On Thanksgiving morning, 2017, I received an unexpected email from someone whose name sounded vaguely familiar but that I couldn’t place.
The email read as follows:
“You likely do not know me. About seven years ago I was sitting in a cell and opened up a manila envelope with a story enclosed in it. It was a piece written by my high school teacher Dennis Danziger. He told me he wrote a piece on me. I didn’t know why. I just knew that the guy cared about me and wanted to help.
I want to say thank you for allowing the story to be published. Somewhere on a computer screen there was a Jewish guy reading that story. That guy happened to be a movie producer with a lot of clout in the criminal justice system. He wasn’t well known at the time, but his work and help reached many. Scott Budnick decided he wanted to visit me. He did and offered to get me to a prison where a college program, along with an abundance of self-help groups, was available. I transferred there and immersed myself in education. Things began to change–my personality, the way I viewed things, everything. I earned my GED and later received an AA degree.
“I’m writing to you late at night because I ran across your name and remembered that you were the one that gave Dennis the opportunity to publish his story. I was given a 22 year prison sentence and was recently released 10 years earlier than expected. The governor commuted my sentence. You probably don’t know, but I likely wouldn’t be writing to you right now if it weren’t for that piece being published. I would have never gone to Ironwood where my life took a turn for the better. I would have never met Scott. I would have likely not obtained a degree and been fully involved with helping the youth that entered the prison system. I would have never gotten recognized by the governor’s chief of staff. I wouldn’t be home.
“I say thank you for giving a hand of kindness and not knowing what might come of it. Normally the bad takes the spotlight and is constantly thrown in our faces. The bad decisions we make continuously replay in our heads. But I hope you know that a decision you made drastically affected my life for the good. Thank you, Celeste. I mean that from my heart.
Hope I wasn’t much of an interruption.
As I read, memories quickly returned about a story WitnessLA had run nearly eight years ago, in February 2010, having to do with a high school student named John Rodriguez. It wasn’t one story, actually, but a complex and heartbreaking narrative written as four separate stories, which we ran as a series.
As John said in the email, his high school composition teacher, Dennis Danziger, who is also an author, wrote the series for us. He did so after he’d told me a winding and painful tale about a remarkable kid in his class, and I said I’d like to publish the account.
Yet, when Chapter Four of the story ended, all I knew—and all the readers knew—was that a gifted 17-year-old was headed to prison for 22 years. But the finer details of how this had occurred were still unsettlingly fuzzy.
And now there was this email suggesting that the group of stories somehow triggered a series of events, which, in turn, had the unlikely effect of getting John Rodriquez on the radar of Governor Jerry Brown’s staff, resulting in his release from prison.
But how in the world had all this come about? How had he gone from being the star of his high school English class to serving a 22-year prison sentence? And what exactly had happened while he was locked up that resulted in the governor commuting his sentence?
The day after Thanksgiving I wrote John back and asked for his phone number. Then I began contacting a list people whom I hoped could help fill in the rest of John Rodriguez’ story. You’ll find what I learned in the account below.
THE WRITER: The Sequel, Part 1
John Rodriguez was seventeen when he shot a 25-year-old man outside a bar in Cudahy, California. Rodriguez, who is now 26, says he was not able to sort out the thoughts and emotions that caused him to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger until he’d been in prison for at least two years, probably longer.
Rodriguez admitted when we spoke recently that he is still uncomfortable talking about what happened on April 5, 2009. Yet he makes a point of pushing himself to talk anyway. “It’s very messed up to think, like, man, that’s what really happened,” he said. “But I remember every one of those moments. “
On the night of the shooting, according to Rodriguez, he and his older brother had gone out drinking because the brother had joined the Navy and was about to ship out.
“We wanted to hang out one last time before he left,” he said. So they chose a large, noisy, music-filled place called the El Potrero Club.
The brothers were nearing the end of the evening when, in the kind of moment that has become a bar fight movie cliché, a far larger man bumped into Rodriguez’ brother. The brother and the big guy, who was in his mid-20s to the brother’s 19, got into an argument. The argument escalated. The other guy, according to Rodriguez, was drunker than the two brothers, who were themselves pretty inebriated, despite both of their underage statuses.
Hoping to avoid a physical confrontation, Rodriguez grabbed his brother and herded him out of the club.
