Within seven days earlier this month, this community endured the death of a beloved City Councilman, a fire that destroyed a popular West Side truck stop and an attempted murder in nearby Gustine that caused the death of the alleged Patterson assailant.
Still, nothing could have prepared this town for the news that struck last week. On an otherwise pleasant Tuesday afternoon, 27-year-old Jose Esteban Rodriguez is believed to have ambushed his ex-girlfriend’s mother, whisked away her son and sped off in his 2003 Toyota Corolla. Neither Rodriguez nor 4-year-old kidnapping victim Juliani Cardenas has been sighted since.
The abduction has not only shocked us here in Patterson, but also captured the attention of the nation. Perhaps it’s the adorable smile — the now-famous image of Juliani grinning from ear to ear in his “Geoffrey’s Birthday Club” crown from Toys ’R’ Us. Or maybe it’s the drama: a mother who is eight months pregnant with her second child in tears after her ex-boyfriend ripped her son out of her mother’s arms and seemingly disappeared; search teams extracting vehicle after vehicle from the Delta-Mendota Canal as TV viewers sit glued to their screens in anticipation of finding out if they have discovered “the car.” Whatever the reason for the national media attention, it’s heartening to know people are keeping their eyes peeled and so many are praying for Juliani’s safe return.
As shockwaves created by the kidnapping reverberate throughout the state, the impact in this community has been unique. After all, these are not tragic figures from a far-off place, they are our classmates and coworkers, neighbors and friends. Amparo Cardenas, Juliani’s grandmother, is a well-known and much-beloved waitress at Damasco Fine Food and Spirits. Tabitha Cardenas, his mother, is a Patterson High School graduate who is working toward becoming a registered nurse. Even alleged kidnapper Rodriguez until recently contributed to this community’s economic well-being as a worker at one of the city’s largest and best-known employers, Patterson Vegetable Co. We shop at the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, attend the same schools.
That’s why many of us are left dumbfounded. How could it happen to one of our own? And what would drive someone to do something like that? As we grapple with such questions, it’s encouraging to see people doing their part to reach out to their neighbors. The mayor and City Council members have gathered around the Cardenas family to comfort and support them. Police have sought tirelessly for answers. Local businesses have contributed resources. Volunteers have taken time to distribute fliers and help with the search. Church leaders have led prayer vigils and offered counsel.
As Mayor Luis Molina said last week, “I think the biggest thing, if anything, that’s positive about tragic events in this community is that it brings us closer together.”
Interestingly, Tabitha Cardenas expressed those same sentiments earlier this week, even while standing in the eye of the storm.
Yet particularly as time goes on and the strain continues, it’s important to maintain our compassion for the Cardenas family. These are our friends and neighbors; they need our love and support.