HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The slaying of a mother whose body was found stuffed in a garbage can behind a San Antonio church in 1994 remained a mystery for nearly a decade, when a prisoner in Michigan had to provide a DNA sample to be eligible for parole on an assault conviction.
That prisoner, Rodrigo Hernandez, was slated to die by injection Thursday for the abduction, rape and strangulation of 38-year-old Susan Verstegen. The execution would be the first of the year in Texas, which puts more prisoners to death than any other state and which is scheduled to kill at least six more inmates in the next several weeks.
Hernandez, 38, denies killing Verstegen. He had an appeal pending Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court in which he argued he was mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty and that his trial lawyers and earlier appeals lawyers were deficient. He made similar claims in previous failed appeals, and the state parole board on Tuesday unanimously rejected his petition for clemency.
Investigators linked Hernandez to Verstegen's death after the results of his Michigan DNA test were put in a national database. Two years ago, while he was on death row in Texas, DNA evidence linked him to the 1991 beating, rape and fatal shooting of Muriel Stoepker, a 77-year-old homeless woman in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was not tried for her death.
At his 2004 trial in San Antonio for Verstegen's killing, Rodriguez's lawyers tried to pick apart the state's evidence but didn't present any of their own. During sentencing, they pleaded with jurors to give him life in prison, saying he no longer posed a risk to society. But the jurors, who had listened to testimony about Rodriguez's long criminal record, sentenced him to death.
In a 2010 interview with a psychologist arranged by his appeals lawyers, Hernandez said he was raised by his grandmother in South Texas and moved to Grand Rapids around age 12. At 17, he said he was shot in the head and in the back while he was drunk. Also at 17, he was arrested for breaking and entering, returned to Texas as part of a deferred adjudication and then bounced in and out of jail back in Grand Rapids for parole violations.
He said he met Verstegen, who worked for snack maker Frito-Lay, while working at a San Antonio supermarket in 1993 and 1994, and that they had a consensual sexual relationship. He denied killing her.
But George Saidler, an investigator with the Bexar County district attorney's office who was a San Antonio police detective at the time, said Rodriguez sang a different tune when they spoke in 2002 after the DNA match was discovered.
"I never meant to kill her," Rodriguez said, according to Saidler. He said Rodriguez told him he was high on marijuana and alcohol and that he grabbed Verstegen as she was gathering items from a storage bin behind a supermarket. Rodriguez said he wrapped his hands around her neck when she struggled, drove off in her car and threw her body in the trash can when he realized she was not breathing, Saidler said.
He said Rodriguez refused to discuss the other woman's slaying when Michigan detectives questioned him two years ago.
Verstegen's mother, Anna, said this week she has forgiven Hernandez but was troubled that he continued to proclaim his innocence despite the evidence. She said it took a long time for anger about her daughter's slaying to subside and that Hernandez's arrest years later and now the approaching punishment had renewed the torment.
"It's been very difficult," she said. "Up jumps the devil again. This pain is just going through like a knife again."
She said she opposes capital punishment and won't attend the execution — a stance that's divided her family. Her grandson, who was 15 when his mother was killed, was planning to watch the execution.
Also Wednesday, condemned killer Donald Newbury, one of the infamous "Texas 7" gang of fugitives, won a Supreme Court reprieve that keeps him from execution next week for the Christmas Eve 2000 fatal shooting of a suburban Dallas police officer.
Newbury was among seven convicts who escaped from a South Texas prison and killed Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins during the robbery of a sporting goods store. Another gang member, Michael Rodriguez, was executed in 2008. George Rivas, the gang's leader, is set to die in late February.