NEW PORT RICHEY — Carlos Fernandez, who was just 15 when authorities say he and two friends raped an elderly woman in Port Richey, pleaded no contest Friday to charges that could send him to prison for life.
He entered an open plea, meaning he had no deal with prosecutors on a sentence. Circuit Judge Michael Andrews repeatedly asked Fernandez, now 16, if he understood the gravity of his decision. The judge will sentence him Oct. 1.
Before dawn on April 8, 2009, authorities say, Fernandez and his friends Luis Reyes, then 14, and Johnathan Rodriguez, then 20, broke into the 89-year-old woman's house in Palm Terrace Gardens in Port Richey.
She woke up and walked out of her bedroom, but the attackers dragged her back to her bed. Two of them held her down and pummeled her and used various objects to rape her, arrest reports say.
"I screamed in pain. It was excruciating pain. They put a pillow on my face, and they held it there real hard," the woman, who is less than 5 feet tall, said in a deposition last year. She is not being identified because of the nature of the crime.
The third intruder, she said, ransacked her house and demanded to know where her money was.
"I said, 'You want money? Get a job,' " she remembered telling him.
Fernandez rejected an offer from prosecutors of 30 years in prison, telling Andrews he understood his options and thought an open plea was in his best interest.
But then Fernandez asked the judge if he was eligible for work release, an unlikely privilege given the accusations against him.
"Do you understand what's happening here?" Andrews asked him.
"Yeah," Fernandez said.
"Do you understand the gravity of this? What I mean by that is, do you understand how serious this is?" Andrews asked.
Fernandez mumbled something inaudible.
He was in court only with his court-appointed attorney, Sara Sanchez. He told the judge his mother was supposed to visit him in the juvenile detention center this week but never did.
Sanchez called the mother from her cell phone and put Fernandez on with her so they could discuss the plea.
After the hearing, Sanchez said she thinks her client understands what he's facing.
"It's not a decision that he entered into lightly," she said. "We looked at every single possibility for him."
Juvenile authorities reported a quick downward spiral in his behavior. A January 2009 report, after he was arrested on burglary charges, depicted him as a polite kid who earned low grades in school but had friends and didn't use drugs or alcohol.
In April, after the woman was raped, authorities said Fernandez was frequently missing school, showing hostility and aggression and abusing drugs and alcohol.
"I think (he) was a petty thief and it went horribly wrong," Sanchez said.
She added: "He's a nice kid. I don't know what happened that night."
Fernandez pleaded no contest to two counts of sexual battery, burglary and home invasion robbery, all stemming from the night of the rape. He also pleaded to five other burglaries of businesses around west Pasco.
Reyes pleaded to the same charges last month. He also entered an open plea and faces the possibility of life in prison.
Rodriguez's case is pending.
Another teen, Sean Maus, pleaded guilty this year to burglary and grand theft of a motor vehicle in a related incident.
Authorities said Maus, then 16, had earned the trust of the elderly woman, helping her with chores around her home. But all the while, he was stealing from her. Maus helped the others gain access to the woman's home, authorities said, though he was not present the night she was raped and he was not charged in that attack.
Andrews sentenced Maus to 180 days in the Pasco County jail, followed by two years of house arrest, then 3 1/2 years of probation.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Sean Maus was a defendant in the April 2009 burglary and car theft of an 89-year-old woman in Port Richey. The woman was later the victim of a sexual assault — a separate case in which the state charged three of Maus' friends but not Maus himself. A previous version of this story was unclear about which case he was charged in.