Penny Rodriguez was a drug-addicted prostitute in Phoenix when she went missing in early June 1997.
Her nude body was found June 17, 1997, near Strawberry off Highway 87 under a fallen tree and covered with branches and pine needles. She had been stabbed 26 times. She had died about two weeks before her body was found. Some children were playing in the woods who thought they had stumbled upon a dead deer.
It’s a cold case, but investigators are confident they know who did it. The man they can prove was the last person to see her alive is a suspect in the death of another Phoenix prostitute as well.
That man has since died.
All that’s left is finding that last clue that will put the case to rest and provide closure for the family of Rodriguez.
“Everybody felt there was enough to charge, but maybe not enough to convict,” said Joe Sumner, volunteer investigator for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit.
The cold case unit is currently trying to solve nearly 40 cases in the county like Rodriguez’s. Sumner, who retired from the National Park Service in 2007 as a criminal investigator, came onto the cold case unit in 2008.
“Penny was a sad case,” Sumner said.
She had a family and hauled her children around as she worked as a prostitute. Friends would share duties watching the children as she worked. After her death, her children wound back up with their biological father.
The body found near Strawberry was identified as Rodriguez about a month after she was found -- primarily through fingerprint analysis by the Department of Public Safety crime lab. Armed with who she was, sheriff’s detectives quickly pieced together her last days.
She was last seen in the company of an older man, and detectives confirmed this to be true. He became the suspect in the Rodriguez homicide. The man and Rodriguez had checked into several motel rooms together between May 31 and June 5, 1997. The investigation also uncovered receipts, showing the suspect had bought gas and beer in Payson on June 5, 1997, which is near the crime scene. The medical examiner determined Rodriguez died on or about June 5. When the suspect was interviewed, detectives noted that he was highly nervous, even though he claimed he did not know her.
A piece of paper found at the scene where Rodriguez’s body had been hidden contained a telephone number on it. That number belonged to the girlfriend of the suspect, whom he later married.
The case was circumstantial and it was not charged while detectives looked for that bit of evidence that would establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the suspect killed Rodriguez. That was 17 years ago, and her case has been featured before.
“It looks like this guy could have been busy in the summer of 1997,” Sumner said.
While the investigation into Rodriguez’s killer was underway, a search warrant was executed on the suspect’s locker at his place of employment in October 1997. Shoes in the locker had a small amount of blood on them.
That blood belonged to an unidentified woman, but the blood turned out not to be from Rodriguez. In January 1998, human remains were found in rural Maricopa County. The cause of death was not determined and the bones were left unidentified.
Sumner said although the death was ruled undetermined, the bones were found “packaged.”
“You rarely find packaged remains,” Sumner said, unless the death is suspicious.
In 2010, the blood on the suspect’s shoe was matched with a young prostitute and mother who had been reported missing since July 1997. The next year, in 2011, the remains found in January 1998 were identified as the young woman.
The suspect, whose name is not being released by the cold case investigators in order to ensure future cooperation from the man’s wife, was killed in 2012 in an automobile crash.
“As long as she’s talking to us, we believe there’s a chance she’s going to cooperate,” Sumner said.
Sumner said investigators with Valley agencies also believe strongly the man identified by Coconino County investigators is a possible suspect in both deaths -- and perhaps others. His DNA has placed in national database.
“As these cold cases and old evidence are tested with new techniques, his DNA may show up in some of these open cases,” Sumner said. “He may have been involved in other crimes.”
As for the Rodriguez case, Sumner said that work continues.
“It’s going to take one more little shred of evidence that we can find, someone else coming forward,” Sumner said. “Because of the possible involvement in other cases, we haven’t completely closed this, even though we think he committed the crime.”
If anybody has information about this case, contact the sheriff’s office cold case division at 774-4523, or visit the cold case Facebook page.