Family mourns off-duty Chicago officer killed in crash
Officer Tito Rodriguez died Sunday in a traffic accident on his way to work
By Michelle Manchir
CHICAGO — The grieving father of a Chicago police officer killed in a traffic accident on his way to work on the Dan Ryan Expressway sacrificed sleep Tuesday night so he could scribble down the things he wanted people to know about his son.
Tito Rodriguez, whose 28-year-old son of the same name died Sunday, talked about some of the memories on that list from his Lyons home in an often tearful interview.
He wants people to know about his son's charisma and ambition, and how good grades led to a scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology. He wants people to know about his son's loyalty to his family, especially his older sister, who baby-sat him even as a 10-year-old. He wants his son's commitment and respect for the job of Chicago police officer remembered. Tito Rodriguez Jr. was on his way to work second shift in the Gresham District when the accident happened.
"He loved being a Chicago cop. He would talk about it every day. He just loved doing it," said Rodriguez's mother, Winifred.
Rodriguez, known as Mannie to his closest friends and family, was driving his motorcycle south on the Dan Ryan near 69th Street when it collided with a car around 2:15 p.m. Sunday, state police said.
The car's driver tried to make an abrupt lane change to avoid missing the exit at 71st Street, police said. The driver was charged with improper lane use and driving without valid insurance.
Rodriguez's father, mother and sister painted a picture Tuesday of a tightknit family. Rodriguez's father recalled the pride he felt the day his son was born. His mother cried as she told how Rodriguez wrote about his sister, Nicole Rodriguez-Zayas, when he was asked to write about his hero for a high school application.
Rodriguez-Zayas said Tuesday she could call or text her brother any time and expect a quick response, even when he was at his girlfriend's house.
"If he loved you, you were loved for life," she said. "He was the love of my life."
The young man's girlfriend of five years, Yesenia Vejar, also a Chicago police officer, described Rodriguez's aspirations to stay with and move up in the Police Department. Rodriguez had been a probationary Chicago police officer since May 2013. All officers have that designation for the first year and half of service. If it hadn't been for that requirement, he likely already would've taken the test required to become a sergeant, Vejar said.
"It didn't matter what he achieved, he always wanted more and more," she said. "His energy and his ambition was just so infectious. I would pick up on his energy."
Rodriguez was a motorcycle rider for more than 10 years but chose not to wear a helmet the day of the accident, his father said. Illinois is one of three states that doesn't require cyclists to wear a helmet.
The elder Rodriguez said he's been driving his son's Lexus this week to "feel him" since his death. He said his son was his best friend, recalling their days of learning to snowboard together, his son's hot temper during frustrating golf games and often pumping iron together at a suburban gym.
The morning of the accident, Rodriguez texted a photo to his father of him holding 125-pound dumbbells in each hand.
"I wish I would've went with him that day," Tito Rodriguez said.
Friends, family and other police officers have been visiting the family since Sunday. Rodriguez was close with so many people that pallbearers will be switched out four times to accommodate his closest co-workers, friends and family, his father said.
Visitation is scheduled for 2 to 8 p.m. Friday at Mount Auburn Funeral Home in Stickney, his family said.
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