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.

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

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