NEW PORT RICHEY — Luis Reyes was a 14-year-old ninth-grader when, authorities say, he broke into the home of an 89-year-old woman with two friends and repeatedly raped her. They beat her 85-pound body and held a pillow over her face, authorities say, hoping she'd suffocate.
"Is she dead yet?" she heard one of them say.
Reyes, now 16, is facing a maximum of life in prison on the stack of charges stemming from that April 2009 incident. Prosecutors offered him 30 years in prison in exchange for a plea.
Instead, Reyes came to court Friday and put his fate in the hands of a judge. He entered an open plea of no contest, rejecting the deal from prosecutors over the advice of his attorney.
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews now has several options. He could follow state guidelines that call for 23 years in prison. He could sentence Reyes as a juvenile, sending him to a maximum security facility for kids. He could sentence Reyes as an adult but give him "youthful offender" treatment that would cap his prison time at six years.
"I don't know what I will do at this moment," Andrews told the shackled teen.
But in accepting the plea, the judge repeatedly warned Reyes and his mother that a life sentence is on the table.
"Are you certain and is he certain that you want to leave it in my hands?" Andrews asked Reyes' mother, Aida Santiago.
Yes, Santiago told him.
The case is set for a status hearing Aug. 27; the sentencing will be scheduled sometime after that.
Santiago said she couldn't bring herself to urge her son to accept the 30 years. She wondered what he would do when he got out as a man who came of age behind prison walls.
"I might not be around," she said in an interview after the hearing.
Santiago said she moved her family from Massachusetts to Port Richey to escape a dangerous area, and that Reyes thrived for a while.
He was an honor student who played football and basketball. But around January of last year — the time of Reyes' first burglary arrest — he changed.
"He was always angry," Santiago said.
A juvenile justice assessment reported that he had poor grades, problems with teachers, and a drug and alcohol habit.
After midnight on April 8, 2009, authorities say Reyes, his friend Carlos Fernandez, then 15, and Johnathan Rodriguez, who was 20 and like a brother to Reyes, broke into the woman's house in Palm Terrace Gardens in Port Richey. She woke up and came out of her bedroom, but the attackers dragged her back in, held her down on her bed and used various objects to rape her, arrest reports say.
"I screamed in pain," the victim said in a deposition last September. "It was excruciating pain. They put a pillow on my face, and they held it there real hard."
Her identity is being withheld because of the nature of the crime. She was not in court Friday.
Both Rodriguez's and Fernandez's cases are pending. Geoff Cox, the attorney for Rodriguez, said his client will probably take a plea deal.
A fourth defendant, 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 pilfering possessions and cash from her house. Maus' relationship with the woman helped the others gain access to her home, authorities said, though Maus was not present the night the woman was raped.
Andrews sentenced Maus to 180 days in the Pasco County jail, followed by two years of house arrest and then 31/2 years of probation.
Reyes pleaded no contest Friday 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 various businesses around west Pasco.
Prosecutors dropped an attempted murder charge.
His attorney, Keith Hammond, said he reserved the right to appeal if Andrews gives Reyes a life sentence, linking the case to a nationwide movement examining whether juveniles should be given life sentences on noncapital crimes.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at (727) 869-6245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.