A judge sentenced Soraya Villanueva to a little more than a month in jail — to include the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays — for her role in the 2012 death of Lake Highlands High School student Riley Rawlins. It was a compromise based on the prosecution’s request that the defendant spend the next five Christmases in jail. Villanueva also will serve a two-year probation and write letters about her experience to high school students.
Rawlins’ family — mom, Monica and stepfather Chris Buntenbah, along with sisters Lauren and Gillian — gathered in Judge Teresa Hawthorne’s Dallas courtroom for the sentencing hearing of Soraya Villanueva, who plead guilty to negligent homicide — she was traveling at twice the posted speed limit, without a driver’s license or insurance, when she struck and killed Riley, who was just weeks away from his 18th birthday.
Lake Highlands graduate Jeremy Fagan, now 19 and a student at Richland College, testified that Riley was his best friend. They frequently walked to the Sonic at Audelia and Royal in Lake Highlands. “We would meet there and then walk to each others’ houses, other friends’ houses.”
“How sad is it that a young man is dead because of your negligence. I am weighing first the requests of the family. I also am going to try to do what I think Riley would want. After hearing about him, I think he would worry, ‘Who will take care of her kids?’” —Judge Teresa Hawthorne
On January 7, 2012, the boys were leaving Sonic on foot when Villanueva barreled through the intersection, striking Rawlins. Other cars already had stopped for the light; witnesses at the time said Villanueva swerved from the middle to right lane, around a stopped car.
What Jeremy Fagan witnessed that day was awful, Monica Rawlins told us last year — when he arrived at the place in the road where Riley landed, he saw his friend covered in blood, most of his clothing ripped from his battered body.
“It is hard on me,” Fagan says. “But watching Riley’s family and the devastation they have felt since it happened … it hit all of us hard. I have watched everyone try to go on with their lives, but it is hard.”
Fagan — slight, bespectacled, soft-spoken — describes Riley as a “caring, free spirited, helpful friend who was there with a shoulder to cry on, there to take care of others, always putting others ahead of himself.”
By the time he finished his brief testimony, most of the courtroom was in tears, including defendant Villanueva, 22, who took the stand after Fagan.
“I am very sorry about your loss,” she says, tearfully, facing Rawlins’ family. “I am sorry that it was my fault. I wish that I could have taken his spot. I wanted to see you at the time but I was afraid of how you might react. I cannot imagine being in your position. All I could think is if my son were lying there.”
She says the accident has changed the way she conducts her life. “When I cross the street with my children, when I am with a friend who pulls out a cell phone while driving — I think of what happened and I say something.”
She tells the court that she is married with two young children — 5 years and 11 months — and that she and her husband rent a house and work fulltime, she in the fast-food industry. She is an American citizen (the judge asks twice).
The judge asks why she did not have a license, to which she answers, “I don’t know.” She says she knows she did everything wrong. She knows she is at fault. She adds that she believes the prosecution’s requests are “more than fair.”
Monica takes the stand and talks about her son. “Riley was such a caring person. His father died when he was young so we were very close. I tried to raise him right. I was so proud of him. When he died, so many kids came to me and told me how he had influenced their lives. When he was 18, he planned to sign all the paperwork to enlist in the Marines. He thought that was a way to help a lot of people and he was very excited about it.”
Monica tells the court that in addition to a two-year probation, she would like to see Villanueva spend days in jail. She and her attorney ask for 10 days over the Christmas holidays for the next five years.
Judge Hawthorne speaks sternly to Villanueva. “How sad is it that a young man is dead because of your negligence. I am weighing first the requests of the family. I also am going to try to do what I think Riley would want. After hearing about him, I think he would worry, ‘Who will take care of her kids?’
Hawthorne ordered Villanueva to turn herself in November 26 and remain incarcerated until January 2.
“You will miss all the holidays this year and know what it is like to go this amount of time without your children. Consider yourself lucky. When I first read about this case I thought I would give you six months.”
Hawthorne also ordered Villanueva to write her story, sometime in the next 120 days. After its approval, she will send the story to five high schools, in the hope that it might spare a young person tragedy like the one she caused.