABOUT ISRAEL BORREGO; THOUGH his family has talked to the press some, they haven’t said a whole lot. He was nicknamed Basco as a child because of the way he shoved burgers into his mouth when the family visited McDonald’s. He and Anita were only “real good friends,” she says, until they started dating, when she was a sophomore and he was in the eighth grade. October 14, little more than six weeks after the shooting, would have been their ninth wedding anniversary.

Except for a brief period doing carpentry with one of his brothers in Chicago, Borrego had lived in Sabinal all his life. He was a pretty fair pool player, but his two passions were softball—he was supposed to play second base for the Sabinal Tigers in a tournament the day after he died—and drinking beer. He had a reputation for wandering around town “until he found a party he could crash,” as one local puts it. Even his widow doesn’t disagree. “I wouldn’t let him drink beer in the house,” she says, “because he was the kind of guy that once he started, he wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want that around my kids. But I didn’t mind that he went out to drink because I knew how much he liked it and because he almost always came home.”

On the night of the shooting, Anita drove him to his grandfather’s house around eleven. “Whenever I dropped him off anywhere, I would always say, ‘Be careful,’” she recalls. “And he would always say, ‘I love you.’” Her sister Alicia came to tell her what happened at around seven the next morning. Meliton Borrego had been called by the hospital chaplain just after six, but the family couldn’t make it to Israel’s bedside in time to see him before he died. “I go to the cemetery every day to talk to him,” Anita says. “I cry, but I know I have to be strong for my kids.”

BY CONTRAST, THOUGH MEMBERS OF JOHNNY RODRIGUEZ’S family wouldn’t be interviewed, his life story has been told many times. Born in 1952, Juan Raoul Davis Rodriguez was the eighth of nine children born to Andres Rodriguez, a welder at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, and his wife, Isabel. He grew up in a four-room shack in Sabinal. After his singing career took off and the money started rolling in, Rodriguez tore down that shack and in its place built his mother the house where Israel Borrego was shot.

His boyhood idol was his older brother Andres Junior, a two-fisted drinker and barroom brawler who gave him his first guitar. By his early teens, Rodriguez was sitting in with bands in the local bars, playing country as well as Mexican music. In high school in the mid-sixties he and his friends formed a band called the Spocks; they performed in Beatles wigs and Star Trek ears and played mostly rock and roll, but Johnny worked in a little country. “Even then,” he told me, “I knew I wanted to get into music.”

He got there in a roundabout way. The goat-rustling incident that indirectly launched his career is one of country music’s most potent rags-to-riches stories and has seen several permutations over the years. According to retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, sixteen-year-old Rodriguez and eight friends were hanging out at Garner State Park, thirty miles northwest of Sabinal, when they stole and barbecued a goat from an adjacent ranch. The goat turned out to be a registered Angora, worth about $150 instead of the $15 common for unregistered animals. When Utopia constable J. R. Jackson (no relation to Joaquin) caught up with the group, Rodriguez took the rap for everyone. He was arrested and released on bond, but he was quickly picked back up by Uvalde County sheriff Kenneth Kelley because he owed $250 on a previous public-drinking charge. He had no more money for bail, so he served several days’ time. While at the Uvalde County jail on unrelated Ranger business, Joaquin Jackson recognized him as a great singer he’d met at Garner State Park. Jackson went home and fetched his guitar, and after Rodriguez serenaded the sheriff for about three hours, Rodriguez was released and allowed to pay off his fine gradually.

Jackson then took Rodriguez to meet J. T. “Happy” Shahan at Alamo Village, a western movie set and tourist attraction outside Brackettville. Shahan gave Rodriguez work while coaching the shy youth on stage presence and the like. He became Rodriguez’s manager on a handshake—and his father figure as well. Country stars Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, both of whom had played Alamo Village one Labor Day weekend, liked what they heard of Rodriguez and invited him to Nashville. At first he wasn’t sure he was interested, but he changed his mind after his father died of cancer in January 1972 and his brother Andres was killed in a car wreck the following May.

