TAMPA — A man who once expressed his grief with his fists did something surprising on Monday. He looked calmly into a news camera and explained that he is moving away from vigilante justice.
Vidal Mills, 36, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad player, had just stood before a Hillsborough County judge and agreed to a plea deal that will keep him out of prison in the October beating of a man at a Tampa McDonald's.
Mills dished out the beating — in view of security cameras — because he thought the man had killed his 17-year-old son, C.J. He insisted the man had it coming.
Nine months later, Mills took a softer tone, saying vengeance will not be a priority even if C.J.'s killer is never caught. He focuses, instead, on coaching football and parenting his remaining kids.
"Even if I don't get another lead," Mills said, "hopefully, my heart's at ease."
Was this the same unhinged man the St. Petersburg Times profiled in April? Then, Vidal Mills' father said he feared Mills was going to get killed trying to avenge C.J.'s death.
The earlier Vidal Mills rarely visited C.J.'s grave because he said it made him violent. The new Vidal Mills goes to the grave when he's angry, sits on the stone bench inscribed "Good Guy Gone," and cools down.
• • •
C.J. Mills was a sophomore at Jefferson High School, his father's alma mater. He was a popular student who wrote out goals and stared at them every morning. He wanted to play linebacker at the University of Miami and follow his father into the pros.
Coaches compared the honorable mention all-state player to his father. Both knocked players off their cleats.
Vidal Mills' pro career had been cut short by injuries and bad decisions. He trained his son to be better and showed him the pitfalls he made.
The relationship was severed April 25, 2007, when two men drove up to the Mills' Lincoln Gardens home and shot C.J. to death in the front yard.
Tampa police have named no suspects, saying only that the men drove a Chrysler Sebring. The driver was a light-skinned black man who wore a ball cap and red bandana over his face and carried a chrome handgun. The passenger was of medium complexion, wore a black bandana and carried a black gun.
C.J.'s cell phone and gold medallion vanished, police said.
Vidal Mills said his anger ate at him each day detectives failed to make an arrest. He investigated rumors and sat outside housing projects in the wee hours, waiting for drug dealers who might know something.
On Sept. 24, he double-parked outside a Tampa Verizon building. Another driver honked and yelled. Mills punched the 33-year-old with such force that two newspaper stands bowled over behind him, according to a police report. He was charged with battery.
Less than a month later, he was arrested in the McDonald's beating. This time, the victim was Fredrick Powell, 20.
Mills had heard rumors that Powell was bragging about killing C.J. When Mills' stepdaughter saw Powell at the McDonald's where she worked, she called her mother and Mills arrived in minutes.
Without a word, Mills punched Powell, wrapped him in a headlock and dragged him toward the door. He released Powell after police were on the way. Officers arrested Mills at home.
Powell has denied any involvement in C.J. Mills' death. Police don't consider him a suspect.
• • •
On Monday, both of Mills' battery cases were resolved in the no-contest plea arranged by his lawyer, Jaime Garcia. Mills wanted to spare his stepdaughter from testifying at a trial.
"I've got to look at it from the outside in," Mills said. "I have to do this for my family, as well."
He will serve nine months of probation, pay fees and fines and keep away from his victims. He must enroll in anger management classes and complete 25 hours of community service.
Hillsborough County Judge John Conrad said Mills can serve them at his new nonprofit organization, Creative Body Image Inc.
Mills, who coaches an indoor football team, started the nonprofit to mentor athletes seeking college scholarships. He has been negotiating with recreation centers and still needs funding.
The new program, his coaching, his son and daughter in Lakeland and his family in Tampa have helped him channel his energy, he said.
"How do I cope? Every day with my other kids," he said. "I keep them close. Every day, they call to make sure daddy's okay."
He said he doesn't believe detectives will make an arrest. Police haven't given up.
"It's been a very frustrating case for the detectives because they believe there's people in the community who know more about this case than they've revealed so far," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "We have tried to appeal to the public to try and break through the antisnitching culture. But at this time we still have unanswered questions."
In the meantime, Mills said he works on keeping self control.
On Sunday, he wrote down Luke 1:37 and transferred it to his cell phone as a reminder.
For nothing is impossible with God.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or(813) 226-3368.