THE BRONX, N.Y. (PIX11) — Yalitza Espinal was approaching her 40th birthday when she realized she still didn’t know the truth about what happened to her father after she witnessed him kill her mother 32 years earlier. Years later, she would turn to TikTok to find out what had become of him. Before that, however, she had only heard rumors.
“One of the stories that I heard during the years, of him escaping, was that he dressed up as a woman in order to fly out,” Espinal recalled during an interview with NEWS10’s sister station in New York City. Police detectives had previously tracked Antonio Espinal to his native Dominican Republic, but they could never cut through the international red tape—or guarantee a conviction for the district attorney in the Bronx, New York.
“I kind of felt like, ‘Did they not believe what I was saying?'” Espinal said. “I’m telling you that my father killed my mother.”
The signs were certainly there on Oct. 7, 1990, when Espinal’s neighbors saw a shirtless and barefoot Antonio Espinal go up and down a flight of stairs, his body bloodied, before fleeing from the apartment building on East 197th Street. Antonio Espinal left a bloody folding knife behind.
Wanda Rodriguez, the mother of his two daughters, had crawled out to the small hallway, gasping. She was 32. Her oldest daughter, Yalitza—who was only 8 at the time—said she witnessed her father follow her mother to the apartment bathroom and then stab Rodriguez unprovoked in the chest and neck.
“She was calling my name. She was calling his name,” Espinal remembered. Still traumatized, she recounted how she tried to unlock the apartment door to get out. “I remember I couldn’t reach the chain, and I’m jumping up and down, trying to move the chain,” she said.
Espinal said she ran to the neighbor’s apartment for help as her mother crawled out of the door. “She was making sounds, and I could never understand what that was,” she said. “The reason that she couldn’t talk was because he cut her jugular.”
Espinal recalled a poignant moment from the next morning after she and her younger sister had been taken to Jacobi Hospital for medical evaluation while their mother was in the emergency care of doctors. “I remember with the breakfast, they gave oatmeal, and I remember saying, ‘I’m going to leave this for mom because she’s going to be hungry,'” Espinal said.
She said her aunt and grandmother avoided eye contact with her. Espinal said a man then came to speak with the family, “talking about heaven and things like that.”
“Then he told me that she didn’t make it,” she said, her voice and face filled with emotion. Espinal and her sister were raised by their maternal grandmother and aunt. She said she coped with the trauma of losing her mother by getting easily angry and, at times, disassociating from reality. Espinal had her own child, a daughter, at the age of 19, but she struggled with romantic relationships.
Over the years, she learned her father had children with another woman before meeting her mother. He married yet another woman and fathered a son before reconnecting with Wanda Rodriguez, who gave birth to a second daughter.
When Espinal met her future husband, Jose Martinez, he sensed the pain she was carrying in her heart. “I can remember when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was playing with Transformers,” Martinez said. He couldn’t fathom being that age and witnessing “my parent being killed,” he added.
Espinal slowly opened up about what she’d witnessed, and her husband encouraged her to seek justice for her mother, which had been elusive for more than three decades. There had been a ray of hope in 2005 when Bronx detectives tried kicking the case into high gear and Espinal participated in a Crime Stoppers interview. But she later learned that the folding knife taken into evidence had been contaminated in a warehouse fire, and might be unusable.
Espinal’s aunt, Iris Ortiz, remembered investigators becoming concerned when the daughter recovered memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. “They kept saying, ‘Well, you keep changing your story,'” Ortiz recalled. “She was a little girl, and years had gone by.”
Ortiz, who had grown up with her sister Wanda Rodriguez in Manhattan, recounted the night of her sister’s death when Antonio Espinal came to visit her apartment in East Harlem. “He had, like, saliva coming down his mouth,” Ortiz said, “and you could see that he was snorting cocaine.”
Ortiz said she drove Antonio Espinal back to the Bronx because she worried he might fall onto the subway tracks. Ortiz warned her sister about Espinal’s strange behavior that night and begged her to leave the Bronx apartment and come back to Manhattan. But she said Wanda Rodriguez shrugged it off.
In the spring of 2020, right around Espinal’s 40th birthday, she decided to share her mother’s story on a TikTok account called Wanda’s Justice. She wanted to know what had happened to her father.
She soon found answers in private messages that indicated her father had died in 2021, about seven years after he was electrocuted in a household accident in the Dominican Republic. She said a cousin provided a lot of the information. “He got electrocuted so bad that even his internal organs got affected,” Espinal said. “He was burned, basically, all over his body.”
The cousin sent photos to Espinal showing a small memorial service for her father. “She explained that what happened to my father was God’s justice,” Espinal said.
NYPD detectives from Bronx Homicide got involved again once they received word that Antonio Espinal was believed to be dead. They found documents indicating that Antonio Espinal had changed his birth date to 1930 on government documents, which would have made him 91 years old on paper at the time of death. His original documents had his actual birthdate, July 25, 1950, indicating he was 71 when he died.
The Bronx Homicide Squad planned to do an “exceptional clearance” on the murder case, declaring Antonio Espinal the killer of Wanda Rodriguez. Yalitza Espinal has been working with an insurance company for the last 15 years, and her boss has been understanding of her quest for justice.
Her husband has also tried to help her on a more personal level. “Holding hands was awkward for her,” Martinez said. He said that his wife needed to realize how worthy she was of having good things in her life, including marriage.
“It was something that she didn’t think she deserved, and I just asked her ‘Why?'” he said.
Martinez helped his wife write her social media posts, saying he felt a special connection to her slain mother. “She’s watching over Yalitza, she’s watching over everyone, and she’s very proud of her daughter,” he said.
Yalitza Espinal’s mother had turned a baby book filled with childhood milestones into a diary of abuse, and reading it has helped her understand what her mother endured.
“Even though I was so young, I understood so much, and I don’t know if it’s because of the environment I was in,” Espinal said. “I know how much she suffered, and I know how much she tried.”