THE BRONX (PIX11) — Yalitza Espinal was approaching her 40th birthday when she realized she needed to know the truth about what happened to her father after she witnessed him kill her mother, Wanda, 32 years earlier.
“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,” Yalitza Espinal recalled during a lengthy interview with PIX11 News.
Police detectives had tracked Antonio Espinal down to his native Dominican Republic, but they could never cut through the international red tape — or guarantee the Bronx district attorney a conviction.
“I kind of felt like, ‘Did they not believe what I was saying?'” Yalitza Espinal recalled. “I’m telling you that my father killed my mother.”
The signs were certainly there on Oct. 7, 1990, when Yalitza 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 Espinal’s two daughters, had crawled out to the small hallway, gasping her last breaths. She was 32.
Her oldest daughter, Yalitza — who was just 8 years old — said she witnessed her father follow her mother to the apartment bathroom and then stab Rodriguez in the chest and neck, unprovoked.
“She was calling my name. She was calling his name,” Yalitza Espinal remembered.
The still-traumatized daughter 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.
Yalitza Espinal said she ran to the neighbor’s apartment for help, as her mother crawled out the door.
“She was making sounds and I could never understand what that was,” Yalitza Espinal said. “The reason that she couldn’t talk was because he cut her jugular.”
She 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,'” Yalitza Espinal said.
She said her aunt and grandmother avoided eye contact with her. Yalitza Espinal said a man then came to speak with the family, “talking about heaven and things like that.”
“And then he told me that she didn’t make it,” she said, her voice and face filled with emotion.
Yalitza Espinal and her sister were raised by their maternal grandmother and aunt, but Espinal said she coped with the trauma of losing her mother by getting easily angry and, at times, disassociating from reality.
Yalitza 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 Yalitza 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, let alone having to witness my parent being killed,” Martinez said.
Yalitza 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 Yalitza Espinal did 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.
Yalitza Espinal’s aunt, Iris Ortiz, remembered investigators became concerned when the daughter had 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 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 told PIX11 News 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 Yalitza 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 become of 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,” Yalitza Espinal said. “He was burned, basically, all over his body.”
The cousin sent photos to Yalitza Espinal showing a small memorial service for her father.
“She explained that what happened to my father was God’s justice,” Yalitza 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. 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 tried to help her with intimacy.
“Holding hands was awkward for her,” Jose Martinez said.
The husband told PIX11 News 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?'” Martinez said.
Martinez helped his wife write her social media posts and said he felt a special connection to Yalitza’s slain mother.
“She’s watching over Yalitza, she’s watching over everyone, and she’s very proud of her daughter,” Martinez said.
Yalitza’s mother had turned a baby book filled with childhood milestones into a diary of abuse, and reading it has helped Yalitza Espinal 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,” Yalitza Espinal observed. “I know how much she suffered, and I know how much she tried.”