By Richard Cowen, Nick Clunn and John Petrick, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –
PATERSON, N.J. — With tears steaming down her face, a Paterson woman who police say was kept by her boyfriend in a padlocked bedroom for the better part of two years showed up at court Tuesday and defended her alleged captor as a “loving, good man.”
“I want this all to stop!” a sobbing Nancy Rodriguez told reporters in the hallway of Superior Court in Paterson, moments before her boyfriend, Michael Mendez, was led before a judge to answer charges of kidnapping, criminal restraint and drug distribution.
Rodriguez disputed the state’s contention that Mendez, a reputed drug dealer and member of the Latin Kings street gang, locked her up against her will in their bedroom at the Riverview Terrace apartment complex on Alois Place.
“Michael never held me against my will,” she told reporters. “What the state is saying is not true. He never hit me or abused me. He is a loving, good man. He treats me well.”
Rodriguez acknowledged that Mendez left her padlocked inside the bedroom last Thursday when he went to the supermarket. Shortly after he left, a state police gang unit arrived and raided the apartment and recovered 4,200 prescription pills, 190 grams of marijuana and $22,567 in cash. State police say the padlock is proof that Rodriguez was being held against her will, but Rodriguez said Mendez was not a sadist — that he simply wanted to protect her.
Rodriguez said she feared for her safety in the apartment, and so she would frequently ask Mendez to lock her in the bedroom when he left the apartment. She said she feared that someone might break in or the building maintenance workers might show up unannounced while she was in her bedclothes. She rarely left the apartment because the neighborhood is dangerous, Rodriguez said.
“I don’t like to go outside ‘cause it’s the projects,” she said. “I have an animal, a cat, and I stay inside. I’m all right with it.”
Irma Gorham, executive director of the Paterson Housing Authority, which runs the complex where the couple lived, said she has never heard complaints of maintenance staff making unannounced visits. Workers seeking to initiate a visit must provide residents at least 72 hours’ notice, she said.
Rodriguez said the $22,567 in cash confiscated from the bedroom was money that Mendez had earned doing roofing jobs. The couple didn’t have a bank account, she said. And the drugs, she claimed, were all pills that Mendez took for a variety of ailments, including emphysema, she said.
Rodriguez didn’t get to tell her story in court. The sole purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to give Mendez a chance to learn of the charges that have been filed against him, which now amount to kidnapping, criminal restraint and several drug-dealing offenses. Rodriguez shook her head “No” to each charge read by Judge Greta Gooden Brown.
Asked by the judge if he understood the charges, Mendez said he did, and the judge continued his bail at $1 million with no 10 percent cash option. The judge added the condition that if Mendez should make bail, he is to have no contact with his alleged victim, Rodriguez.
As the brief hearing concluded, Mendez turned toward Rodriguez and mouthed the words “I love you” before being led back to the Passaic County Jail.
Mendez’s lawyer, John Somohano, said he would ask for a bail reduction, at the next hearing, which would likely be held sometime next week.
The state police have said they have more than just the padlock to suggest that the woman was being held against her will but have refused to divulge any of it because it might interfere with the case. Sgt. Brian Polite, a state police spokesman, said there were things found inside the room that suggest the woman was there for a long time.
“The charges were filed based upon evidence found during the investigation at the scene,” Polite said. “That’s all we’re going to say at this time.”
Given Rodriguez’s statements to reporters on Tuesday, she might make for a hostile witness for the prosecution should she take the witness stand. The deputy attorney general handling the case on Tuesday, Betty Rodriguez (who is no relation to the alleged victim), declined to comment on what other pieces of evidence there are against Mendez.
Longtime criminal defense lawyer Miles Feinstein of Clifton said the alleged victim’s very public turnaround will make it difficult — but not impossible — for the prosecution to pursue false imprisonment charges.
“It certainly creates a difficulty, particularly when based on what I’ve read in the newspaper. There are numerous neighbors who said they saw her on her own and outside,” Feinstein said.
Rodriguez was interviewed by investigators before the charges were brought against Mendez. Feinstein said the prosecution would likely consider Rodriguez’s statements to the media on Tuesday to be contradictory to what she had told police officers.
He said such a turnabout was understandable, given that Rodriguez may love Mendez, or she may fear him.
“What they (the prosecution) might do is bring in experts to testify as to how this happens in numerous cases, and it’s up to a jury to determine the credibility of the person,” Feinstein said.
Experts in domestic violence say it’s not at all unusual for a battered woman to express dependence on, or even affection for, the partner who abuses her. It’s a psychological condition commonly known as “learned helplessness.”
Sandra Ramos, the director of Strengthen Our Sisters, a battered women’s shelter in Passaic County, said Mendez’s alleged ties to the Latin Kings add an extra element of danger.
“The Latin Kings kill people at the drop of a hat,” Ramos said. “She’s probably petrified.”