Two times Donna Rodriguez appeared in court to testify against a suspected prowler who never appeared. Twice more she was ready to appear but was told by court officials she wasn't needed.
The fifth time, the day her Army sergeant husband left for Korea, Rodriguez missed a court date herself and was arrested, fingerprinted, photographed with a number under her chin and saddled with a police record.
She is scheduled to appear before an Anne Arundel County judge again Wednesday, this time to defend herself against a contempt of court citation.
The defendant she was to testify against is scheduled for trial the same day.
"I keep trying to tell everyone that it's a mistake . . . a misunderstanding," said Rodriguez, almost in tears as she talked of her arrest Sept. 27. "And going to trial Wednesday is just another humiliation."
Rodriguez said she notified the District Court Clerk's office weeks before the Aug. 15 trial date that she could not appear and was told the case would be postponed.
But a spokesman for the clerk's office in Glen Burnie, where the case was scheduled, said that's impossible because there is no notice of her phone call in the file.
Prosecutors in the Anne Arundel County state's attorneys office are sympathetic to her plight but said Rodriguez' fate is up to the judge.
And Rodriguez herself is worried that "it's now my word against the whole court system's."
Her odyssey through the criminal justice system began last Jan. 29 when she was babysitting at a friend's home in the Millersville area, not far from Fort Meade Army Base where she lives, and heard some noises outside. When a strange man rang the bell but couldn't explain why he was there, she called police.
A suspect, Jesse Christopher, was arrested inside her car and charged with tampering with a motor vehicle and larceny, according to Assistant State's Attorney Frederick Paone.
Rodriguez said she soon received a summons to appear in court, and on March 28 she took the day off from her job as a cashier and sat for about two hours in a Glen Burnie courtroom.
"When the case was called, the state's attorney got up and said the defendant was still under observation at Crownsville (State Hospital), Rodriguez said. "I figured maybe they just found out about that."
Rodriguez soon got another notice from the clerk's office to appear, and she said she dutifully went off to court on April 25.
"I got there, but nobody I recognized was around," Rodriguez recalled. "I sat through a few cases and then asked the clerk what was going on. 'It's been rescheduled,' they told me. 'Didn't you get a notice?'"
Rodriguez -- out another day's pay -- trooped home. When she did get the change-of-trial notice, a date on the bottom showed it had been issued on April 24 -- one day before her scheduled appearance.
The trial was rescheduled for June 20, then postponed again to July 18 because the defendant was still in the state hospital, according to prosecutor Paone.
But the investigating police officer was going to be on vacation July 18, so the case was rescheduled again, Paone said after checking the file.
Rodriguez said she could have appeared in June or July, but that final Aug. 15 date was impossible, so she called the clerk's office.
Ramona Fox, who heads the clerk's criminal section in Glen Burnie, said a clerk would tell any caller seeking a postponement to send a letter to the court.
But Rodriguez said that a clerk, whose name she never thought to ask, told her "everything would be fine."
On Aug. 15, while Rodriguez was seeing her husband off, the Christopher case came up for trial and a prosecutor called her name. When he heard no reply, he asked the judge to issue a warrant for her arrest, Paone recounted.
"This never would have happened if we had heard from her," Paone said.
More than a month later, on Sept. 27, Rodriguez was at work when she learned from a friend at Fort Meade that the military police were looking for her.
She left work, went to their headquarters and was told there was a warrant out charging her with failure to appear in court as a witness.
She hurried to the county police station in Millersville "to get everything straightened out," Rodriguez recalled recently.
But things aren't straight yet.
Rodriguez found herself in the police station basement being questioned by an officer, photographed and fingerprinted, she recalled.
"It didn't even hit me, until he asked me to stand up and have my picture taken, that I was under arrest," she said.
"They put these numbers under my chin and made me look this way and that way. I felt terrible."
Her hands quivering and her eyes close to tears, Rodriguez was locked in a special section of the jail, where she was offered a telephone and told to call someone who could pay her $100 bond.
About two hours later, her mother posted her bail and Rodriguez was set free.
Rodriguez quickly sought help from the prosecutor's office, where she spoke to Assistant State's Attorney, William Roessler.
Roessler said he believed her and tried to get the case dismissed, but District Court Judge Vernon Neilson, who issued the arrest warrant, wanted to see Rodriguez in court.
Roessler said the prosecutors will do what they can to help her because the case was postponed so many times and Rodriguez made "such a conscientious effort" to appear.
But Rodriguez found little comfort yesterday in those assurances.
"I always put down people who said they didn't want to get involved when there was a crime," she said. "But I'd never say that again."