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Life sentence answers tears over I-75 death

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The judge gives no leniency to the man who dropped the concrete that killed a University of Alabama professor.

On the day her son was sentenced to life in prison, the mother of Juan "Toro" Cardenas approached the family of Julie Laible, the woman her 19-year-old killed when he dropped a chunk of concrete from an interstate overpass.

Niserata Cardenas knelt.

"Please, I'm begging you," she said in Spanish, asking forgiveness for her son.

Juan "Toro" Cardenas of Wimauma sat silently in a Manatee County courtroom, his family crying nearby, after a judge ordered him sent away for life for causing the death of the University of Alabama assistant professor.

"No one deserved to die in the manner in which she died," Circuit Judge Charles Williams said. "It is the worst, most horrendous injury that I have ever seen."

A jury last month convicted Cardenas of second-degree murder for dropping a 22-pound chunk of concrete the size of a bowling ball through the windshield of Laible's Honda Civic.

Dropped from the Erie Road overpass in northern Manatee County, the concrete crashed through the glass as Julie Catherine Laible, 32, drove south on Interstate 75 about 12:15 a.m. on March 28, 1999.

Williams handed down the sentence after a tear-filled hearing that lasted for more than two hours. Throughout the hearing, Laible's family sat behind prosecutors, crying, their arms around each other.

Ann Rodriguez, who named her 6-month-old daughter after her dead sister, said that despite the life sentence, she felt "still empty, still very empty."

"We're still grieving and dealing with the loss of Julie," said her brother, Phil Laible.

The state probation and parole office, which handles pre-sentence recommendations, called for Cardenas to go to prison for 40 years. Frank De La Grana, Cardenas' attorney, asked Williams for a minimal or suspended sentence, but did not specify an amount of time.

A person sentenced to life in prison in Florida is ineligible for parole or early release.

Cardenas and three friends drove around the night Laible died, throwing rocks at cars. As the night wore on, prosecutors said, the foursome switched from throwing golf-ball sized rocks to dropping heavy rocks and chunks of concrete onto the interstate.

Before Laible was killed, Cardenas damaged cars driving under the Mendoza Road and Ellenton-Gillette Road overpasses, said Assistant State Attorney Art Brown.

"We were throwing things for the thrills, not to see people get scared," Cardenas testified on Friday. "I never thought about how they (the drivers) would feel."

The movement from bridge to bridge gave Cardenas time to consider what he was doing, Williams said.

"It was as if God told him, "You need to stop' and he ignored it and he continued," Williams said.

Family and friends described Julie Laible as friendly, humorous and athletic. She was an advocate for minorities and the underprivileged, they said.

Her death not only hurt her immediate family, but her friends in Alabama and Illinois, where she was born, her father, Lynn Laible, said.

"It's indescribable," Lynn Laible said of his family's loss.

Cardenas' mother and sister said Juan Cardenas never before had been in trouble and was often helpful to family and friends, serving as a translator for his family and the neighbors.

Cardenas has a wife and a 5-month-old son he has never seen outside of jail.

"This was a huge shock to us all," said his sister, Guadelupe Cardenas. "There is already one life that is gone; let's not have it be two."

Brown, the assistant state attorney, said the crime took away the community's peace of mind because the act was so random and malevolent.

Jesus Dominguez, 17, who prosecutors think drove Cardenas and two friends to the Erie Road overpass and two other bridges that night, faces trial on a second-degree murder charge in July.

A third teenager, Noe Ramirez Jr., 16, of Ellenton, was convicted in August as a juvenile. He served six months of house arrest for throwing rocks at cars earlier in the evening.

A fourth teenager in the truck the night Laible died was not charged.