‘I realize that we have not healed as a city from the loss of Santos,’ chief says at 48th memorial event near the boy’s grave.
By Dianne Solis
It’s been nearly five decades since the murder of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez by a Dallas police officer.
On Saturday, Dallas police Chief Eddie García formally apologized to Bessie Rodriguez, Santos’ 77-year-old mother. It was a first for a Dallas police chief, Rodriguez’s mother said during a memorial at Oakland Cemetery observing the 48th anniversary of Santos’ murder.
The murder stunned Dallas and the nation, as one horrific detail after another became known. But it also galvanized the Mexican American community to seek change. Saturday, though, belonged to Santos’ mother.
Santos and his 13-year-old brother, David, were yanked from their beds for an interrogation in which Darrell Cain, a Dallas police officer, played Russian roulette with Santos’ life over the theft of $8 from a vending machine at a Fina gas station in what’s now Dallas’ Uptown neighborhood. Cain tugged on the trigger once. Then he pulled a second time and a bullet shot into the left side of Santos’ skull, just after the boy said again he was innocent.
His last words were: “I am telling the truth.”
García’s words at the cemetery: “I realize that we have not healed as a city from the loss of Santos and the manner in which we lost Santos. In order to heal, those who committed the wrong must be contrite. …
‘We are sorry’
“We must apologize as a Police Department, a department made up of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. …,” he said “On behalf of the Dallas Police Department, as a father, I am sorry. We are sorry that someone trusted to protect you, someone who wore the same uniform I proudly wear today took your son and took David’s brother away by way of murder.”
Bessie Rodriguez sat near her son’s gray granite headstone in a public ritual of grief and commemoration that has been held consistently since 2013 at the Oakland Cemetery. Her large brown eyes gazed upwards at the chief, who spoke in Spanish and English.
After García finished, he and Rodriguez walked a few feet to the headstone and the chief laid down a wreath of white carnations with a blue ribbon inscribed with “Dallas Police Department.” García, a 50-year-old who was a toddler when Santos was murdered, then escorted Rodriguez back to her chair, holding her hand.
García came with an entourage of officers in blue uniforms to the freshly mowed cemetery, where Santos is buried among bankers and real estate developers and World War II veterans.
This apology, clear and direct from a Dallas police chief, was one that Bessie Rodriguez wanted. For years, she said, no one had apologized to her and her family for the horror of that night.
After the event, as a mariachi band played the love song “Querida,” she said the event had been full of surprises. Garcia was “very respectful,” she said.
And then, she added, “I have to forgive to be forgiven.”
In 2013, at a public event on race relations, then-Mayor Mike Rawlings gave an apology for the murder on behalf of the city of Dallas and the Dallas Police Department. Bessie Rodriguez wasn’t in the audience. Rawlings later took her to lunch and apologized in person.
Last year, then-Police Chief U. Reneé Hall attended the memorial event, but she wasn’t allowed to speak at the microphone. Afterwards, Hall spoke to Bessie Rodriguez, saying: “We were responsible then, and we are responsible now. We are committed to being a different police department. Please,” she emphasized, “believe that.”
Some didn’t take her words as an apology.
Santos’ death reverberated around the nation and stunned Dallas, where police relations with the Latino and Black communities were bad. Blacks and Mexican Americans were frequently taken to the banks of the Trinity River for beatings, said Frances Rizo, a community leader who spoke at Saturday’s memorial.
“I don’t think even the word assassination is strong enough,” Rizo said of Santos’ murder to about 200 people gathered at the cemetery. The slaying quickly galvanized Dallas’ then-small Mexican American community and religious leaders, who accused the city of operating a dual system of law enforcement. They noted that Cain also had killed Michael Morehead, a Black 18-year-old, in 1970.
Particularly noteworthy is a July 27, 1973, Dallas Morning News story in which then-police Chief Frank Dyson didn’t defend Cain. Instead, he acknowledged to the newspaper that the Dallas police force included officers who showed racial bias in their enforcement practices.
“Dual standards do exist,” Dyson said in the story. “But we are going to do whatever is possible to eliminate them.”
Two days after Santos’ murder, The News reported that a police investigation had failed to link the slain youth to the burglary. “Fingerprints Don’t Match,” read the front-page headline on July 26, 1973.
On July 28, 1973, a protest of Santos’ murder turned violent when a wave of demonstrators headed to the old City Hall. They smashed and burned two police motorcycles and hurled debris and bottles at police and at the adjacent central police station, according to news reports.
Cain was charged and convicted of murder with malice — a rarity even today for a police killing of a civilian. But Cain, who died in 2019, was sentenced to only five years and served only half of that.
A civil suit seeking about $475,000 in damages failed, as did a push to get the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.
Then-President Jimmy Carter wrote Bessie Rodriguez a letter on Aug. 17, 1978, an item she keeps framed in her humble apartment. Carter wrote that he didn’t ask the attorney general or his subordinates either to prosecute or not to prosecute, “nor should any President do so.”
Carter wrote that he told the attorney general of “my deep concern about the case, and asked him to review the case personally.”
“I hope some measure of justice has been served by the vigorous state prosecution and the officer’s conviction of murder with malice. In the end, I realize no action could ever compensate for the needless loss of life. The grief which you feel is shared by all of us.”
At the cemetery on Saturday, with the July heat rising to nearly 100 degrees, it was clear that many wouldn’t forget the boy Santos. The Rev. Isabel Gomez, a Methodist minister, praised the community that responded by declaring “no más”
The crowd responded again with “no más,” or “no more.”
“We will not forget Santos,” the minister said. “We will never forget our youth. We will strive and we will work so that other Santoses can live ….”