The death of a 12-year-old boy still haunts Dallas 40 years later

Posted Saturday, Jul. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders Time allegedly heals all wounds. But after 40 years, time has not been able to ease the pain inflicted on one family and an entire community by the senseless act of a Dallas police officer.

I know that the same hurt I felt four decades ago on hearing the news of what happened to a 12-year-old boy is still there as we commemorate his death.

Santos Rodriguez and his 13-year-old brother, David, were roused from their sleep in the early morning hours of July 24, 1973, by two Dallas police officers. Patrolman Roy Arnold earlier had seen three boys running away from a service station where a soft drink vending machine had been burglarized and about $8 in change stolen.

Arnold thought he recognized two of the boys as the Rodriguez brothers, so he and his partner, Darrell Cain, went to the home of their grandfather in the “Little Mexico” community where the boys were staying.

The officers handcuffed the boys — with Santos still in his pajamas and shoeless — and placed them in a squad car. But rather than take them downtown to the police station for questioning, the policemen drove them to a vacant lot behind the gas station where they tried to get the boys to confess.

The brothers denied any involvement. Fingerprints later taken from the vending machine did not match those of the boys.

Cain, who was in the back seat with David, pointed his .357 Magnum at the head of the handcuffed Santos, who was seated in front with Arnold. To force a confession, the officer decided to play a game of Russian roulette, a game that ended when he pulled the trigger a second time and the gun fired, ending Santos’ life as his older brother watched in horror.

News of the incident spread quickly through Little Mexico and throughout Dallas, where the minority community was already upset over a series of police shootings of residents.

I felt a part of Little Mexico because KERA TV/Channel 13, where I was a young reporter at the time, was located in the community. When I got word that day that community leaders were planning a protest rally at Pike Park, across the street from the station, I knew I would cover it.

The nighttime rally was tense, with several young people urging the crowd to express their anger by walking the short distance to downtown. I’ll never forget Rene Martinez, who was a member of the federal court-appointed “Tri-Ethnic Committee,” defusing the situation by telling the group in Spanish that rioting and destruction was not an appropriate way to show their dissatisfaction or honor Santos.

That night a protest march to City Hall was planned for the coming Saturday. Thousands showed up that hot July morning and marched peacefully through downtown. They calmly listened to leaders speak from the City Hall steps.

It was after that initial group of protesters had marched back close to the starting point that a second group of demonstrators, including a busload from Fort Worth, showed up and insisted on returning to City Hall.

The temperature wasn’t the only thing that got hotter as the marchers again made their way to the seat of government, which was surrounded by police in riot gear. Rene and I were standing together and, within minutes after we’d predicted that things were going to get ugly, violence broke out.

Police motorcycles were burned, shop windows were broken and bottles, rocks and epithets were hurled at officers. Dallas had a riot on its hands.

Santos’ death would help usher in changes in Dallas and its Police Department, although there’s been no official apology for what happened.

Last week several events were held to mark the 40th anniversary of Santos’ death, including a memorial at his grave site Wednesday and a rally Saturday in the park across from Channel 13.

I was invited to speak there to share my memories and my pain — a pain that time has not eased.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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