As the story goes, Rodriguez arrived in Nashville with $14, three pairs of pants, three shirts, a toilet kit, and a guitar wrapped in cellophane—and within days he was playing lead guitar in Hall’s band. Known both for liberal politics that went against the Nashville grain and for wry, insightful story-songs (he wrote “Harper Valley PTA”), Hall persuaded Rodriguez to start singing a few warm-up songs at the beginning of his show. He was so amazed at how well Rodriguez could sing in smooth Spanish and unaccented English that he suggested a bilingual version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” (Years later, when Rodriguez started hanging with tejano musicians, they were surprised that he not only spoke fluent Spanish but also knew the same traditional Mexican ballads they did and sang them in the proper accent.)

Hall helped secure Rodriguez’s deal with Mercury Records—his first contract—and the rookie responded by reaching number nine on the country charts with his debut single, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through).” His next three singles all hit number one, as did three of his next six, and each of his first fifteen efforts cracked the Top Ten. Many were bilingual, which is how Rodriguez came to be country music’s first Chicano star. He sang in the tradition of Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, with phrasing that suggested both yearning and disappointment around every corner; his voice was sweet and young yet rugged and sexy.

Though Rodriguez was a reluctant star, singing his hits at the beginning of Hall’s show and then fading into the background when the boss took over, he soon went solo and grew accustomed to the spotlight. When he and Tanya Tucker toured together in 1973—the year they turned 21 and 15, respectively—they were hailed as the saviors of country music, rescuing it from its increasingly geriatric demographics by bringing kids back into the audience. As it happened, the real saviors turned out to be Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and the Outlaws, who began enjoying huge country-to-pop crossovers within the next couple of years; Rodriguez’s records were too solidly entrenched in the fading Nashville Sound to do the same, even though he represented that sound at its very best. But with his Texas roots, he eventually found acceptance within the Outlaw crowd. He even joined icons like Willie, Charley Pride, and Kris Kristofferson at former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal’s house for intimate “guitar pulls,” in which a guitar was passed around the room as each man sang for no audience except his peers.

In 1973 Rodriguez married flight attendant Linda Patterson. The reception was held at Hall’s Nashville mansion; Mooney Lynn, Loretta’s husband, stepped from his black limo bearing a gift of a black goat wrapped in a bow. On trips home Rodriguez rented a white stretch limo at the San Antonio airport and arrived in Sabinal in style. “When I toured with him in 1976 and 1977,” says Dottsy Dwyer of Seguin, who enjoyed a string of hits in the late seventies, “the girls would swarm him until he had to have bodyguards, like Elvis.” He established the Johnny Rodriguez Life Enrichment Center in Corpus Christi for disabled and impoverished children and later became active in the End Hunger Network. Everything was going great.

BUT RODRIGUEZ’S VICES MUSHROOMED with his fame. In 1975 he told Shahan he had “no need” for a manager under the then-standard Nashville system, in which an artist’s booking agent also handled managerial duties. (“I just didn’t want to listen to anyone,” he now says. “I was getting too big for my britches.”) Freed from Shahan’s firm hand, however, Rodriguez grew reckless. His marriage deteriorated after three years because he was always on the road and because, he says, “I went out on her and told her about it.” Always a heavy drinker, he tried cocaine once and was unimpressed, but when he snorted it again a couple months later, he liked it so much that within a year and a half, friends were pushing him into a rehabilitation center in Denton. That was 1980. Since then, he has rehabbed five more times, the last time in 1993, but he has never remained straight for as long as a year. “The drugs were why I started slipping down the charts in the late seventies,” he told me with a rueful grin, “but my real problem is alcohol. I don’t know why. When I stay away from meetings and abstinent people . . .”

In 1981, after his first time in rehab, he left Mercury for a more lucrative deal with Epic. “Down on the Rio Grande” promptly hit the Top Ten, but subsequent releases didn’t fare so well. When he signed with Capitol in 1987, it wasn’t for better money; no other major label wanted to take a chance on him. After five modest chart singles for Capitol, he was released from his contract. But he remained a trouper. “If you told Johnny he had to get up at four a.m. and do a Ralph Emory radio interview before hitting the road, he’d be there without complaint, and he would charm the daylights out of everyone,” says Judy Newby, who booked and managed him from 1985 to 1990. “He always gave everybody what they wanted.”

