November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

The first time Johnny Rodriguez found himself locked in a cell in the Uvalde County Jail, he was 18 and by his own admission as stupid as he was naive. Sure, he admits, he and 11 of his buddies in his little Texas hometown of Sabinal (pop. 1,600) had stolen a goat so they could have a barbecue. And sure, he’d taken the rap. “But I didn’t realize it was a felony,” he says with a grin. “Texans don’t take kindly to rustlers.”

Three decades later, in August 1998, Rodriguez, the charismatic country singer who had 20 Top 10 hits before derailing his career in a haze of drugs, drink and divorce, again found himself in a Uvalde cell. This time, Rodriguez, 47, the first country singer to build a following by recording in both English and Spanish, had no illusions about the trouble he was in. On Aug. 29, he had shot and killed sometime burglar Israel Borrego, 26, claiming afterward that Borrego had entered Rodriguez’s mother’s house uninvited. Still, the charge was murder, and if convicted he faced 99 years behind bars. Even so, Rodriguez couldn’t help noting the irony when, on the eve of trial in October, he was asked if his life was like a country song. “I guess it is,” he said with a rueful smile. “A bad one.”

Certainly the ballad of Johnny Rodriguez seemed over the top at times. The eighth of nine children born to a Hispanic welder and an Irish mother, Rodriguez was an athletic kid who never had much interest in books. At 12, after a sister brought him an $8 guitar from Mexico, he turned to music, learning chords from his father, Andres, and his older brother Andres Jr. “My parents favored Latin music, my older brothers preferred country, my friends were into rock and roll,” he said. “I loved it all.”

Though he appeared in his first talent contest at 14 and formed his first band at 16, Rodriguez expected to be a construction worker. Then, not long after the 1969 goat-rustling incident, he was locked up for alcohol possession, and everything changed. Famed Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, who had heard Rodriguez sing at picnics, persuaded the local sheriff to put Rodriguez on probation. Then he helped the boy land a job wrangling horses and singing at the Alamo Village, a tourist attraction in Brackettville, where Rodriguez met well-known country singer Tom T. Hall. When Hall invited him to join his band, the teenager said no. “It was hard to believe someone like him really wanted me in his band,” he explains.

Just like in a country song, bad luck followed good. In 1972, Rodriguez’s father died of stomach cancer; three months later, brother Andres was killed in a car crash. Feeling the weight of family responsibility, Rodriguez took some construction jobs. After several months, he recalls, “I took my last construction paycheck and arrived in Nashville with three pairs of pants, two shirts and a guitar. I got there with $14 in my pocket.” The first night, he spent $12 on a motel room, then, destitute, contacted Hall, who surprised him with an offer to play lead guitar in his band. This time, Rodriguez accepted—but he was still so young that Hall had to get special permission for him to play in bars.

That year, with the release of his first single, “Pass Me By,” Rodriguez soared into the Top 10 on the country charts, then held the No. 1 spot six times over the next three years with hits like “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico” and “That’s the Way Love Goes.” “I thought he was another Elvis Presley,” says veteran country singer Johnny Bush. Rodriguez toured with Waylon Jennings and Tanya Tucker and became friends with such country superstars as. George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Fame came too fast,” says his sister Antonia Contreras, 54. “He didn’t know how to handle it. There was nobody around who cared for him.”

There were, though, plenty of “girls, girls, girls,” Rodriguez recalls. “It was not unusual for them to throw panties and room keys on the stage.” The handsome young crooner was an easy target. “He was addicted to women,” says Randy Jackson, Rodriguez’s road manager in the late ’70s. “He would spot a blonde in the audience and cut the concert short.”

Rodriguez was also a ready target for drugs. Though he estimates he spent $250,000 on cocaine, “most of what I got was free,” he says. “People were always giving it to me; they just wanted to hang out.” He felt the drug, which he began snorting in the mid-’70s, helped him overcome fatigue and stage fright. “I was always scared to death about getting on that stage,” he admits. “It makes you feel more in control for a while. It’s the big lie.” In 1979, he checked into a rehab center, but it would take five more visits before, he says, he finally kicked his coke habit two years ago. Now, he says, he deals with his anxiety by practicing tae kwon do, in which he holds a black belt.

Still, the years of fast living exacted a toll. His first marriage, in 1976 to flight attendant Linda Patterson, lasted less than three years. Most of that time, Rodriguez was on the road. “It was so hard being gone that I finally just told her I had gone out on her,” he says. “She didn’t take it too good.” By the time he was invited to perform at President Bush’s Inaugural in 1989, drugs and unreliability had put his career in eclipse. Concert dates were drying up, and his voice was shot. “When I was on drugs,” he says, “I used to be hoarse all the time.”

In 1992, Rodriguez returned to central Texas, hoping to clean up his life. Instead, he got arrested for public intoxication in 1994. A year later, he married longtime pal Lana Nelson, daughter of Willie Nelson, but the union lasted only seven months. “I was drinking, but I wasn’t all coked out,” says Rodriguez. “She had five kids and all her friends around. I got to missing privacy.”

With his third marriage, in 1998 to Debbie McNeely, a hair-salon owner, Rodriguez seemed to be getting his life in order. McNeely, who was pregnant with his baby at the time he proposed, countered with a demand. “I told him if he wouldn’t drink, I would agree to marry him,” she says. “After several months, I saw he was serious, and we were married.” Rodriguez was on hand for the birth of their daughter Aubry Rae that April.

Three months later, following a marital spat, Rodriguez traveled alone to Sabinal to spend a few weeks writing new songs. On the night of Aug. 28, he and Carlos Torres Tovar, 54, an old school pal, got together to drink and play some music. According to court testimony, when Rodriguez returned to his mother’s house before dawn, he saw a figure in the kitchen doorway. Grabbing a 357-caliber Magnum revolver, he shot and killed the alleged intruder, Borrego, a local carpenter on probation for four burglaries. In recent months, Borrego had been unwelcome in the Rodriguez home because of his reputation for stealing.

From the moment of his arrest, Rodriguez, who called 911 immediately after the shooting, insisted he had been stopping a burglary. After Rodriguez was let out on bail, says his sister Antonia, members of the Borrego family “made verbal threats” to burn down the house. Borrego’s widow, Anita, 28, denies this and insists, “There’s no feud.”

The trial, which began Oct. 6, lasted six days. The state argued that Rodriguez had shot Borrego after he’d ignored the warning to stay away. Rodriguez’s attorney Alan Brown countered, “The law says you can stop a burglary with deadly force.” On Oct. 13, after deliberating just two hours, a jury of six men and six women agreed and found Rodriguez not guilty. “The first thing I thought of,” he said, “was that I can be a father to my baby now. I’m going to cut back on drinking.”

But would he be returning to rehab? “No, I didn’t say I was going to stop,” he replies. “I said I was going to cut back.” McNeely, who attended the trial, says, “For Aubry’s sake, I hope Johnny reconsiders.” As she and other loved ones rushed to hug him in the courtroom, they could only hope his sister Antonia had it right. “I think,” she said, “he has finally realized he is his own worst enemy.”

Jill Smolowe

Bob Stewart in Uvalde

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