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An unusual sentence aims to make a killer remember his victim

CRYSTAL RIVER — For three weeks, he waited.

Slumped on the faded sofa in his single-wide mobile home, surrounded by kids and grandkids, staring at the portrait of his dead son, Thomas Towers Sr. kept his vigil.

And wondered: What would the killer write?

Every day, he dragged himself down the dusty path to get the mail. He flipped through fliers and bills, searching for that small slice of justice.

But three weeks had passed since the sentencing, and Towers still hadn't received a postcard.

• • •

Towers is 56, but he looks older, broken. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes seem blank. After he lost his boy, his beard went gray.

He used to work for TruGreen lawn care. "But I just can't seem to do nothing now."

In the center of the state, in a tiny town called Oxford, Towers and his wife, Victoria, raised three daughters and five sons. They named their third son Thomas Jr.

"As a little boy," Towers said, "he was quite a devil."

He tackled his big brothers, pulled pranks on his sisters, blasted Metallica and Pantera anthems. He loved hunting and fishing, cheering the Yankees, playing poker. In high school, he got suspended for brandishing a fake hand grenade.

"But the Army put him on the right path," Towers said.

Thomas Jr. joined the military right after school. On Christmas Eve 2003, the young sergeant shipped out to Iraq.

Every day, Towers and his wife worried. "We were prepared to get that call, or that knock on the door," he said.

His son returned home in October 2004. Two years later, he signed up for another tour, then came home again. He had been back in Florida almost six months when he got into his Hyundai on March 14, 2008, and headed out on County Road 452.

He was going to his parents' house to celebrate their anniversary. He had bought chips and soda, rented a movie. He called his dad as he set out for the half-hour drive.

"I'll be there by 6," he said. "See you soon."

• • •

The call came at 8 p.m.

A 19-year-old driving a Honda Civic had lost control and gone off the road. He over-corrected, the state trooper said, and smashed into Thomas Jr.'s car. The impact ejected Thomas Jr., who fell into a field.

"By the time we got there, he was gone," Towers said. Thomas Jr. was 28.

The other driver, Andrew Gaudioso, was airlifted to a hospital where he spent four months in a coma.

"We waited," Towers said. "But that kid was never charged."

Six months later, after Gaudioso was released from the hospital, Towers drove to the Highway Patrol station and demanded to see the wreck report. Gaudioso hadn't been drinking, the report said. But a blood test showed drugs in his system.

In an interview, prosecutor Sara Jane Olson wouldn't say what the drugs were, but Towers said he was told one was marijuana.

"This kid got high and drove and killed my son," Towers said. "My son, who protected our freedom and fought for our country, died a mile from my home."

In April 2009, officers charged Gaudioso with vehicular homicide. His trial was supposed to start this month. But his lawyer, Laura Hargrove, asked to have the case dismissed.

"There was a huge problem with the way they calculated his speed," she said.

Prosecutor Olson could have asked for an 8-year prison sentence for Gaudioso, but that wasn't what Towers wanted. "I didn't want him sitting there in the air-conditioning, watching TV on the taxpayers' dollars. And I sure didn't want to risk him going free."

He wanted to hear Gaudioso say he was sorry for all the pain he had caused. "I want him to apologize to my family — every week," Towers remembers telling the assistant state attorney. "I want him to remember, for the rest of his life, that he killed my son."

Gaudioso did not respond to interview requests for this story, but his lawyer said he was happy with the plea agreement. "He didn't want to go to prison."

• • •

The defense attorney proposed postcards instead. One a week, for 15 years. That's 780 postcards.

"The only way I could keep my client out of prison was to come up with something creative," Hargrove said. "We didn't mandate what he had to say. Only that he has to send the postcards."

On Oct. 14, Lake County Circuit Judge G. Richard Singeltary signed off on the unusual plea agreement. He sentenced Gaudioso, 22, to 15 years of drug offender probation, during which he can't drink or use drugs. He also revoked his driver's license for five years and ordered him to pay $815 in fines.

And Gaudioso has to "mail a postcard to the victim's family via probation every week while on probation."

If Gaudioso doesn't send one, he will serve the rest of his 15 years behind bars.

Radio stations and wire services across the country carried news of the sentence. Internet users discussed it on blogs from "simplejustice" to "Harrypottering." Everyone seemed surprised the victim's family would agree to let his killer go free.

To Towers, the best punishment is to make the killer pay penance. "I need to know that he cares that he killed my kid."

• • •

Monday afternoon, he was still waiting.

He had draped his son's dog tags over the corner of his Army portrait. Beside it hung his last father-and-son photo, taken right after Thomas Jr. came home from Iraq.

"Maybe that kid hasn't had to see his probation officer yet. Maybe that's why we haven't gotten a postcard," Towers told his daughter Dina, 17.

She looked at her dad. He seemed so desperate. How dare that guy leave him hanging like this? If Gaudioso really felt bad, if he wrote a note saying how much he was hurting too, maybe then her dad would have a little peace.

"Have you checked the mail today?" she asked. He shook his head. She squeezed his shoulder, saying, "I'll go look."

Towers was tired of being disappointed. If a card didn't come today, he vowed, he would call that kid's probation officer — have him hauled away.

When his daughter returned, her arms were full. She dumped the mail onto the table. Her dad sat up, expectantly.

A flier for a tire sale. A check for food stamps. The power bill. A letter addressed to Thomas Jr., who had been dead for more than two years, trying to sell servicemen a new Kia.

"Wait, Dad, there is one," Dina said, handing him a postcard. "Treasures of the sea," said glossy letters surrounded by seashells. "Greetings from Florida."

Towers cradled the card in both hands, ran his thumbs across the slick conchs. "Andrew Gaudioso," said block letters across the back. "Mr. and Mrs. Towers," the shaky print said. "I'm very sorry."

He read the words over and over. Closed his eyes. Then read them again.

"Is that it?" he finally asked, flinging down the card. "You've got to be kidding me. That's all there is?"

He sank back into the sofa. Dina watched his shoulders slump, his head drop. "Wait, Dad," she said, "Here's another one."

The second postcard was labeled "The Legend of the Sand Dollar." Towers studied it, took in the symbolic cross, the hidden doves of peace. Then he turned it over.

The card was blank.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. News researcher Shirl Kennedy contriubted to this report.

An unusual sentence aims to make a killer remember his victim 11/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 10:33pm]

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