“I am telling the truth,” Santos said, according to Cain’s court testimony.
But the second time the officer fired his gun, he shot Santos in the head. The killing of the 12-year-old rocked Dallas and the nation, and resulted in Cain being convicted of murder.
Nearly 50 years later, Dallas police have apologized to Bessie Rodriguez, the mother of Santos and David, for a murder that has long stained the city’s law enforcement. In a memorial on Saturday at the cemetery where Santos is buried, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said that the city had not healed “from the loss of Santos and the manner in which we lost Santos.” An official apology to Rodriguez, 77, was decades overdue, the police chief said.
“In order to heal, those who committed the wrong must be contrite,” he told Rodriguez on the 48th anniversary of Santos’s murder. “On behalf of the Dallas Police Department, as a father, I am sorry. We are sorry that someone trusted to protect you, someone who wore the same uniform I proudly wear today took your son and took David’s brother away by way of murder.”
The apology came after Rodriguez had pushed for years for police to acknowledge the pain caused by a killing that sparked protests and outrage in Dallas and deepened the divide between law enforcement officials and the city’s Hispanic and Black communities. Cain, who died in 2019 at 75, was sentenced to five years in prison, but ended up serving only half of his sentence for a murder described by one critic as “one of the worst cases of racism with impunity.”
Rodriguez thanked Garcia on Saturday for being “very respectful” in finally honoring her late son.
“I have to forgive to be forgiven,” she told the Dallas Morning News.
Cain and officer Roy Arnold responded to a burglary call at a Fina gas station around 2:10 a.m. in July 1973. Arnold, a three-year member of the police department, suspected that Santos and David had taken $8 from the Coca-Cola vending machine, according to local media reports at the time. The boys were living with a foster grandfather in the Little Mexico neighborhood of Dallas while Rodriguez was serving a five-year prison sentence for murdering her boyfriend in 1971.
Despite not having a warrant, the officers entered the home and took the brothers into custody around 2:30 a.m. In a vacant lot behind the gas station, Cain pointed a gun at the boys, who were handcuffed in the squad car.
“When he wasn’t getting the answers he wanted, that is when he pulled out his gun,” David recalled to the Morning News in 2019. “He put the gun up to [Santos’s] head. He said, ‘Now you are going to tell him the truth.’ ”
Cain, a five-year member of the department, had killed 18-year-old Michael Moorehead, who was Black, in 1970, but was not indicted, according to the New York Times.
The officer claimed that he had checked the gun while in the car with the young boys and did not see any bullets in the chamber, according to media reports. Yet when the gun fired and killed Santos in the back seat, the officers jumped out of the car in a panic. Arnold reportedly vomited.
“My God, my God, what have I done?” Cain said, according to testimony from an officer who arrived on the scene. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
An officer who retrieved Cain’s gun afterward found “five live rounds and one empty cartridge” in the revolver, court records show.
David was left in the car with his dying brother, and his feet were now soaked in Santos’s blood.
“You are going to be all right,” David told his unresponsive brother.
Santos was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The killing caused an immediate uproar in Dallas. The police chief did not defend Cain and admitted that the police department showed racial bias in its enforcement. Then, a police investigation found that fingerprints at the scene of the burglary did not match that of Santos or David.
“Fingerprints Don’t Match,” read a front-page headline in the Morning News.
Cain was arrested, while Arnold, who never faced charges, was fired. As thousands of protesters took to the streets, some hurled bottles and debris at officers, and two police motorcycles were burned by the demonstrators.
At the trial, prosecutors hammered Cain for merely pointing his gun at Santos.
“The only thing worse than killing a child who is handcuffed, who is involved in a burglary, is killing a child who was handcuffed who was totally blameless, and totally innocent,” prosecutor Doug Mulder said at the time.
The officer was found guilty in November 1973, but Cain’s five-year sentence for murder with malice prompted more protests and calls from Mexican American leaders for a federal investigation. President Jimmy Carter even asked Attorney General Griffin B. Bell in 1978 if they would review whether Cain should be federally prosecuted before the federal statute of limitations elapsed.
But the Justice Department declined to further prosecute Cain, citing concerns about due process and how the officer had already been convicted of the “highest degree of murder” in a trial that was “prompt and vigorous.” A civil lawsuit seeking close to $475,000 in damages was also unsuccessful.
Following the Justice Department’s decision, Carter wrote to Rodriguez in August 1978 and told her that “the brutality and senselessness of the murder is reprehensible.”
“I hope some measure of justice has been served by the vigorous state prosecution and the officer’s conviction of murder with malice,” he continued. “In the end, I realize no action could ever compensate for the needless loss of life. The grief which you feel is shared by all of us.”
Santos’s death helped spur transformation in Dallas at a time when its Latino community of about 80,000 was still trying to establish itself in the 1970s. This was especially true of its police department, which added its first Latina police officer two years after the killing.
“The killing of Santos Rodriguez galvanized our community,” Albert Valtierra, then-president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League, told NPR in 2013.
Bessie Rodriguez, who has held a memorial event in recent years to honor her son, had not received a direct apology from police for decades. In 2013, Mike Rawlings, then the Democratic mayor of Dallas, apologized to her on behalf of the city and the police department.
“Everything that happened today was real special,” she said.