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Dispatch: 'If that can happen to us it can happen to any other person'

July 27, 2009 |  6:40 pm

" href="http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef01157149fb35970c-pi">Gerson Rodriguez, center, pictured with his mother and sister.

Gerson Rodriguez was shot to death in the parking lot of a Burger King in the 1000 block of North Western Avenue in East Hollywood about 1 a.m. Sunday, July 12. It was his 33rd birthday, and his family had planned a small celebration for him later that day.

Rodriguez, a Latino, was born in Guatemala, and when he was a child he moved to the United States with his brother, sister and mother.

His father had died and his mother — who had previously lived in the U.S. —  hoped to start a new life in California, said Evelyn Medina, 38, Rodriguez’ sister.

Rodriguez was raised by his mother and sister in their home in Sylmar. He attended Kennedy High School but left before graduating. He later earned a GED.

Medina said her brother then did odd jobs and took classes off and on at Mission College until enlisting in the Navy in his late twenties.

“He was having trouble finding himself, so he tried a bunch of things,” Media said. “He didn’t know what to do, so he joined the Navy."

Since his childhood Rodriguez had dreamed of joining the military. In Guatemala, Medina said, it is common for children to dream about becoming U.S. Marines, but she and her mother never imagined he would enlist. In fact, he kept his decision to join the Navy a secret from his family.

“We only found out about it on the day he left,” Medina said. “If [his mother and I] knew we would have protested day and night.… Then I changed my mind. He became more like an adult rather than the child we used to pamper a lot.”

When Rodriguez completed boot camp near Chicago, Medina and her mother visited. They stayed with him there until he left for Japan to begin his service.

A year ago, Rodriguez chose not to reenlist for another tour, she said. Since his honorable discharge, he spent his days visiting museums, listening to rock music, reading and volunteering for Lutheran Social Services.

But much of the time, Medina said, her brother was home and depressed.

Rodriguez had recently sought vocational counseling and treatment for his depression through the California Department of Rehabilitation and hoped to get a job as a clerk with the county. Miguel Esparza, 62, counseled Rodriguez. Though he had only seen him for two sessions, he said Rodriguez made a big impression.

“He was so proud of his service,” Esparza said.

Rodriguez, a legal resident when he joined the Navy, earned his citizenship after serving, Esparza said.

Authorities said they have very little information about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Los Angeles Police Department Det. Tom Small said a shots-fired call went out over the radio about 1 a.m., then police found Rodriguez dead in the Burger King parking lot.

The restaurant stayed open until 1 a.m. that night but Burger King officials said employees did not know if Rodriguez had been a customer. Restaurant workers did not hear shots and learned of the homicide when police went to the door at 1:15 a.m., said Stephen Jay, marketing director for the franchise location.

Small said the suspects — described as three Latino men who might have had shaved heads and were wearing white T-shirts — may have gang affiliations. He said authorities do not believe Rodriguez had any involvement with gangs.

Small said he is pursuing leads on the case, but he does not have a more detailed description of the suspects or a clear motive in the killing.

Medina said her brother very rarely went out, and she wondered aloud what he could have been doing in a Burger King parking lot at that hour.

“That evening I wasn’t home, my mother was by herself.... It was unusual he was out that late, maybe he wanted to go to a store so he parked there.” she said. “He did something unusual and then he passed away.”

Medina sobbed as she spoke about her brother. After her husband died of cancer, Medina said, she moved back in with her mother and brother. Her brother's killing, she said, has been difficult to understand.

“If that can happen to us it can happen to any other person.... We are confused,” she said. “He was my brother, since he was a little boy I helped raise him until he was 12 years old.... He was my brother but he was also my child.”

--Anthony Pesce

Photo: Gerson Rodriguez, center, pictured with his mother and sister during his stint in the U.S. Navy. Credit: Family photo

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