Michael Rodriguez, 59, pleaded not guilty in state Supreme Court on Wednesday. He was ordered held without bail after a state prosecutor described a "substantial, strong case" built on eyewitness testimony and DNA technology that wasn't available when Patricia Scinta Rodriguez was killed at age 21 on Good Friday in 1979.
"I'm still crying," Cheryl DeJac, the victim's cousin, said by phone several hours after Rodriguez was arrested at his Buffalo home. "It took 34 years, but God answered my prayers."
Rodriguez stared down at the defense table throughout his arraignment as he stood with his hands cuffed behind him over a black sweatshirt and jeans. He did not speak.
The estranged husband always had been the primary suspect in the April 1979 attack in a deserted area of Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, former Police Chief Dennis O'Hara said in an interview.
"I always felt we were so close to making an arrest and never could," said O'Hara, who retired in 2009. "Now that the case has reached fruition, I'm extremely happy."
Rodriguez's attorney was out of town and unavailable for the arraignment, court officials said. He was represented by a stand-in attorney who entered the not guilty plea on his behalf to one count of second-degree murder.
While he didn't investigate the case, O'Hara became familiar with it as a patrolman when he was sent to the cemetery to photograph the gruesome scene.
"It was eerie," he said. "It was in April, on a Good Friday. It's always eerie in a cemetery, but with a body laying there, even more so."
State police investigators began re-examining the case in 2009 at the request of Lackawanna police. Assistant Attorney General Paul McCarthy said investigators obtained a court-ordered sample of Rodriguez's saliva in September and matched his DNA with DNA found on the victim's clothing.
Several witnesses saw Patricia and Michael Rodriguez together at a nearby bar the evening before her body was found, McCarthy said, adding that someone saw the estranged couple enter the cemetery together.
"She said to her friends, 'Here's my purse, I'll be right back,'" DeJac said. "She left with Michael. He said he wanted to talk to her about the kids or something."
The couple had a young son and daughter, who were then raised by their father and his family, DeJac said. Now in their 30s, Michael Rodriguez Jr. and Michalene Rodriguez have pushed over the years for their mother's killer to be found, according to news articles. Neither could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
McCarthy said Michael Rodriguez Sr. had a lengthy criminal record that included arrests for burglary, petit larceny, witness intimidation and several instances of assault between 1974 and 1995. He suggested that some of the assault cases were dropped because of frightened victims and witnesses.
"Up until this day there are a number of people who fear what Michael Rodriguez can do to them," the prosecutor told Justice Russell Buscaglia.
DeJac said Rodriguez doesn't scare her.
"I'm going to be at the trial. I'm going to look him right in the face," she said. "I look a lot like Patty. I want him to see me."