CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — When taxi driver Jose Rodriguez picked up three young men in Providence nearly 15 years ago, he immediately knew something was off.
That’s why he called his wife to let her know where he was, according to Central Falls Police Maj. Christopher Reed.
“He had a gut feeling … that something bad was going to happen or could happen to him,” Reed said.
And he was right.
Rodriguez was shot and killed by one of those passengers in broad daylight on July 16, 2007.
It was his 42nd birthday.
Reed and Detective Sgt. Jeffrey Araujo responded to Garfield Street that day and found Rodriguez slumped over in the driver’s seat with a gunshot wound to the head.
Witnesses told them at the time that multiple people took off running immediately after the shooting.
Reed and Araujo followed their trail and ultimately discovered a red baseball cap, which would eventually become a crucial piece of evidence.
The case ultimately went cold after the detectives exhausted all known leads.
It wouldn’t be until nearly a decade later that advancements in DNA testing linked the baseball cap to one of their initial prime suspects: Ezekial Johnson.
“He was someone we suspected, we just couldn’t build that case [against him],” Araujo said. “With that [DNA match], we were off and running. We had concrete evidence that puts him at that scene.”
Investigators were able to confirm through cooperating witnesses that of the three men in Rodriguez’s taxi that day, Johnson was the one who pulled the trigger.
Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder in July 2018 and received two consecutive life sentences, plus a consecutive 10-year sentence.
Rodriguez’s daughter, Anarianny Rodriguez, took all of her built up pain and anger out on Johnson while reading her family impact statement in court.
“For the rest of my life, I will live in a nightmare,” Rodriguez told the court. “For the rest of that murderer’s life, he deserves to be behind bars.”
“My dad deserves justice,” she concluded before turning her attention to Johnson. “And, your honor, excuse me, but you deserve to [expletive] rot in hell!”
In a statement to 12 News, Rodriguez said her dad was “hardworking, kind, noble, generous and funny.”
“After my dad was murdered, it was like an invisible weight was placed over me,” Rodriguez recalled. “Fast forward 10 years, after hearing the guilty verdict and sentencing, it felt like the weight physically came off my body.”
“Although, nothing will take away the pain, the suffering, or bring back my father, my family and I can have the closure we have been desperately looking for,” she continued.
Earlier this month, Reed and Arajuo were among 18 law enforcement officers across the country to receive the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for distinguished service in community policing.
The award was presented to them for their relentless pursuit of Rodriguez’s killer.
“We always use the word ‘justice,'” Araujo said. “It’s a simple word, but it just means so much more than that. It means so much for Jose Rodriguez, who’s since passed, and his family too.”
Despite the national recognition, Reed and Arajuo know their work isn’t done.
“We relished that moment that we were able to give that one family justice,” Reed said. “Then we looked at each other a couple of days later and said, ‘Alright, who’s next?'”
Reed and Araujo believe Johnson killed Rodriguez for bragging rights.
Johnson, who was 17 at the time of the fatal shooting, maintains his innocence to this day. He recently wrote a letter to 12 News claiming he wasn’t there when Rodriguez was killed and police have the wrong person.
“I’ve been wrongfully incarcerated for well over four years,” he wrote. “I can never get this time back.”
Rodriguez said she takes comfort knowing Johnson is behind bars.
“He is where he belongs, where he won’t be able to hurt innocent people ever again,” she said.