CROWN POINT — A murder trial began Monday in the shooting death of Thaddeus Rodriguez Jr., a 25-year-old man allegedly gunned down by two other men on orders from an East Chicago street gang.
Rolando M. Leal Jr., 28, is on trial for murder, felony battery and criminal gang activity on allegations he participated in Rodriguez's shooting Jan. 25, 2016, outside a row house in the 4800 block of Olcott Avenue in East Chicago.
Michelle Jatkiewicz, a deputy prosecutor for Lake County, said Monday evidence would prove Leal and co-defendant Angel Garcia-Berrios, 24, served as Rodriguez's "judge, jury and execution" because he was a “problem” for members of the Dark Side Two Six and Imperial Gangsters street gangs.
She said the defendants' role in the murder would be revealed at trial through testimony from two confidential informants, who agreed to testify against the defendants after they were arrested on unrelated gun charges.
Defense attorney Arlington Foley said Rodriguez was himself a “gang banger,” who carried guns and sold drugs.
“The evidence will show a lot of people had a problem with him,” Foley said.
Valerie Roman testified Monday that Rodriguez, her friend, was shot by two people during the early morning hours while leaving her home on Olcott Avenue.
She said she did not know if Rodriguez, three weeks out of prison, was dealing drugs that night, but he was in possession of “fake marijuana” and he repeatedly answered phone calls, including from men named “Angel” and “Rito.”
She said Rodriguez left her house and asked her to watch him from a window. She said a light-skinned man wearing glasses and a hat pull out a firearm and yell “Merry Christmas” before repeatedly shooting Rodriguez. She testified there was a second shooter who was dressed in black.
She called 911 and reported the gunfire. Two nearby neighbors also called police. Former East Chicago patrolman John Baran testified Monday he was one of the first officers on the scene. He said he found Rodriguez dead on the west side of Olcott Avenue.
He said in the cold winter air, he could see steam rising from the man's wounds.
At the hospital, police identified a second shooting victim, Jose Acosta. Acosta told police he was stumbling home drunk from a neighbor's house when he encountered the two shooters. He told police they pushed him down and shot him in the leg. He said his friend drove him to the hospital.
Jatkiewicz said Monday morning the state offered Leal two plea agreements, which he rejected.
She said Leal could have pleaded guilty to the murder and been sentenced to 45 years in prison. Leal could have pleaded to a lesser charge than murder if he agreed to testify against Garcia-Berrios at his trial.
Leal confirmed for Judge Samuel L. Cappas on Monday morning he rejected both plea offers.
The state is seeking a gang sentencing enhancement against Leal. If he is convicted of murder, he will face twice the typical sentence for the crime – 90 to 130 years in prison.
Garcia-Berrios faces the same charges as Leal. His jury trial has not yet been scheduled.