ORLANDO, Fla. – To those who lived near Jason Rodriguez, the unemployed man charged with shooting six people, killing one, in an Orlando high-rise building Friday, the warning signs were there.
“You know people say they ‘didn’t know’? To look into this guy’s face, you knew. There was nobody there,” said Dwayne Rogers, who lived across the hall from Rodriguez’s apartment.
Two hours after the shootings downtown, a SWAT team broke into that second-story apartment, where Rodriguez had moved two months earlier with his mother. After Rodriguez was taken away in handcuffs, neighbors recalled how the man had unsettled them with his impassivity and lack of affect.
“He doesn’t say anything, just kind of stares,” Rogers said.
He first encountered his new neighbor one evening in early October: Feeling eyes on his back, Rogers turned and saw the man staring at him from the doorway of Apt. 207. “Blank, man, just blank. It kind of creeped me out,” Rogers said.
He asked management of the Lockwood Apartment complex to look into Rodriguez, who would sit staring for long periods in the front seat of his battered 2002 Nissan Xterra. He said the private security company that patrolled the complex satisfied itself that Rodriguez was not a squatter. But his parking lot wanderings and blank-faced stares continued to rattle tenants, weeks before the workplace shooting that, when it burst into the news cycle Friday afternoon, was first framed by events elsewhere.
On the morning that Rodriguez allegedly went on a rampage in the offices of the company that fired him 2 1/2 years ago, the federal government announced that 190,000 more Americans lost their jobs in October, pushing unemployment to its highest rate in a quarter-century.
“They left me to rot!” Rodriguez complained to reporters on the walk from a squad car to a police station. His voice was barely audible over the thwump of a hovering news helicopter.
“I’m angry,” he said.
Rodriguez had found work since Reynolds, Smith and Hills let him go, after 11 months as what one executive described as “a beginning engineer.” He later lasted four months as an engineering inspector for Florida’s Orange County, and he spent nine months at a Subway sandwich shop, according to the bankruptcy proceedings he filed last May.
Claims by creditors included $11,085 to Child Support Enforcement in Pensacola, $450 to American Express, $2,415 to the IRS, and $28,912 to Sallie Mae. Against liabilities totaling $89,873, Rodriguez, age 40, reported assets of $4,675.
He lived with a girlfriend at the time, the file states. But neighbors said his mother was the only woman they saw in the apartment.
“He was always in his Jeep, listening to music,” said Miguel Gonzalez, 28, who lived across the courtyard. His roommate awoke him when the SWAT team showed up.
The massacre at Fort Hood, barely 24 hours earlier, also loomed over the day. The news video mosaic was familiar: survivors seen fleeing from a distance, and footage from overhead of paramedics hurrying the wounded to waiting ambulances.
Police said they received the first reports of shooting, on the eighth floor of a high-rise called Gateway Center, at about 11:45 a.m. Workers on other floors barricaded themselves in their offices as police scoured the area for the shooter. They found him five miles away, in a neighborhood of cinderblock homes, tidy lawns and convenience stores.
“This is a tragedy, no doubt about it, especially on the heels of the tragedy in Fort Hood that is on our minds,” Orlando police Chief Val Demings told reporters. “I’m just glad we don’t have any more fatalities or any more injuries than we currently have.”
The suspect’s mental health has been a subject of concern in the past. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Orange County sheriff’s deputies delivered Rodriguez for a mental health evaluation in June 2007 – the same month he was fired from Reynolds, Smith and Hills – after he was reported to be a danger to himself or others.