But the big guy and his friends soon followed them out the door and into the sizable parking lot. “I saw that these other guys continued to go down the way we went.”
As the brothers proceeded toward their car, they continued to be unable shake their tail.
After one more glance back at the followers, Rodriguez remembered being seized by an irrational fury toward the big man, whose name he would later learn was Enrique Evangelista.
“I know now that the anger wasn’t towards him…that it was something else.”
The fury might have passed harmlessly if it were not for the fact that Rodriquez and his brother had a gun in the car with them.
According to Rodriguez’ Venice High School English teacher, Dennis Danziger who, during the school year, had become an unofficial mentor to the teenager, whom he saw as an unusually talented writer, it was the teenager’s mother who encouraged her sons not to go anywhere even slightly risky without packing a weapon.
It would prove to be a tragic piece of advice.
The legacy of family
John Rodriguez’ mother was 16-years-old when he was born. Rodriguez was her second child. His elder brother who would later aspire to become a Navy man, had been born two years earlier, when the mom was 14-years-old.
Children having children.
When Rodriguez was five, his mother became pregnant with a third child, John’s sister. But before the girl could be born, the children’s father, a gardener, and the most stable member of the family, died suddenly.
“From when I was born, until the time I was five, we had what I would call a normal family life,” Rodriguez said. “We lived in a house. My dad went to work. And when he came back at night, he looked after us. But when he passed away, everything just kind of went to shit. My uncle, who was my mother’s brother, and who lived with us, got killed right after my dad died.”
The uncle was a gang member, John said, and “enemies” killed him execution style.
Rodriguez’ family, it seems, was loaded with gang members on his mom’s side, a legacy that would add large doses of confusion to the boy’s own life, particularly as he entered his teenage years.
After the double blow of his father’s death, and the murder of his uncle, things in the family destabilized. The young mother and her three young children had nowhere to live, so they jumped from friends’ house to friends’ house, staying with whoever could and would offer a spare room.
Finally, Rodriguez mom was able to land a job, which allowed her and her three kids to move into an apartment of their own But the stability was only partial. “When my mom would be at work, we three kids would take care of each other, cook for each other, clean…..pretty much everything,” he said.
During this period, his mother also used to go out a lot. “She was kind of trying to make up for the teenage years that she lost. So she partied a lot. Really a lot.”
It was Rodriguez brother who all but raised the two younger children, according to Danziger. “John never felt very connected to his mother.”
Rodriquez was a bright child and, during rocky periods at home, school became a steadying force that the boy valued. He did well when it came to classwork, in part hoping to please his mother. Yet, according to Rodriguez, the mother seemed not to care, until on one occasion in 5th grade he came home with a bad grade. “And she got really upset.”
Rodriguez quickly made up for the slump in his schoolwork, and soon earned his first Student of the Month award. He asked his mom to attend the ceremony. But no one showed up.
When Rodriquez entered his teenage years, like many disaffected kids in his neighborhood, he drifted toward the gangs that had long been part of the family legacy.
By that time, Rodriguez’ relationship with his mother had broken down almost completely, although he acknowledges that his mom worked hard to earn a living for her family, which now included a new man in her life, and two more children.
“We rarely talked,” he said. So he started looking for warmth, reassurance, and attention elsewhere.
“Everything that I used to seek from her—you know, that love and support a child wants—I found from these other people.” In other words, the neighborhood gangsters.
Although Rodriguez said he was put off by the drugs and violence that came with gang life, he was drawn by the feeling of belonging. “These are people that have the same background, the same upbringing as you. What’s going on in your house is going on in their house too. And so you build this thing where you think, ‘we don’t need our family, we don’t need this or that, we have our selves, and we’re okay.’ But it wasn’t really true, of course.”
Matters were not helped by the fact that the adolescent Rodriguez lacked self-confidence. “I didn’t know how to stand my ground. And so I followed.”
He still liked school. But he was leading what he called a second life, namely the gang life, which caused him to assume he had little in common with those whom he viewed as good students at Venice High School.
He began cutting class and his grades slid drastically. “By the 10th and 11th grade,” he said, “I was pretty much getting just Ds and Fs.”
Rodriguez got a lucky break when, as a senior at Venice High School, he was transferred into Dennis Danziger’s English class. Danziger, a gifted writing teacher who was also an author himself, and married to Amy Friedman, another writer, had a knack for bringing out previously unseen talents in his students.