Phillip Fajardo, currently the drummer for retro-country sensation Don Walser, played with Johnny for a year in the mid-eighties. “He had just come out of rehab and was real enthusiastic about building things back up,” Fajardo says. “He hired a full band, crew, bus and driver, the whole works. But he wasn’t having the hits like he used to, and he couldn’t afford it. He took me onto the bus once and opened a briefcase full of cash with an Uzi on top, then made a joke about having a little business on the side. But I would have stayed with him if he could have kept it together; he was great to his musicians. He’d never get mad; he’d just let the water roll off his back.”

In the nineties, though, Rodriguez has barely had a career. There have been several drinking-related misdemeanor arrests, most recently in Weslaco in 1994. He works only about fifty gigs a year, mostly in Texas or on overseas USO tours. And he has recorded only sporadically. The 1996 release You Can Say That Again, which mixed honky-tonk ballads with modern fare by songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen, was critically acclaimed but sold poorly. Last year he began recording new material with Nashville producer Nelson Larkin, who had handled his 1993 flop Run for the Border, as well as rerecordings of his old hits released a month after the shooting under the title Johnny Rodriguez. “We’ve cut both traditional and contemporary songs, and he’s singing great,” reports Larkin, who adds that a Sony/Epic executive was impressed with the tapes. Rodriguez believes this will be his ticket back to the top of the country charts, though it’s hard to see where he fits in among today’s young stars.

Offstage, Rodriguez’s life has been up in the air. In 1995 he married Willie Nelson’s daughter Lana, an old girlfriend from the mid-seventies. He occasionally played Willie’s show until the marriage ended, after about seven months. “One day Willie’s bus pulled up, and Johnny wasn’t on it,” says Hill Country dance hall king Johnny Bush. “Nobody said a word about him, and nobody asked. Willie has still never said a word about it, and still nobody has asked.” That marriage is the only subject, aside from his legal situation, that Rodriguez won’t discuss.

Early this year Rodriguez married for a third time, and his wife, the former Debbie McNeely, soon bore his first child, a daughter named Audry Rae. But by the spring that marriage was being torn apart by the old familiar demons. Around June Johnny started spending most of his time in Sabinal rather than at the couple’s San Marcos home. He told friends he wanted solitude to write more songs and delve deeper into Mexican music. “When Johnny is here in Sabinal, everybody wants to come and say hello,” his friend Carlos Tovar says, “but Johnny wants to be left alone to hear music and reminisce with his old friends. All he wants is two or three guys around him and to play music and talk about old songs.”

“He’s had a real good heart as long as I’ve known him—always gracious, considerate, very polite, and very responsible, with a strong work ethic,” said Randy Willis, who has known Rodriguez since they were twelve. “I guess time changes you.”

AFTER MAKING BAIL, RODRIGUEZ holed up in San Antonio, though he kept a date two days later at the Howard County Fair in Big Spring, where people had been calling all week to see if he was still coming. The fairgrounds music tent, which rarely fills completely, overflowed for both shows. Rodriguez sounded good. He mentioned his arrest only indirectly, when he apologized to the audience for the lack of a keyboard player “due to the confusion of the last week” and thanked them for coming out “after everything you’ve been hearing on the news.” Ever since, he has been splitting his time between San Antonio and Nashville, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and pretty much keeping to himself. Although he had intended to cancel all of his upcoming bookings, he played dates near Midland in late September and in Helotes in mid-November.

But that was then. In December district attorney Tony Hackebeil will recall the Uvalde County grand jury; he’ll ask that Rodriguez be indicted on a charge of murder. Rodriguez’s trial will likely begin after the first of the year. It could be his final public appearance for quite some time—or it could be just a temporary setback for a man who’s had his share.

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