HUNTSVILLE, Texas – Lionell Rodriguez had been out of prison only three weeks, paroled after serving less than five months of a seven-year term for burglary and cocaine possession, when he and a cousin decided to act out some crime fantasies they'd seen in movies.
When their plan to rob a service station was foiled because too many people were around, they drove around Houston, eventually pulling up at a stoplight next to a dark-colored car driven by Tracy Gee. The 22-year-old assistant manager of a tennis pro shop was returning from work and just a few blocks from home where she lived with her parents.
With their own car running low on gasoline, Rodriguez, then 19, decided he wanted her car.
His cousin, James Gonzales, leaned back in the driver's seat so Rodriguez could get a clear shot with a .30-caliber M-1 carbine he'd stolen from his stepfather. The single shot through the passenger window of Gee's Honda exploded her head.
Rodriguez jumped from his car, reached through the broken window to open the door of Gee's car and climb in, shoved her bloody lifeless body into the street and drove off.
Nearly 17 years after the fatal shooting, Rodriguez, now 36, was set to die Wednesday evening for Gee's slaying.
The execution would be the 16th this year in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state, and the first of two scheduled on consecutive days.
The U.S. Supreme Court in April refused to review Rodriguez's case, and no additional appeals were filed to block his execution.
Gee's random killing the night of Sept. 5, 1990, infuriated Houston residents, illustrated a growing crime problem in the city and put a focus on an overwhelmed criminal justice system in Texas, where crowded prisons had been forced by court orders to release convicts early because there was nowhere to keep them.
"There was an incredible amount of publicity," recalled J.C. Castillo, the lawyer appointed to defend Rodriguez at his trial. "The public really wasn't aware of what was happening back then. People were doing like one month for every year of sentencing, and they were being paroled."
Rodriguez was arrested the same night. He was sitting in a pool of Gee's blood as he drove her car, the inside splattered with skull fragments and brain matter, into neighboring Fort Bend County where his stepfather was a police officer in Rosenberg. His cousin, Gonzales, was pulled over for a broken taillight, feared he was being sought for the shooting and blurted out that Rodriguez was responsible.
By then, doctors at a hospital had determined Gee had been shot.
"When EMTs first saw her, they didn't know what happened to her because her head was so smashed and deformed they didn't know if she had been hit by a car," said Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who was an assistant prosecutor when Rodriguez was brought in for his initial court appearance.
"He still had blood and what looked like brain matter in his hair," Rosenthal said.
Rodriguez confessed. At his trial, another motorist testified how Rodriguez had fired several shots at him that same night. Jurors convicted him of capital murder and decided he should die.
"It's a terrible crime to the most innocent person you can think of, and you have Mr. Evil as the perpetrator of the crime," Castillo said. "It was so difficult to overcome."
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, overturned Rodriguez’s conviction, in 1993 because of a procedural problem in jury selection. The following year, he was convicted a second time and again sentenced to death.
His cousin is serving 40 years in prison.
Rodriguez, who declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his punishment, blamed drug use as early as age 11 or 12 for his crimes.
"I always thought they were cool," he told The Associated Press after the reversal of his first conviction. "You know how teenagers are. But they're not.
"I was a fool."
Another inmate, Gilberto Reyes, was to follow Rodriguez to the death chamber Thursday evening. Reyes, 33, was condemned for the 1998 rape slaying of a former girlfriend, Yvette Barraz. She was abducted, beaten and strangled after leaving her job as a waitress in Muleshoe along the Texas-New Mexico state line.