Anthony Rodriguez was a mama's boy. Known as SonicC, the up-and-coming local DJ was a music prodigy. Only 22 years old, he had already had his tracks featured in Grand Theft Auto and on popular TV programs. But his mother, Rita, had always kept him grounded. So when SonicC's curfew approached in the early hours of January 19, he ducked out of a bonfire party early, climbed into the passenger seat of a Chevy Cavalier, and headed home.
As his buddy Gabriel Hernandez drove north on narrow Krome Avenue near SW 144th Street, however, an oncoming car suddenly swerved into their lane. The automobiles collided in a fiery explosion. Hernandez and Rodriguez both died. The driver of the other car, Erick Betancourt, broke both of his arms. His 15-year-old sister, Gisele, never made it out of the inferno.
Rita Rodriguez knew her son was dead long before highway patrolmen had a chance to tell her. "I'm an old Cuban mom," she says. "I don't sleep at night. I started texting him around 2:30 to ask him if he was on his way. There was no answer. That's when I knew something was wrong."
Now Rita is trying to make something right by leading a fight to widen Krome Avenue to prevent other fatal crashes.
"Everyone knows it's been called 'Killer Krome' for years," she says. "This is not a new problem. This is an old problem that has never been taken care of."
The night Rodriguez died, Hernandez's mother called Rita around 6 a.m. and told her to turn on the TV. When she saw smoldering cars on the screen, her stomach sank.
"He was very special," she says of her son. "He was outside-the-box smart, like Nutty Professor-style." When Rita would try to punish him by taking away his computer, Anthony would protest: "Mom, that's my career!"
Then, when he was just 17, his song "Stickin' " was selected for the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto. Rita realized her son had been serious all along. The next year, he signed for L.A. record label Dim Mak and began going by "SonicC."
For weeks after his passing, Rita remained in shock. But soon her son's tragic fate was joined by others.
"There have been two more deaths this month," she says. "So far in 2014, including my son, there have been six deaths on Krome. These are not just statistics. They are family members and friends."
A friend of the Betancourts started a Facebook page called Fix Krome Avenue that has garnered more than a thousand members. A Change.org petition calling for wider lanes and more street lights has drawn 7,536 signatures so far. Rita has now launched the nonprofit Lost Lives of Krome Avenue to lobby for action.
Last week, Rita met with Florida Department of Transportation officials. They told her that two obstacles stand in the way of widening Krome: a lack of funds and environmentalists' opposition to encroaching on the Everglades.
"I love the environment, but I think saving lives is more important than saving trees at this point," she says. In the meantime, she hopes FDOT can install lane dividers to prevent more collisions like the one that claimed her son's life.
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"He was my baby boy," she says of SonicC. "Now I feel like I'm missing a part of me."