1999 tragedy provided a costly lesson for A Woman's Place

Single mother who was murdered by ex-husband has changed the way shelter operates

09/21/2007 3:06 PM

10/20/2014 10:21 AM

Excerpt from a 911 call made to the Merced Police Department, Dec. 4, 1999: "There's somebody at my house that won't leave and he has a gun. He's standing outside and he's trying to get back in. He's breaking the window right now ... His name is Lucio Rivera ... He's trying to open the door. Oh my God. He's in my room.

He's coming in. He's coming in. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Stop! Lucio, stop! ... Oh my God. He just shot it. He just shot the gun ... (screams, then silence) ... He shot her! He shot her! Oh my God! He shot her!"

Eight years after Elida Rodriguez's ex-husband dragged her from the closet where she hid and shot her in the neck, they still feel the pain at A Woman's Place.

In 1999, Elida and her two-month old daughter sought refuge at a shelter run by the nonprofit, which provides an array of services for victims of domestic violence across Merced County. Though Elida stayed only a few weeks, those who worked with her say they watched her turn from a battered victim into an independent single mother.

The transformation proved to be her fatal mistake.

A month after Elida left A Woman’s Place, the 23-year-old was dead. Her ex-husband, Lucio Rivera, discovered where she was living. On an early December evening in 1999, enraged by her show of grit and strength, he broke into her apartment through an unlocked window. He found Elida crouched in a bedroom closet, pulled her out by her shirt and shot her at close range with a .22-caliber handgun.

“Hold your baby for the last time,” Rivera told Elida, her roommate later testified.

Eight years after her murder, Elida remains a nonprofit’s call to arms.

AN ICON WITH ONE NAME She is widely known to the staff at A Woman’s Place by just her first name, even to those who joined the organization long after Elida’s death. Her photo has appeared on the organization’s brochures. Its Westside shelter is dedicated to her memory. Her case is cited during most new-hire trainings and her murder revised the way A Woman’s Place evaluates risk to victims.

"Elida changed the way we do business," said Diana Almanza, executive director of A Woman’s Place. “She left us with some very important lessons.”

Along with a photo of Elida, Almanza keeps in her office a copy of the 911 tape from the night Elida died. The tape holds the frantic screams of Elida’s then-roommate, Victoria Beltran. It is played whenever Almanza wants to impress upon someone -- a funder, a newspaper reporter, or a new staff member -- the urgency of the nonprofit’s work.

Almanza can recall many news reports about women in this community who have died because of domestic violence. In fact, about 60 percent of female murder victims are killed by their husbands or male partners, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

But Elida is one of only two clients that A Woman’s Place has lost at the hands of an abuser since Almanza started at the organization in 1991. And her death hit close to its heart. "We all remember Elida,” said Susie Bubenchik, public relations director of A Woman’s Place. "Even the staff who never met her.”

A SISTER’S MEMORIES To Lidia Rodriguez, Elida isn't a poster child. She is a sister. “She loved to draw, and she had a really good voice so she was always singing,” said Rodriguez, 28, who works as an aide at Farmdale Elementary School in Merced. “And she loved her baby. She was so excited about buying her clothes and watching her grow up.”

Elida was born in Hollister in 1976 to immigrant parents who came to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life. She was the oldest of three children. Rodriguez recalls her big sister as a responsible child, always more concerned about the rest of the family than about herself. “She always helped me with my math,” said Rodriguez. “She would stay there with me, showing me until I got it. She never got frustrated.”

Elida moved with her family to Dos Palos as a teenager and graduated from Dos Palos High School in 1994. She met Rivera there, but Rodriguez says the two weren’t friends at the time. “They didn’t like each other in high school,” Rodriguez recalled.

Elida moved to Fresno for a short time after high school, where she took classes to become a dental assistant, though she never finished. She eventually returned to Dos Palos, where she began dating Rivera in 1997.

“It was a relatively short relationship, but it was violent right from the start,” said Almanza.

Twice before Elida came to A Woman’s Place, Rivera was criminally charged for abusing her. The second time, Almanza said, Rivera had pulled a gun and smashed Elida in the face with it because she couldn’t quiet their baby as the family drove to a welfare appointment. “He was ruthless,” said Almanza.

The couple eventually married, though Rodriguez says there was no big wedding or celebration. According to news reports published in the days after Elida’s death, Rivera’s relatives said they didn’t know he’d been married.

