Police have upgraded charges against a father who left his one-year-old twin daughter and son in his car for about eight hours while he was at work, and found them dead on Friday afternoon. Juan Rodriguez, who was initially charged with two counts each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, now faces two counts of homicide as well.
A witness said that Rodriguez cried, "Oh my God, oh my God," on a Bronx street after apparently realizing he had left the children in the back seat. On his way to work Friday, he had dropped his 4-year-old off "at a different day care before forgetting the twin babies," according to the NY Post. "I assumed I dropped [the twins] off at day care before I went to work," he reportedly told cops at the scene.
On Friday morning, Rodriguez, 39, had headed from his home in Congers to his job as a social worker at the James J. Peters VA Hospital in the Bronx (he is also an Iraq War veteran). Just after 4 p.m., police say they were called to West Kingsbridge Road and Kingsbridge Terrace, where Rodriguez had parked his car. Officers found 1-year-old Luna Rodriguez and and her twin brother Phoenix Rodriguez in the backseats. EMS pronounced the babies dead at the scene.
Several witnesses reported that the father had been spotted minutes earlier outside of the Caridad Restaurant on West Kingsbridge Road, across the street from the V.A. Hospital. Moments later he nearly crashed into Bedford Park resident Pedro Roman.
Witnesses watch the police activity on Kingsbridge Road (David Greene)
Roman said, "He stopped at the light here and cut me off and then he pulled over there," pointing to a new building that houses The Jericho Project, which provides assisted living to formally homeless veterans, at Kingsbridge Terrace and West Kingsbridge Road. Roman continued, "He stopped the car and opened the doors and he said, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' three times."
"I killed my babies!... I left them in the car!", the father also reportedly yelled.
"When he opened the doors," Roman continued, "Some people went to see what happened inside and they could see the babies."
Rodriguez was taken into custody and told police he forgot to drop the twins off at day care before his eight-hour shift. The NY Post reported that the babies had "registered an internal temperature of 108 degrees when coroners examined their bodies in their car seats." Friday was a very warm day, with temperatures reading the mid-80s.
Police officers surround Juan Rodriguez's car (David Greene)
"The vehicle had tinted windows, so it was almost impossible for anybody to notice that the children were there," Council Member Fernando Cabrera said.
The criminal complaint noted that Rodriguez told investigators that he "blanked out." Rodriguez's lawyer Joey Jackson said, "This is a tragedy of horrific proportions. My client, under no circumstances, meant for this to occur at all... Everyone is still trying to come to grips with the horrific nature of this circumstance. Certainly, his wife and his loving family support him. He's mindful of the fact that he has to live with this every day of the rest of his life."
Jackson added, “My client is inconsolable. He is beside himself in grief, and he’s been that way for a period of time, and I’m concerned about his mental health."
After pleading not guilty at a hearing on Saturday, Rodriguez was released on $100,000 bail. As he left the court with his wife Marissa, supporters cheered for him.
Marissa Rodriguez later released a statement in support of her husband.
"Please respect that we are grieving and completely devastated at this time. This is my absolute worst nightmare. Everything I do reminds me of my sweet, intelligent, beautiful babies and I am still in disbelief," the statement read. "Though I am hurting more than I ever imagined possible, I still love my husband. He is a good person and great father and I know he would’ve never done anything to hurt our children intentionally. I will never get over this loss and I know he will never forgive himself for this mistake.
A man writes a message on a poster at the site (David Greene)
"This was a horrific accident, and I need him by my side to go through this together," the statement continued. "Luna and Phoenix will always live in our hearts and memories and we are working hard to come to terms with what has happened. We need to grieve, be strong, and be present for our other children. We ask that you respect our privacy during this most difficult time." The couple also has a four-year-old child together, and Juan Rodriguez has two older children from a previous marriage.
The federal Kids Transportation Safety Act was passed in 2008, before legislators could include rear-seat occupancy sensors that would alert a driver to the presence of young children in the back seat. Advocates were recently on Capitol Hill promoting the Hot Cars Act of 2019, which is opposed by many top automakers. The legislation passed the House of Representatives, but died in the Senate.
Luna's and Phoenix's are the 22nd and 23rd deaths of children in hot cars this year, according to Kids in Cars.
Reporting by David Greene.