Mark Rodriguez: An Extraordinary, Ordinary Kid

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I’ve been meditating on heaven a lot lately, and I must say, it wells my eyes with tears of joy every now and then. What a beautiful thought that one day, I will be completely in the presence of God and will actually be able to feel the magnitude of all his love and peace with no earthly fears or worries to distract me. The joy that I feel now, the serenity I feel now, will finally be made perfect ... God is super good. I can’t wait to be with Him forever.

Mark Rodriguez was an ordinary teenager in some ways. He found joy in simple things like strumming his guitar, playing Uno and spending time with his friends. He faced typical struggles, like worrying whether his girlfriend’s birthday gift would arrive in the mail in time or earning enough money to buy his first car.

In other ways, he led a life that was exceptional for a 17-year-old. He had just finished his junior year at Norfolk Christian School where he earned excellent grades and high SAT scores. He’d been to Nicaragua three times on mission trips. He’d started his own photography business, shooting senior portraits and engagement sessions and had even booked his first wedding. He had joined a band as lead vocalist and guitarist and was a worship leader at his school. Since sixth grade he'd had a girlfriend, Carley, whom he loved, respected and admired.

Those who knew Mark and knew those things about him might have said he was a special kid. But it wasn’t until he was killed at age 17 that it became known just how extraordinary he was.

May 30, 2014

The day started off normal. Mark joined his parents and grandparents for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant, then ran some errands with his mom, Leigh Ellen. The two played a game against one another on their phones and enjoyed a Frappuccino before heading home.

Mark had made plans to attend the graduation of some older friends at Norfolk Christian, so once they returned home from their errands, he rushed to get ready, throwing on his favorite Dr. Pepper T-shirt and khaki shorts. “Are you sure you want to wear that to graduation?” his mom asked, as Mark breezed out the door. But he was running late and promised to text her later. “I love you,” his mom called after him. “Don’t speed; better to be late!” as he hurried off.

That was the last time Leigh Ellen would see her son.

mark rodriguez norfolk


… I’ve lived such a safe life it almost seems ridiculous to me sometimes. It’s extraordinary for someone to be this protected in such a dangerous world.

Just as he promised, Mark texted his mom throughout the evening. After graduation, he joined some friends for a late dinner. At 10:36 p.m. he texted that he had dropped off one of his friends and was heading home.

By 11 p.m. Mark hadn’t returned, and Leigh Ellen grew anxious. By 11:15 she became frustrated. And by 11:30 she was terrified. She woke her husband, Carlos, who jumped in the car to retrace Mark’s route. Around midnight, Carlos came upon the scene of an accident and immediately recognized Mark’s van, crashed, airbag deployed, surrounded by police and emergency personnel.

Leigh Ellen, who was on the phone with Carlos when he came upon the accident, hurried to get dressed, as Carlos ended the phone call to find out what was going on. A few minutes later, Carlos called Leigh Ellen to tell her the words no parent should ever have to say or hear: “Our son is dead.”

Before the night was over, Carlos and Leigh Ellen learned that it wasn’t a car accident that had taken Mark’s life; he had been shot.

Twenty-nine-year old James Brown had been sitting in his car in a parking lot near where Mark had dropped off his friend. When Mark made a U-turn to head home, Brown pulled out behind him and fired two shots from a revolver, hitting Mark in the head and the back. Mark died instantly, his van slamming into a tree stump as Brown drove by the van, shooting the sides of the car.

From there, Brown continued to shoot at everything he passed as he drove home. That night he took the life of a police officer, Brian Jones, who attempted to get Brown to surrender. Officer Jones was a husband and father of three.

Brown also shot and badly injured Officer Curtis Allison, who had come to Officer Jones’ aid.

As Brown fled to his home, Officer Toofan Shahsiah pursued him. Brown attacked him and tried to grab his weapon, and Officer Shahsiah shot and killed Brown, an action that has been deemed justified.

No one knows why James Brown—whom his neighbors referred to as “Wyatt Earp,” due to the pistol he often kept on his hip—went on a shooting spree that night. Toxicology reports showed he wasn’t drinking or using drugs. One of his family members would later disclose that he was possibly off his medication for bipolar disorder and likely psychotic that night.

No matter the reason or lack of reasoning, Leigh Ellen chose to forgive Brown that night, because she didn’t know if she would be able to later. “God has honored that decision,” she writes. “God was sovereign that night, as always. He was present with Mark every second of the way Home. And that is what makes that horrible night beautiful.”

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