June 3, 2008

Woman stabbed to death in Modesto was recovering from meth addiction, her mother says

Modesto police arrested an airport neighborhood woman on suspicion of stabbing the godmother of her children in an early-morning dispute on Hillside Drive.

Police say Maria Rodriguez, 29, stabbed and killed Anita Garza, 32, just before 6 a.m. Monday.

Garza had been living with Rodriguez in the 1700 block of Hillside, according to Garza's mother, G.G.

"It's all a dream," she said Monday evening. "I feel like my baby girl's going to come home singing a song."

Garza had a troubled past but was trying to make better choices, her mother said. Garza had graduated in March from a recovery program in which she had enrolled to fight methamphetamine addiction. Garza had been in prison but was trying to turn her life around, her mother said.

"She was going to church a lot," G.G. said. Her daughter was not working, but spent most of her time attending support groups.

Garza also was an aspiring musician, said friend Andreya Angelino, 26, of Modesto. She made rap music about "poverty and hardship," Angelino said, "all the things we struggle through here in the ghetto."

Details about why the women argued Monday morning remain vague.

Garza, who was the godmother of Rodriguez's two sons, ages 12 and 9, came to Rodriguez's house early Monday, said Modesto police Sgt. Craig Gundlach. Rodriguez was home with her two sons and her stepmother. Detectives believe Rodriguez became angry, grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed Garza during the argument, Gundlach said.

Neighbor Grace Gassett, 45, said she woke up Monday to screaming.

"Maria was running down the street saying, 'Call 911, call 911,' " Gassett said. "Everybody was trying to call 911 at the same time. (Garza) was yelling, 'I'm going to die.' "

Gassett said two other neighbors went to Rodriguez's to try to stop Garza's bleeding.

"She had a towel wrapped around her neck," Gassett said.

Gassett said she hadn't spoken often to Rodriguez and that there had been a lot of coming and going at Rodriguez's home.

Rodriguez was home when officers arrived, Gundlach said. She was arrested on suspicion of murder and is being held at the Public Safety Center without bail.

Officers could not find relatives to care for Rodriguez's boys, Gundlach said. Child Protective Services will take custody of them until a family member is located, he said.

Monday afternoon, detectives investigated the Rodriguez home, marking evidence with yellow placards, taking photographs and measurements. Yellow tape tied to fences blocked the street and stopped traffic from driving down Hillside between Empire Avenue and Tioga Drive.

Blood stained the lower part of the home's front door. A blood-soaked towel and shirt, marked by the number 17, were hanging over the home's fence.

Across the street, the trees of Legion Park swayed in the wind.

The murder of another airport neighborhood resident, Clarence "Buddy" Mason, was fresh in neighbors' minds. The 51-year-old man was killed in early April while walking his dog.

"That wasn't that long ago, was it?" Gassett said.

"We never had problems on this street," said another neighbor, Bianca Hale, 20, who has lived on the block for two years. "It's sad and shocking."

G.G., 51, sat in her garage Monday evening smoking Wave cigarettes and trying to make sense of her daughter's death. Friends of Anita Garza arrived with vases of yellow carnations, red roses and baby's breath. G.G.'s phone kept ringing as people called to tell her what may have happened to her daughter. She questioned the callers like a detective, trying to pin down the timeline before the stabbing.

She said she was proud of her daughter for working through her recovery program, getting off parole and trying to get her life together.

"That takes a lot of courage," she said. "She's a good girl. She didn't deserve this."

Police ask anyone with information to call Detective Mike Hicks at 572-9500 or Crime Stoppers at 521-4636. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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