At first, however, Rodriguez didn’t know what to think about his new instructor.
“I felt there was no organization going on in the class,” he said. “There was no image of power there. No authority.” After a while, Rodriguez said he learned that Danziger’s authority did, in fact, exist. “It was just hidden. He used authority in such a laid-back fashion that you wouldn’t even see it.”This different approach to teaching had an effect on Rodriguez. “Suddenly I wanted to, like, get my shit together. I started finding out I did enjoy school. I started going to pep rallies, and hanging around different kinds of people. Suddenly, I actually liked the school life that, for me for so many years, had not seemed normal.”
But he was still leading his other life too, the gang life.
“Ultimately that life led me to hurt and to want to kill somebody.”
Not gangster enough
Another feature of Rodriguez’ teenage psyche was the persistent worry that he would let his family down because he wasn’t tough enough.
“I remember, my mother used to look at me as the weak one, like I was the guy who didn’t have it in him to hurt somebody. After we lost our uncle, she used to tell us, it was better for other people to cry in their house, than for anybody to cry in our house. ‘So, you’re going to do the hurting and you’re not going let nobody hurt you,’ she told us. She engraved that in our heads.”
He also felt it was his job to look after his brother—even though he was the younger of the two–since his brother had spent so many years looking after him.
His mother reinforced the view. “She said, ‘He’s your family. No matter what you’re going to protect him.’”
This brings us back to the parking lot of the El Potrero Club where the bar drunk and his friend were following Rodriguez and his brother, as they walked toward their car.
Rightly or wrongly, Rodriguez saw the body language of the followers as threatening.
The seventeen-year-old was also convinced that he didn’t personally look scary, which at that moment in the club parking lot, seemed important. He wasn’t physically large. “And I didn’t have the gangster Cholo look,” he said. “So when I went to the car, and I saw them still following, I felt I wanted to prove a point in this guy. I wanted him to know you don’t mess with people just because they look like they’re completely harmless.”
Rodriguez said he decided to show the 25-year-old, Enrique Evangelista, “Hey, I can hurt you too.”
And so he pulled a gun from the car and did just that.
“I shot him. I tried to kill him.”
Rodriguez fired several times and the two brothers watched as at least one of the bullets connected.
Then, stunned at what Rodriguez had just done, the brothers panicked. They jumped into the car and screeched from the club parking lot. Rodriguez tossed the gun out the car window as they drove.
They didn’t get far. “We got pulled over by cops pretty quickly, and we got arrested.”
Rodriguez’ victim, it turned out, was lucky. He was shot in the shoulder, but the wound was not life-threatening. According to Rodriguez, Evangelista was released from the hospital that same night.
But, of course, had the trajectory of the shoulder shot been slightly different, Evangelista could easily have been killed.
Irrationally, Rodriguez didn’t realize the seriousness of his situation when the police questioned him on that first night. “It’s crazy, but for some reason, I still had this thought, that, like, maybe my mom can still come pick me up.”
It wasn’t until his first arraignment that John began to realize the actions that could easily have taken the life of the man he shot, might now cost him the rest of his own life.
Deals and more deals
Despite any family squabbles, after Rodriguez was arrested, John’s mother, who worked as a waitress, gathered every bit of money she could from savings, friends, and family, and hired a private attorney for her son. What she did not know is that the attorney, David Currie, was prohibited from practicing law for much of the time he represented Rodriguez, because the California State Bar Association had suspended his license.
Currie was subsequently disbarred in 2013, and “prohibited from practicing law in California by order of the California Supreme Court.”
But, future disbarments aside, according those we spoke with who observed most or part of Rodriguez’ unfolding case—including Danziger, and Loyola Law School instructor, Elie Miller, who is also a former alternate public defender, and the former legal director for Homeboy Industries—Currie seemed to be phoning it in for his young client. He failed to mount any kind of challenge to the prosecutors’ push for Rodriguez to be tried as an adult, and did not attempt to get the brothers’ cases severed—both mistakes, according to Miller.
The prosecutors were pushing for a conviction that would result in, not one, but two life sentences for the 17-year-old, since Evangelista was standing near to an inhabited car when Rodriguez fired at him, thus opening the door for a second life term.
