Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter declined to comment Friday but did not dispute that he has agreed to allow a Lilburn man charged with malice murder to instead get probation in return for a misdemeanor manslaughter guilty plea.
The agreement goes before a judge Monday in Gwinnett County Superior Court. “I’m not going to say anything until after the hearing on Monday,” Porter said.
Phillip Sailors, now 70, shot 22-year-old Rodrigo Diaz on Jan. 26, 2013, when Diaz and three friends accidentally showed up outside Sailors’ home one night to pick up a friend to take ice skating.
Their GPS had given the wrong address. Sailors mistook them for criminals and killed Diaz as he was trying to drive away after Sailors had fired a warning shot, said his lawyer Mike Puglise.
Sailors thought Diaz’s red Mitsubishi 3000 GT was coming at him when in fact Daiz was trying to get away by driving down to the road, Puglise said.
“It was a tragic loss,” Puglise said. “I wish we could say there was closure to it but with something as heart wrenching as this, there is never closure to it.”
Sailors is expected to get 12 months probation, Puglise said. A judge still has to accept the plea agreement before it is final.
The case has raised questions from the beginning. Early on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on problems with the Lilburn police investigation and handling of evidence in the case. It was also reported Diaz’s three passengers were handcuffed and jailed overnight even though they weren’t charged with a crime.
On Friday, however, Porter said problems with the investigation were not the force behind the plea deal. “The perceived issues with the investigation did not have anything to do with the decision,” he said, declining further comment.
Sailors had never been in trouble with the police, was not biased against Hispanics and did missionary work with his church in Latin America, Puglise said. He noted his client was released on an approximate $11,000 bond.
“How often do you see a bond like that in a malice murder case?” Puglise asked. “I think that set the tone from the beginning.”
The Diaz family was kept apprised of the plea negotiations and supported the probationary sentence, said Christine Koehler, a lawyer for a family who represented them in a civil lawsuit against Sailors that was settled for an undisclosed amount.
“The Diaz family understands this was a horrible mistake by Mr. Sailors and they don’t want to compound it by sending an elderly man to jail,” Koehler said. “That had a great impact on the final outcome….Mr. Sailors could’ve been looking at a long prison sentence, but they wanted to see the matter closed.”
She has noted the family’s son was a student at Georgia Tech who worked in his brother’s shipping company when he was shot to death. He had immigrated to the United States from Columbia legally. “He followed the rules,” Koehler told The AJC.
The civil lawsuit cited “negligence” instead of “malice” by in the shooting, which would have worked to Sailors’ benefit if Porter had continued to pursue a murder case, Puglise said.
At the time of the shooting, Diaz’s girlfriend painted a starkly different picture of Sailors than that of a fearful elderly man. She described a “relaxed” gunman who didn’t try to assist the victims. “I want him to spend all his life in prison,” said Angie Rebolledo, then 17, at the time. “He is a crazy man.”
Sailors killed Diaz because he mistakenly feared a home invasion when he heard a “disturbance” outside his darkened home and someone knocking on the window, Puglise said.
When he stepped outside with his 22-caliber revolver, he saw two figures running to a car in his driveway. He fired a warning shot and then shot in the driver’s window when he feared the car was accelerating toward him, Puglise said.
“It was horrific set of circumstances,” Puglise said. “There are no winners in this at all…Mr. Sailors told me, ‘There is nothing the court can do to me. My biggest fear is facing my creator.’”
Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this story