Tiona Rodriguez came blank-eyed into Manhattan Criminal Court on Saturday morning, a 17-year-old who had been detained for suspected shoplifting in a Victoria’s Secret and found to have a nearly full-term dead baby in her bag.
She and a 17-year-old friend who had been arrested with her arrived with their hands behind their backs, but when they sat in the front bench, it turned out that the kind-hearted officer escorting them had already removed handcuffs.
Rodriguez sat with her hands in her lap. She wore an oversized white t-shirt and light grey sweatpants, and she had a u-shaped nose piercing. The eyes behind her glasses showed nothing at all. She could have been awaiting the arrival of a bus, or perhaps that part of herself that must have departed when she carried around the corpse of her eight-and-a-half pound baby boy.
A court officer then came over and told the escorting cop, whose nameplate read Makinen, that procedure required his prisoners be handcuffed. The cop complied and the other teen, Francis Estevez, began to cry after her hands were cuffed behind her. Rodriquez remained expressionless, an absence of manifest feeling that seemed to reflect a heart that is not so much cold as closed off.
She was already the mother of a boy born in December of 2011, and she had posted a photo of him nuzzling her on Facebook. She gushed on her wall on October 12 like the best of moms.
“My little man want to cuddle with me.”
She wrote the same day, “I need a job,” then proved she was not one just to wait for an opportunity to present itself.
“Hype! Got a job interview tomorrow. Omgggggg!” she exulted three days later, on October 15.
The interview was reportedly with Chipotle, but she did not report on the outcome. She instead posted what others may have taken to be a reference to he period, but was more likely related to the birth of her second child that day.
“These cramps SON.”
“She's 17, she has never even been in criminal court, never been arrested,” her lawyer said.
At 12:30 pm the next day, she and Estevez were stopped by what the criminal complaint terms a ”loss prevention associate” at a Victoria’s Secret on 34th St. and Broadway. The associate allegedly found a $44.50 pair of skinny jeans in Rodriquez’s canvass bag. The associate is said to have also discovered a black plastic bag that emitted what police describe as a “strong odor.” That bag proved to contain a baby.
Rodriguez reportedly told police that she had suffered a miscarriage when she was six months pregnant and had not known what to do with the fetus. The medical examiner determined that the baby was just a month shy of full term. The cause of death may have been asphyxiation, but more tests were needed and will possibly take weeks. They could result in a murder indictment or no further charges at all—or something in between.
In the meantime, Rodriguez and her friend sat in criminal court, waiting to be arraigned for shoplifting. Rodriguez asked the cop named Makinen the time and he told her, but she gave no indication that the answer had any particular meaning.
Estevez was summoned to speak with her Legal Aid attorney in a glass booth on the left side of the courtroom. The teen became tearful and the conversation extended much longer than might have been expected for shoplifting. Detectives were at that moment executing a search warrant her home in Queens with the belief that Rodriguez had given birth to the baby there on October 16.
Rodriguez continued to sit impassively on the bench. She bowed her head, seemingly not out of shame but simply because she was growing weary. Her glasses slid down her nose, but her hands were cuffed and she now asked the cop for assistance. He pushed them back in place and she resumed gazing through them as if she saw nothing at all worth seeing.
Rodriguez seemed to pay no attention as defendant after defendant was arraigned—even in one of the day’s amusing exchanges, when Judge Debra James took exception when one of the defendants addressed her as “ma’am.”
“This professional woman would like to be addressed by my title,” she said.
Rodriguez's glasses slipped back down her nose, but she did not ask the cop for help again. She instead dipped her head and raised her leg so as to push the glasses back up with her knee.
An attorney named Genay Ann Leitman came into the courtroom and looked at some papers for a case that she had just been assigned by the court.
“This is the girl with the baby,” Leitman noted aloud.
A red-eyed Estevez emerged and returned to the bench in a white t-shirt that said, “New York City” across the front. Rodriguez sat down in the booth with Leitman and for a few moments it appeared that she might have broken down in tears as she spoke to Leitman.
But, it must have only been a trick of the shadows, for Rodriguez still had that same blank, dry-eyed look when she rose and pushed open the booth door with her shoulder and returned to her seat. She turned sideways to speak to Estevez, but the friend’s lawyer motioned for them to be silent and she went back to gazing straight ahead as the court recessed for lunch.
For the next hour and 45 minutes Rodriguez sat with her friend and the cop in the closed and otherwise empty courtroom. The afternoon session then commenced, and Rodriguez just kept gazing ahead until the clerk called the case whose docket number ended with 124.
“Tiona Rodriguez,” the clerk called.
The clerk also called Estevez’s case and the two teens stepped together before the judge. Rodriguez leaned her head back to stretch her neck.
The prosecutor, Robert Hettleman, the chief of the child abuse unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, noted that the defendants were “just 17 years old” and had been arrested for shoplifting after several items had been found in their bags.
“As I know everybody is aware, Ms. Rodriguez had in her bag the body of a baby,” he added.
But Hettleman said his office is holding off on further charges at the moment.
“I don’t want to ignore the elephant in the room, but we are only arraigning the shoplifts,” he said.
When the question of bail arose, Hettleman noted that Estevez had a prior arrest for shoplifting as well as an arson charge, though that seemed likely to be dropped. Her attorney said that Estevez had a one year-old child and was attending high school. The judge agreed to release her on her own recognizance.
“Please go to school, do your homework,” the judge urged.
Rodriguez has no criminal record and is also in school. The prosecutor nonetheless asked for $1,000 bail.
“The NYPD, my office, and the office of the chief medical examiner are going to continue to vigorously and thoroughly investigate this matter relating to the baby,” Hettleman said. “But at this time, doing that shoplifting with the baby in her bag the entire time certainly suggests a little bit of difficulty following society’s rules.”
Rodriguez’s lawyer reported that her client would be seeing a psychiatrist.
“Obviously, there is a problem,” Leitman said. “One can only imagine how she feels.”
Leitman said that Rodriquez and her two year-old son live with her mother, who was unable to attend. The mother had had sent her brother.
“She's 17, she has never even been in criminal court, never been arrested,” Leitman said. “She’s a good student.”
The judge also released Rodriguez without bail. The judge told her to be back on December 10 to contest the charges or enter a plea in Part B.
“B as in boy,” the judge said.
That hung in the air for a moment, for whatever the full story of this latest tragedy must have involved a boy—but no boy was present as Rodriguez and Estevez turned away from the bench.
The cop, Makinen, removed their handcuffs and Estevez went over to her mother and fell into her lap, crying.
Rodriguez had no lap to fall in. She was bereft even of tears as she stepped from the courtroom with her uncle. He handed her a red hoodie. She donned the hood and pulled the drawstrings so her face was hidden as they faced the news photographers waiting outside.
On the other side of the street, she climbed into a car for the ride to Brooklyn and her two year-old son. The investigation continues into the death of a second son, who seems to have been born and died the day she was to have had that job interview.
Just days earlier, the prospect of that job had caused her to post excitedly “Omgggggg!” on Facebook. She now rode off as silent as stone.