With a defense attorney who offered little resistance, the best deal the prosecution would offer the teenager was a single life sentence rather than two. With nothing to lose, Rodriguez said he wanted to go to trial instead. Finally, the prosecution offered what they said was their last deal.
“It was 25-to-life for both me and my brother.” If they added a gang allegation to the charges, the prosecution could legally tie the brother to the shooting, although he was not the shooter. The Rodriguez brothers again said they preferred to take their chances at trial.
A week before trial was to begin, Rodriquez’ mother fired Currie. She had managed to raise a little more money, and was able to hire a new attorney. In short order, the second attorney succeeded in getting a deal that Rodriguez felt he could live with.
“It was 22 years for me and five years for my brother.” Rodriguez could try for parole after 18 years, but was told he would likely do the maximum. Or more.
“But my brother would do 4 1/2 years out of the five.”
Rodriguez big brother was alarmed at the lengthy sentence for his baby brother and said they should still go to trial.
“But I told him, ‘No. This is something that I did, and this [sentence] is something that I will have to do.’”
Beginning a twenty-two year sentence
After the inmate reception and classification process, which every California Department of Corrections (CDCR) inmate goes through, and which can take up to 120 days, Rodriguez was transferred to a Level IV yard in a California state prison in Sacramento. The prison is colloquially known as New Folsom, and it would be the new inmate’s home for the foreseeable future.
Once Rodriguez had settled in at New Folsom, Danziger began writing him letters, hoping to at least nurture the young man’s intellectual talent, if he couldn’t help his legal situation, which he had come to realize was a done deal. But while Rodriguez had enjoyed Danziger’s class on the outside, post-conviction, his shame acted as a nearly unbreachable barrier that caused him to reject most of the overtures his former teacher attempted to offer.
“I don’t take compliments very well,” said Rodriguez when he tried to explain his reaction during those first years at New Folsom. “And I’ll push people away because of it. I’d discovered in the past that usually when people compliment me, they want something in return. So I was kind of testing him again.”
About eighteen months into the young man’s sentence, Danziger tried visiting Rodriguez.
The experience shook the instructor.
“The first time I visited him, I didn’t recognize him,” Danziger said. “He was so thin. His hair was long, and he said he’d been discovering his Native American roots, which seemed like a good thing.” But Rodriguez was discomfortingly withdrawn, so much so that Danziger actually devised questions to make sure his former student, was really his former student.
“Even after I realized it was really him, he wouldn’t take so much as a sandwich from the vending machine from me. He wouldn’t take a bottle of water. Nothing. It was like something had been beaten out of him.”
Yet, despite Rodriguez’ mistrust, when Danziger wrote him and gave him writing “prompts,” a.k.a. topics to stimulate a story or an essay, with rare exceptions, Danziger’s inmate protege would respond with a piece of writing.
And the writing was good. So good, in fact, that Danziger often shared Rodriguez’ work with his high school students.
The feedback that the students submitted to their teacher after reading Rodriguez’ essays was another factor that helped to chip away at the young man’s defenses.
“Dennis used to actually send me the feedback in manila envelopes, and I used to read all this stuff from these kids. Finally, I thought, ‘Oh, crap! People can actually relate to these things I’m writing.‘”
Rodriguez says it took close to two years for his internal walls to truly crumble. “Finally, I said, ‘OK. He wants to write me letters because he simply wants to write me letters. There’s nothing in it for him.’ I saw he was genuine.”
The combination of Rodriguez’ own writing, triggered by Danziger’s prompts, along with the ongoing epistolary conversation between teacher and student, began to act as an emotional tonic.
“Finally I just completely let everything down with Dennis. All my walls, all my barriers. I was just a simple person. I was just me on paper when I wrote it to him.”
Shortly after his internal drawbridge lowered in earnest with his former teacher, Rodriguez got a second visitor.
This time, however, the visitor was some person named Budnick whom the inmate had never met.
Rodriguez gets a visitor from Hollywood
Scott Budnick is a former entertainment business guy who, at the time, was best known as the executive producer of the funny, raunchy, and stratospherically high-grossing Hangover trilogy.
(It’s important to note that, despite the money-printing nature of the franchise, due to his deal with the production company of which he was a part, Budnick mostly made several fortunes for other people.)
