By Jeff Pack
Writer 

Family is coping in aftermath son's death, conviction and sentencing of his killer

 

Last updated 11/29/2018 at 6:59pm

Atticus Rodriguez

Atticus Rodriguez shared this photo of his entire family, taken at his son's eighth-grade graduation that shows his entire family. His son, Kevin, far right, was killed in an altercation with James Fortney, who was recently sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

A year and one day ago, Atticus Rodriguez received a phone call he never thought he'd get on his birthday.

His 19-year-old son, Kevin, was on his way to a family barbecue to celebrate his father's birthday when he was stabbed and killed in the parking lot of Walmart in Temecula during an altercation with a man he had never met.

According to Deputy District Attorney Dan DeLimon, Kevin and James Fortney crossed paths for the first and last time in the afternoon, Nov. 29, 2017, in the Temecula Walmart parking lot.

Kevin and his girlfriend, identified in court documents only as "J.C.," were heading to the Walmart with her sister when they encountered Fortney and his wife in a black Land Rover on Temecula Parkway.

According to reports, Fortney was angered by the elderly motorist's driving and caught the victims' attention as he blared the SUV's horn while yelling out the window.

After a driving altercation in the parking lot that the prosecution said caused Fortney to tailgate Kevin and his girlfriend, who was driving, Kevin became upset with Fortney's behavior and intended to confront Fortney.

After parking, Fortney remained outside the Walmart until he spotted Rodriguez walking toward his vehicle. That's when prosecutors said Fortney stormed after Kevin, confronting him and shoving a phone camera in front of his face.

Upon noticing the confrontation, J.C. tried to pull out of her parking stall to pick up Kevin in an attempt to escape, Fortney blocked her path, according to prosecutors.

They said as Rodriguez tried to walk around him, Fortney grabbed Kevin by the throat and nearly lifted him off the ground. Rodriguez threw a punch, striking Fortney in the chin, at which point Fortney let him go.

Prosecutors said Fortney then walked toward Kevin, lunged and thrust his knife, striking Kevin in the chest and piercing his heart. Despite efforts from people at the scene, including Fortney, Kevin was dead within five minutes.

It wasn't long after that Atticus received a terrible phone call telling him that his son was dead.

"I think I was in shock and then at the hospital, they only let me see my son in a body bag," Atticus said. "In fact, the hard thing was that I found out my son died on television, before they would even tell me that he died."

Despite the overwhelming pain that took over his entire body and mind, he said, he needed to go down to the place where his son perished and stand up for him.

"I told my wife, 'As bad as I am hurting, I am going to Walmart to talk to those reporters and tell them what kind of life my son lived,'" he recalled. "I am going to go down there and give those interviews and you can go with me if you want."


They did just that.

An avid sports fan, Atticus drew upon the lessons he had learned from his favorite basketball coach, Phil Jackson.

"I had to be strong for my son and do right by him," Atticus said. "As we drove down there, I asked myself, 'How does these coaches do it under pressure?' I said to myself, 'Here's your turn to make a travesty into something better than what it is.'


"I wanted to be an example to my children and to my wife. That's what I wanted most of all."

Over the course of a year, they've stayed relatively quiet, focusing more on their own healing and preparing to endure the pain associated with a trial.

But before the trial could start, Fortney released a video on YouTube that was an attempt to shed light on the case, told from his perspective.

"His public defender gave him all of the surveillance video from the case," Atticus said. "And he made a story about what he said is what happened and published it to the world."

Atticus said he first received a phone call about the video and began doing everything he could to get the video taken down by YouTube before the rest of Kevin's family could see it. Almost 3,000 people had viewed it before it was taken down.

"I was mad, Traci, my wife was breaking dishes and was distraught," Atticus said. "Here we are seeing it happen. We had to see my son get stabbed on the surveillance video. I mean, what kind of sick mind is that?"

It was another test, Atticus said, and he thinks he handled it well.

"We just stayed calm and tried to deal with our grief by going to grief classes and staying active in our church," Atticus said. "We tried to turn the page."

The trial came more quickly than they had expected.

"We thought it was going to be a lot longer, like three to five years," Atticus said. "But (Fortney) wanted to speed it up. (Prosecutors) gave (Fortney) a plea deal – they offered it to him twice – but he refused. I guess he really believed he hadn't done anything wrong."


The prosecution wrapped up its presentation Oct. 9. Then Fortney and the defense had their turn.

"What makes me upset about this whole thing is James Fortney was trying to use his military background, saying 'I just want to get rid of the threat,'" Atticus said. "But what was the threat? You snapped and you're in denial and you never once said sorry to us at all. He is just a big bully, period."

Atticus said he tried to put himself in Fortney's shoes but could never come to any conclusion that would have resulted in someone's death.

"Being a father, and he's a father, and when I was 41 years old, I did not behave like that," Atticus said. "You don't go out and stab a kid like that over something like that. He had a house, kids, a car and a Navy pension. He blew it, and he didn't care at all. If he did have problems, he should have sought help for it.

"They live in the same community that my son lived in. I cannot fathom how another father can do this to a young man that age."

After just two days of deliberation, Fortney was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, making criminal threats and a sentence-enhancing allegation of using a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony, Oct. 15.

He was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison, Nov. 19, . The defense is expected to ask Riverside County Superior Court Judge Charles Campbell for a new trial.

"My wife and I are just happy as far as court case goes that we won't have to see him for another 15 years when he does a parole application," Atticus said. "We will be there when that happens."

Kevin is survived by his parents and siblings Anthony Rodriguez, Tishnae Wise, Brent Rodriguez, Makayla Rodriguez and Lysette Rodriguez.

His father said Kevin was adventurous and loved sharing his adventures with the world as a budding filmmaker.

"My son is a fun-loving kid who would not hurt anyone," Atticus said. "Kevin loved making films on his adventures, and he had a lot of fans that would follow him on his journey."

Atticus said he thought his birthday this year would be a difficult one, but he and his wife are working through the difficulties in their own way.

"Everybody grieves in their own way," he said. "My wife goes to the cemetery a lot – I don't. My wife has dreams, but I speak to him with my thoughts. I have a walk-in closet where I go to talk to him."

He said when times get tough, he goes into the closet and tells his son how hard it is to be brave and strong, pleading for Kevin's help.

"He says, 'Dad, remember all the things you taught me? You have to be mentally tough.' He says, 'I know this is hard for you, but it's beautiful up here and while I didn't think I would go out this way, we don't pick and choose how we die. Remember, I am always with you,'" Atticus said.

City News Service contributed to this report.

Jeff Pack can be reached at [email protected]

 

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