TAMPA — A drunken driver refused a plea deal early Thursday that would bring 15 years in prison for killing 5-year-old Lilly Mills in 2011. But an hour later Rolando Rojas, 53, returned to court, accepted the sentence and begged forgiveness from the Mills family.
"The moment I heard baby Lilly had died, believe it or not, I felt a stabbing, dying pain," Rojas told the family. "I know you felt it, and I apologize for such sadness I have caused."
Earlier in the morning, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta had set an October trial date after Rojas declined the prosecution's offer of 15 years.
The Mills family left the courtroom in tears.
But then Rojas returned and the family regathered. He pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter for the crash he caused.
He was driving on U.S. 301 at Bloomingdale Avenue on July 1 last year when he tried to squeeze his truck between cars stopped at a light.
His Ford sideswiped both cars before hitting the Mills' Chrysler van, which was turning onto Bloomingdale Avenue on a green light.
The family was returning home to Riverview from a Brandon mall.
All six occupants, including four children, were taken to Tampa General Hospital. Lilly, who was sitting on the side of the van struck by the pickup, was removed from life support the next day.
Lilly's father, Paul Mills, 29 at the time of the accident, and her sister, Audrey Mills, 7, were seriously injured.
Her mother, Samantha Populin, 25, and passengers Sophia Mills, 2, and Kayla Mills, 10, suffered minor injuries.
"Paul and I lost our first child together in our loving family," Samantha Populin told Rojas on Thursday. "We live the unbearing reality we will never see her grow up. We are all victims of your crime. I find it almost impossible to find any joy in life without Lilly."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]