In 2013, shortly after his first visit to meet with Rodriguez, Budnick would leave his Hollywood career to spend all his waking hours as one of the state’s most effective prison and juvenile justice reform activists. He is also the president and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — ARC — a nonprofit dedicated to helping men and women transition out of lock-up to a successful life outside.
By the time Budnick heard Rodriguez’ name he had been involved in criminal justice activism for nearly a decade, a pursuit that was jump-started in 2003 when he agreed to teach a writing class for the nonprofit InsideOUT Writers program at Barry J. Nordorf juvenile hall in Sylmar, CA. At Sylmar, as the facility is called, Budnick regularly met kids who were fighting cases in adult court that were as serious or more serious than the case that had landed Rodriguez his 22-year sentence.
The producer-turned-activist reportedly became interested in Rodriguez after reading the 2010 series written by Danziger for WitnessLA about the talented young high school senior who shot a man. Budnick agreed to meet with Danziger and his wife, Amy, to hear more about the kid. “They told me what a wonderful writer John was,” said Budnick. “Later I learned that he is an absolutely magnificent writer. He is also one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met in all the years I’ve been doing this work.”
But those conclusions were all part of the future.
On the day Budnick came to New Folsom, Rodriguez was on one of the prison’s recreation yards when a staff member came out to find him.
“They told me, ‘Go back to your cell and get your blues on.’”
Blues, he said, are the prison uniform worn by inmates whenever they must go anywhere special.
“They said, ‘There’s a guy here who wants to see you.’”
Rodriguez immediately became suspicious of this interruption in his daily regime.
He knew he’d not done anything that would require discipline. But he was still unhappy to be called unexpectedly.
“I didn’t like it because it wasn’t normal.”
After he changed his clothes, he was deposited in a small cell to wait. Eventually, a man walked into the cell, accompanied by the prison’s warden. The man introduced himself as Scott Budnick.
“I know your high school teacher,” he said.
The mention of Danziger made Rodriguez feel slightly better.
Budnick explained a bit about his Hollywood background. “But don’t worry about that,” he said.
“I hear a lot of great things about you, and if you really want to do something good, I have an opportunity for you.” There was another prison, Budnick told him. Ironwood. And it had a college program plus a lot of other self-help classes. “It’s a Level III prison.”
Rodriguez knew that Level III meant there would be many more activities and programs than were available to inmates in his high-security Level IV yard at New Folsom.
“So if you want to go there, let me know,” said Budnick.
Rodriguez shrugged. “Yeah, sure, why not?” he told the stranger.
Okay, said Budnick. Rodriguez had only to stay out of trouble and let his “points” drop. Budnick would do the rest.
Rodriguez’ skepticism increased. “I thought, ‘Yeah, this guy is full of shit. It’s unheard of. This is not going to happen.”
By points, Budnick was referring to the inmate scoring system used by the CDCR to classify inmates for housing purposes. Because of the nature of Rodriguez’ violent offense, and his young age when he entered the system, his score began at 60 points or higher, hence his residency in a Level IV yard. But, in addition to perfect behavior and proactive participation in available programs, only time could bring his original score down, which likely meant another couple of years.
Six months later, however, Budnick showed up again at New Folsom.
“This time he actually came to my cell door, which was already surprising,” said Rodriguez. “I’m thinking, “Why is this guy walking around like he owns the place?’ Then he tells me that he sees I’ve been doing good things, and staying out of trouble.”
Budnick praised Rodriguez for getting his GED, and participating in whatever other classes he found available, including a poetry group with a lifer Budnick knew named Spoon Jackson.
Shortly after Budnick’s second visit, Rodriguez unexpectedly got called in to meet with a prison official. “This woman told me, ‘I don’t know who you know, or who the hell you’re messing with, but we just got a memo saying that we need you in Ironwood within the next three days. So have your stuff ready for an emergency transfer tomorrow.”
The next morning Rodriguez was on a bus to Ironwood.
“That’s when I knew this guy might not be full of shit,” Rodriguez remembered. “He might really be who he claimed to be.”
To Be Continued
In the meantime, for a sample of John Rodriguez’ writing, keep scrolling.
POST SCRIPT: If you’d like to read the rest of the story, you can find The Writer, the Sequel, Part 2 here.
And if you want to check out the original four stories about John Rodriguez that drew Scott Budnick’s attention, the links are below.
And below those links, you’ll find one of John Rodriguez’ stories that will give you an idea of his writing style.