Two strikingly different portraits emerged Tuesday of the Lilburn resident charged with fatally shooting a 22-year-old who mistakenly pulled into his driveway.
According to his lawyer, Phillip Sailors was a frightened retiree who fired his .22 revolver at Rodrigo Diaz because he feared for his life.
But Diaz’s girlfriend painted a more menacing imagine of Sailors as a elderly vigilante who shot without asking questions. According to Angie Rebolledo, after he shot Diaz, the 69-year-old Vietnam vet pointed the gun at her.
The couple, accompanied by two other friends, had pulled into Sailors’ driveway by mistake, thinking it was the home of another friend. The group had planned to go ice skating.
Rebolledo, 17, was sitting next to her boyfriend in the front seat when he was struck in the side of the head. As she tended to Diaz, she said Sailors showed no remorse and offered no assistance.
“I want him to spend all his life in prison,” she said. “He is a crazy man.”
Sailors’ friends and family said instead that the retired BellSouth employee is a dedicated volunteer at his church and has been on mission trips to Panama and other Latin American countries.
Chris Anderson, pastor of Killian Hill Baptist Church in Lilburn, called Sailors “a good man who devoted his life to serving others, and his reputation in our community has been unblemished for over 40 years.”
Sailors and his wife, Brenda, were at their home on Hillcrest Road when they heard a “ruckus” in the driveway, said attorney Mike Puglise. A neighbor had recently been robbed and Sailors was wary when he spotted two people in his driveway getting into their car.
According to Puglise, Sailors grabbed his gun as he headed outside, firing a warning shot into the air. He said he fired at Diaz only after Diaz accelerated his car toward him.
“He thought he was going to get run down,” the lawyer said.
But the police report indicates that the vehicle was leaving Sailors’ property when Diaz was shot. Lilburn police said they found his red Mitsubishi at the end of the driveway. Diaz was slumped over the steering wheel, blood covering his face and, the incident report states, struggling to breathe.
The Colombia native who attended Gwinnett Tech and worked at his brother’s cargo shipping business was pronounced dead the following morning from a single bullet that entered the left side of his head and fragmented, causing severe brain damage.
Rebolledo said she was in love with Diaz, her boyfriend of seven months. Her father, Gregory Rebolledo, said Diaz was more responsible than most his age, eschewing gangs and partying and rarely drinking alcohol.
‘It is too sad,” Angie Rebolledo said. “He had only 22 years.”
His accused shooter remains in Gwinnett County jail, charged with malice murder.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said he knows little about the facts of this case but said, if deadly forced is used to protect yourself or your home “there has to be some reasonable belief that you’re about to suffer death or great bodily injury to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
“A lot of it’s going to depend on what happened out there,” Porter said. “I know 911 was called. But I don’t know who called it, or when.”
Lilburn Police Chief Bruce Hedley said two calls were placed to 911, one from a passenger in Diaz’s car and another from a neighbor who said they heard gunshots and screams.
Hedley said claims of heavy gang activity in the area are false.
“There’s a sampling of crime in their neighborhood, but no more than anywhere else,” he said.
Sailors declined, through his attorney, to speak with police Sunday morning. Puglise dismissed suggestions by some who’ve followed the case that Diaz’s race may have been a factor.
“[This was] not a question of color, not a question of race, this is a question of a tragic event dictated by fear,” he said.
Puglise said the Sailors family is grief-stricken and is lifting the family of Diaz up in prayer.
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