DADE CITY — For the first time since a typical drive home from school two years ago turned deadly, Adam Sanford stood and faced the families of his victims.
"I'm sorry," the 6-foot-2, 19-year-old said through sobs in court. "I pay for this every single day. There's not a day that goes by …
"I'd rather it be me. I swear to God."
Authorities say Sanford was driving an Isuzu Trooper with two friends on Aug. 29, 2007, leaving Wesley Chapel High School just two weeks into their senior year. After turning onto Curley Road, he passed a car in the grassy right shoulder, steered back onto the road and overcorrected, flipping the SUV.
Matthew Laidley died. He was 17, a huge New York Yankees fan who wanted to be an engineer. Katelin Kaiser was gravely injured. She was 17 then, too, and has since endured numerous surgeries and therapy and lives with constant pain.
Sanford faced up to 35 years in prison on charges of vehicular homicide, manslaughter by culpable negligence and reckless driving with serious bodily injury. State sentencing guidelines said he should go to prison for at least 10 years though he had no prior criminal record and a clean driving history.
Set to face trial next week, Sanford instead pleaded guilty Thursday and left his fate up to Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa.
The judge first heard from Kaiser, who despite her hardships is attending school at the University of South Florida and hopes to become a rehabilitation doctor.
"My whole life is completely changed," Kaiser, now 19, said. "I died that day, too. I'm not the same person."
Laidley's mother, Maria, said that in two years she had never heard Sanford express any remorse for her son's death. Restrictions in the legal system prevent defendants from contacting victims' families while the case is still pending.
"The pain that we've lived through, no parent should live through," she said. "It was magnified by the silence."
After hearing Sanford's words though, she said she wanted something positive to come from the tragedy.
"Make it an iconic case. Make it a case where we don't take these things lightly," she said, urging the judge to impose community service in which Sanford would tell his story to other teen drivers.
Sanford's parents spoke too.
"I just wanted to say that I have been grieving for your son and your daughter since the day this happened," said Carol Knight, Adam's mother. "I've cried and cried and cried."
The judge said he agonized over what to do in the case.
"It is unimaginably difficult to sentence a good person who does something so disastrously reckless with no intent," Siracusa said.
In the end, he imposed a sentence that included punishment, memorials and community service.
Sanford went away in handcuffs and will spend the next six months in the Pasco County jail. After that, he'll serve 10 years of probation and give speeches every month to high school students about his experience. During those 10 years, he'll report to jail for the weekend on the anniversary of the crash.
He'll also carry a picture or other memento of Laidley and Kaiser with him everywhere he goes.
Afterward the hearing ended, Maria Laidley pondered a suggestion from the judge: that she speak alongside Sanford about the impact of reckless driving.
"I think I will," she said. "Matthew would want me to."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.