Before she died, Elida had filed for divorce. “I think that was the real trigger for him,” said Almanza. “It was the ultimate stand for her independence, and he responded with the ultimate punishment.”

A BATTERED WOMAN SEEKS SHELTER Elida came to A Woman’s Place with her baby, Jasmine, in October 1999. She stayed at an emergency safehouse run by the organization for about a month. She received counseling for the abuse she’d endured and obtained a restraining order against Rivera.

“She made a lot of progress in a very short time,” recalled Almanza. Elida decided she’d go back to school. She hoped someday to become a nurse. While living at the safehouse, Elida kept a journal. In an entry dated Oct. 25, 1999, she wrote that she dreamed of having her own home, a job and of her parents feeling proud of her again. “I feel like I’m ready for anything that comes along,” she wrote. “... He’s no longer in my way. I just want to be who I used to be.”

The following month, Elida moved out of the safehouse and into an apartment on K Street with Beltran, who’d also sought refuge at the safehouse. A month later, Elida was dead.

Rivera, now 30, fled on foot after the shooting and was captured a short time later. His court-appointed attorney argued during his 2001 trial that the gun accidentally went off. A jury found Rivera guilty that December. The following March, a judge sentenced him to 66 years in prison. He remains at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

The couple’s child, now 8, lives with Elida’s aunt in Mexico.

“When the call came in that night, all we knew was that Elida had been shot,” said Almanza. The news of her death, which came a short time after A Woman’s Place advocate responded to the scene, struck a paralyzing blow to the organization, said Bubenchik, the public relations director. “A lot of us knew her, and we knew the baby. It was incredibly difficult for the whole agency,” she said.

BREAKING THE TRAGIC NEWS Almanza was among the three A Woman’s Place staff members to accompany a Fresno County sheriff’s deputy to tell Elida’s parents, who lived in Firebaugh at the time, that their oldest child was dead. “We didn’t want strangers to show up at their house in the middle of the night, so we went,” said Almanza.

Rodriguez says she knew what had happened as soon as she saw them at the door. The sheriff’s deputy didn’t speak Spanish, so someone had to interpret for Elida’s parents. The deputy asked Rodriguez to tell them. “I told him, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t tell them that,’” said Rodriguez. So Almanza, who is fluent in Spanish, stepped in. “There’s no good way to say that to a parent,” said Almanza. “So I just said it as plainly as I could.”

A Woman’s Place helped the family make arrangements for Elida’s funeral, which many of the organization’s staff attended. Many also attended Rivera’s trial.

After Elida’s death, A Woman’s Place conducted a “death audit” -- a thorough review of Elida’s case to determine what the organization might have done to prevent her murder.

Among the measures A Woman’s Place added as a result is its now-standard lethality assessment, a series of questions that determines the degree to which a domestic violence victim’s life is in danger.

If the organization had used the assessment when Elida came to them, Almanza said, “she would have been off the charts.” Her abuser didn’t have a job. He’d been in and out of jail. He had access to a gun. And he’d been arrested before for domestic violence. “Those things are all huge,” said Almanza. “Today, we would have probably advised her to move out of the county for her safety.”

Genevieve Bardini, who began working at A Woman’s Place two years after Elida’s death, is well versed in her story. “Our training was saturated with Elida’s case,” said Bardini. “She was always the example that was used. She’s a constant reminder of the need for safety plans and lethality assessments. She’s a reminder that we have to think about things like access to weapons ... and that a restraining order is just a piece of paper.” Camila Cortez, who now oversees A Woman’s Place’s two safehouses, says she’s told Elida’s story to countless other victims to impress upon them the importance of remaining vigilant, even after they’ve escaped a violent home.

Elida’s legacy for Cortez: “To me, she is the answer to the question, ‘Why do we do all of this?’”

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

About A Woman’s Place

A Woman’s Place is a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of services to local victims of domestic violence and rape. Among its programs are a 24-hour crisis line, an emergency safehouse, temporary food and housing, counseling, a variety of legal services, transportation, support groups, training for law enforcement officers and treatment programs for batterers. Its services are among the most comprehensive in the state, and they are free to all victims.

To contact A Woman’s Place, call (209)725-7900.

To reach its 24-hour confidential crisis line, call (209) 722-4357.

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