Rodriguez also was the confidante of her colleagues, the shoulder to cry on for others in distress.
“She was the person everybody would go to to get into a better mood,” said Amanda Chesney, the executive director of the nonprofit organization’s housing and homeless services. “She was literally the person people would go to for hugs.”
What few people knew was that Rodriguez also was struggling.
D.C. police said Rodriguez’s husband of seven years, Calvin Aughtry, 37, fatally shot her Wednesday morning inside their apartment in Washington Highlands, and they think he later fatally shot himself inside a vehicle in Maryland.
Two close friends said Rodriguez was as upbeat and inspirational at her home on Chesapeake Street SE as she was at the office, doting on four children the couple were raising. She would make others laugh by doing a dance or giving an impromptu hug, even as she grew convinced that she had to leave her abusive environment while still working two jobs to get by.
Stephanie Gudger, one of the few people Rodriguez confided in, said they drove around on Tuesday night discussing how Rodriguez could leave and get to a safe place with the children. She told Gudger she was being abused, but she never called police, afraid, her friend said, that the children would be split up. The couple had a 7-year-old son together; she had two children from a previous relationship, and he had one.
Antonika Johnson, a friend who lives in an apartment below Rodriguez’s, said she heard noises that sounded like muffled gunshots about 4:45 a.m. Wednesday, but she dismissed them. She and Gudger said the children were home at the time Rodriguez was shot, but they apparently did not see or hear the incident.
They said Aughtry took the children to school before he apparently took his own life, an account confirmed by D.C. police. Officers, called by someone concerned for Rodriguez’s safety, found her body about 8 a.m.
Johnson said she wished she had done more to persuade Rodriguez to seek help. “I could have saved her,” she said.
She recalled how Rodriguez helped her furnish her apartment when she moved in, even ordering a sofa for her online. The two laughed together. And danced together. Cooked dinner together. Their children played together. “She was the life of the party,” Johnson said. “She was a good cook. She could do hair. She loved the color red.”
But the friend said she heard loud arguments between Rodriguez and Aughtry and once witnessed physical abuse by the husband.
Rodriguez began working for Catholic Charities seven years ago, starting as receptionist at the downtown office, where she greeted everyone from deep-pocketed donors to the penniless seeking bus fare, and then migrating to the men’s shelter on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, which can accommodate 380 people a night.
Whether feeding her children or feeding the homeless, Rodriguez thought atmosphere mattered. She served Thanksgiving dinner at home on good china, and when she helped with holiday meals on tables outside Catholic Charities’ central office, she insisted that those guests weren’t given disposable plates.
A former co-worker, Christabel L. Estrada, recalled her saying, “Everyone deserves to eat off fancy plates.”
Estrada said Rodriguez “treated everybody with respect” and kept up her inspirational ways even as her life got harder. “Clearly, she was going through a lot of personal issues,” Estrada said. “Yet you would never know it. She would walk around making you feel good without sharing the hardship she was enduring.”