Henry Rodriguez, Jr. usually didn’t go to work on Sunday mornings until 8 or 9 a.m.
On Jan. 22, he left his brother’s Union City home near Mann Avenue early. His niece’s first birthday celebration was that day, so was the 49ers NFC Conference Championship match. The warm-hearted 40-year-old sports fan didn’t want to miss either event, friends said.
But in the short amount of time it takes for Rodriguez, who was mentally disabled, to walk to the nearby in the , something tragic happened.
According to police, near the intersection of Alvarado-Niles Road and Union Square Drive shortly after 6 a.m. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver fled the area and has not been identified, police said.
A LOCAL CELEBRITY
Friends and relatives described Rodriguez as a fun-loving man with a young heart who was well known in the Decoto district.
A growing memorial of flowers, balloons and other items is placed in front of the local bakery where Rodriguez worked for more than 20 years.
“This was his home away from home,” said Gustavo Zuniga, Jr., who helps run Bakery La Mejor.
Zuniga said the support for Rodriguez has been overwhelming.
“It’s a non-stop pouring in,” Zuniga said. “We can’t even work. It’s like, ‘Henry, how many people did you know?’”
A donation box was placed Sunday afternoon to collect money to help with Rodriguez’ funeral services and has since yielded more than $200, Zuniga said.
“Nobody second-guesses it. They see it’s for Henry and right away, if there’s a $20 bill in their pocket, they put it in,” he said.
Zuniga said a 14-year-old boy visited Sunday and offered a $10 bill, hoping it would cover Rodriguez’s funeral expenses. He isn’t sure how the boy knew Rodriguez.
“He was a lovable guy,” Zuniga, 28, said of the man he considered an older brother.
“He wasn’t ‘special’ to us, he was just one of the fellas,” he said. “He was just like us, if not better.”
According to Zuniga, Rodriguez was asking for change near the bakery some 20 years ago when Zuniga’s grandfather, who passed away seven years ago, told Rodriguez that if he performed various tasks at the store, he’d pay him. He’s been there ever since.
According to those who frequent the shopping center regularly, Rodriguez was a known fixture.
“He always came in and said ‘Hi’ to everyone,” said Sue Marinucci, an employee at the nearby Safeway. On Tuesday afternoon, she paid respect to Rodriguez, leaving flowers at the memorial.
Rodriguez was also a ladies man who loved to flirt and joke, friends said.
Doug Laverne, a 67-year-old Union City resident who frequented the area said Rodriguez would flirt with his daughters and joke, “You’re going to be my father-in-law.”
“You just had to know him,” Laverne said with a smile. “He’s going to be very missed.”
“It makes me feel good that Henry was loved by this community,” Zuniga said. “I can’t even cry anymore. He’s in a better place.”
LIKE A BROTHER
Isabel Maria Najera said it felt “like the ground opened up” when she heard the news of Rodriguez’s death Sunday morning.
“I didn’t want to believe it,” Najera, 34, said. “It’s still not sinking in. It’s not real. Not Henry.”
“I feel like a piece of me is gone. He was like my son, even though he’s older than me,” she added.
According to Najera, Rodriguez was born in East L.A. but moved to Union City shortly after his birth. Their mothers were neighbors and best friends, she said. He bounced around the Union City, Hayward and Newark area with his family and graduated from Newark Memorial High School in 1989, Najera said.
He was the oldest of four children and lived with his brother Jessie’s girlfriend. Jessie is currently incarcerated, Najera said.
Rodriguez visited Najera’s home every day, she said. He was supposed to watch the football game at Najera’s home that Sunday.
She also treated him like a regular family member.
“You wouldn’t think he was mentally challenged because he’s a very smart guy,” Najera said.
Najera’s 17-year-old son, Mario, considered Rodriguez to be an older brother.
“We had a really good bond,” Mario said.
Mario said Rodriguez was saving money so he could contribute to his graduation party this June.
He just wants whoever took Rodriguez’s life to “have a heart.”
COMMUNITY SEEKING CLOSURE
Police have released very few details about the accident. A large, blinking traffic sign is placed near the scene, urging anyone with information to contact Union City police.
According to Zuniga, Rodriguez often walked slowly with a slight hunchback. And though police said Rodriguez was jaywalking at the time of the accident, he knew the area well.
“He’s crossed that street millions of times,” Zuniga said.
Beyond that, Alvarado-Niles Road is empty at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings. A car passes the intersection maybe every 20 minutes, Zuniga said. “It’s really quiet,” he said.
His friends hope someone will come forward so that they can have closure.
“Whoever did this is being selfish,” Najera said. “It’s not fair.”
“If you have a conscience, please come forward,” Mario pleaded.
According to Najera, Rodriguez’s family is seeking assistance to help with funeral arrangements.
Though no date has been set for a funeral, donations may be made to the Chapel of the Roses, located at 1940 Peralta Blvd. in Fremont, which is open from 8 to 5 p.m.
Write “Henry Rodriguez” in the memo line or make donations in person, Najera said.
Donations may also be left at , located at 34572 Alvarado-Niles Rd.
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