Five years after a Colton man was fatally beaten at a house party in San Bernardino, a former Rialto SWAT officer has been swept up in the murder case that already has sent some of the victim’s attackers to prison.
Robert Delon Brown, 42, of Beaumont was charged with murder in April in connection with an alcohol-fueled backyard melee on June 29, 2014, that left Jesse Rodriguez bleeding and unconscious. Rodriguez, 38, who had been punched and kicked in the head, died two days later at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Two other men, originally charged with murder in the case, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and were each sentenced to six years in prison. A third is scheduled for trial on July 15. Others have been convicted or charged with lesser crimes in the case.
Path to prosecution
Witnesses identified the off-duty Brown as one of Rodriguez’s attackers, but — unlike the other assailants — he was not arrested until April. The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office defended the time it took to build a case against the former officer, who served in Rialto from November 2007 until he was fired in January 2016.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Bruce Brown said such a time lag isn’t unusual in complicated murder cases. Oftentimes, he said, it takes investigators a while to obtain enough evidence and reliable witness testimony to prove a suspect’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“In this case, there were a number of people investigated. Sometimes, after the resolution of other cases, it opens up what we can bring into court,” Brown said in an interview.
For example, he said, several witnesses and defendants recanted what they initially told homicide detectives and district attorney investigators during the criminal investigation.
“I’d say this is along the lines of a lot of our murder cases where it’s witness driven,” Brown said.
Disgraced police officer
Until he found himself in trouble over the June 2014 house party, Brown enjoyed a decent reputation at the Rialto Police Department, officials say. “He was a very likable guy, very personable,” said retired Police Chief Randy DeAnda.
Brown, who previously worked as a Banning police officer from August 2006 to March 2007, was fired from Rialto for dishonesty and violating multiple administrative policies in connection with the party where Rodriguez was beaten, DeAnda said.
Celebration turns tragic
The party in the northwest section of town was thrown by Michael Levone to celebrate the birthday of his girlfriend, but it soon doubled as an engagement party when he proposed to her that night.
While accounts vary slightly among the many witnesses interviewed by police and district attorney investigators, they all gave similar accounts about how the assault on Rodriguez unfolded. More than 300 pages of police reports filed in the case detail the following:
Rodriguez and Robert Genera were at an open bar in the backyard when the two began arguing over drinks and Rodriguez’s reported flirting with a married woman. Genera, one witness said, told Rodriguez he should “buy” his own wife a drink. Rodriguez responded by saying “F#*! you!” to Genera; Genera replied in kind.
Rodriguez’s wife, Fawn, told her husband it was time to leave. As they walked toward a gate to the front of the house, Genera and some others followed. Rodriguez and Genera continued to exchange words, and Levone tried to intervene. When a drunken Rodriguez allegedly spit in Levone’s face, Levone punched him in the head, knocking him down.
Head slammed onto concrete
Brown, the police officer, and Genera allegedly began punching and kicking Rodriguez repeatedly in the face and body while he was on the ground. Genera then picked Rodriguez up by his legs and slammed him head-first into a concrete walkway near the gate.
One witness said she “could hear Jesse’s head crack open and saw blood coming out of his head,” San Bernardino homicide Detective Josh Cunningham wrote in a report.
Rodriguez managed to get up and walk to the front of the house and into the street, taunting Genera to fight “one on one.” Genera reportedly ran up to Rodriguez and punched him again in the head, causing Rodriguez to fall to the ground like a “limp dog,” according to Cunningham’s report in August 2014.
Jim McGee, an attorney representing Genera, declined to comment. A second defense attorney did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment.
“I felt so helpless”
According to police reports, one of the partygoers drove Fawn Rodriguez and her husband to Community Hospital of San Bernardino, where she works as a nurse.
“I can’t describe the feeling I had when we were in the hospital. The nurse in me knew, but the wife in me wanted to have hope,” Fawn Rodriguez said of the situation. “I felt so helpless seeing him laying there limp with tubes, drains and IVs at every opening.
“His head was the shape of a football with monstrous stitches all around his head. His face was unrecognizable. My heart broke even more knowing my children would have to see him and say goodbye to him like that.”
Two days later — on July 1, 2014 — Jesse Rodriguez was dead.
In the aftermath of the fatal beating, San Bernardino police faced a difficult task piecing together what happened that night because some witnesses lied to them.
Brown’s wife, for example, said her husband was not at the party, but rather was with her visiting a friend. The friend confirmed the couple were at her home for a dinner gathering. That alibi, however, soon felt apart during an investigation.
As a result, Brown’s wife, Angela Reena Lewis, has been charged with five felony counts of perjury and is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Tuesday, July 16, in San Bernardino Superior Court.
Her husband also faces other charges aside from murder — three misdemeanor counts of having a concealed firearm in his vehicle on April 10, 2019, and, according to the District Attorney’s Office, a felony perjury charge for allegedly impersonating a Rialto police officer during a gun buy at a firearms dealer in March 2018.
Brown, in custody at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga on $1 million bail in the murder case, is scheduled to next appear in San Bernardino Superior Court on Sept. 17 for a pretrial hearing.
Ralph Harrison, an attorney representing both Brown and his wife, declined to comment, saying he had not fully reviewed the charges against them.
Levone and another partygoer, Jaimie Darling, are serving six-year prison terms for their voluntary manslaughter pleas. Genera, still facing a murder charge, is set for trial next week. Others have pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and served about 90 days in jail, according to prosecutor Bruce Brown.
Wife: ‘Terrified that night’
Meanwhile, Fawn Rodriguez will never forget the party — and watching helplessly as her husband was brutally beaten.
“I’ve never seen anything like what I saw that night. I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she said. “I was terrified that night and felt this feeling of doom when the group was following us.”
She says she still has a hard time sleeping, and longs for her late husband.
“Mine and my family’s lives are devastated,” she said. “I cannot be around large groups of people without being scared or fearful something might happen. I can’t watch fight scenes on TV. … I start panicking and freaking out.
“They took everything from me that night and destroyed my faith in people. I trust no one,” she said. “My family is still lost without him. We struggle to find normalcy in this tragedy even five years later.”