Updated: November 25, 2011 8:14AM
It was supposed to be a surprise birthday party — complete with friends, family, music and a hired stripper.
But 23-year-old fork lift truck driver Harry Rodriguez’s special day ended instead in blood and gunfire when a masked gunman burst into the party and fatally shot him in the early hours of Sunday.
Shouting “Cobra lovers!” as he opened fire in an apparent reference to the Spanish Cobras street gang, the gunman fired three shots from a rear porch at Rodriguez’s home on the 2000 block of North Leclaire shortly before 2 a.m., relatives said.
Rodriguez and a 21-year-old friend who is expected to survive were both hit in the chest as they partied in the kitchen.
“I loved him too much — that’s what he always said,” his mother Elizabeth sobbed as dozens of devastated relatives comforted her at her Belmont Cragin home Sunday afternoon. As they consoled her, relatives laid out Rodriguez’s favorite No. 90 Julius Peppers Chicago Bears jersey and a pair of smart jeans for his funeral.
A huge Bears fan known to pals as “Deejay,” Rodriguez coached youth football and basketball and was a youth summer camp director who tried to keep kids off the street, his best friend Edwin Pedroza said. He had hoped to eventually become a physical education teacher, his family said.
The trouble at the party had started earlier Saturday evening when members of the Spanish Cobras approached one of Rodriguez’s cousins outside and asked him which gang he was in, Pedroza said. The cousin told the Cobras the partygoers were “neutrons” — people with no gang allegiance — but a fight broke out anyway, Pedroza said.
When the gunman came back “to retaliate” later that night, Rodriguez was shot, he added.
Cousin Evie Rodriguez had helped plan the surprise party for Rodriguez’s 24th birthday on Wednesday and was dancing when the shots rang out. “It was just people having a fun time, hanging out — it doesn’t make sense, he wasn’t in a gang,” she said.
Rodriguez did “everything” for her children, she said. “He’d buy them games, hang out with them and act as a role model for them.”
Grand Central Area detectives are investigating, but no arrests had been made Sunday, police said.