Rodrigo Diaz, 22, was driving around with his girlfriend and two friends on Saturday night when he pulled into a driveway, thinking they had arrived at another friend’s house, his brother says. But instead he pulled into the driveway of Phillip Sailors, 69, who thought his home was being robbed, his lawyer says. Sailors then shot Diaz, according to the police report, citing what Sailors told officers at the scene. Diaz later died while in the intensive care unit.
“Basically, what happened is they were looking for one of my brother’s girlfriend’s friends,” says his brother David E. Diaz-Valencia, 23. “The guy came outside and my brother’s girlfriend said he was screaming, ‘Get off my property!’ and he shot into the air. My brother was backing out fast because he was scared and he rolled down the window to say he was sorry and he was not doing anything wrong. Then the guy shot him in his head.”
When officers arrived, Angie Rebolledo, Diaz’s girlfriend, had blood on her jeans, both arms and both hands as she was attempting to get a response from him and screamed frantically that her boyfriend had been shot, according to police.
Police arrested Sailors, of Lilburn, Georgia, who was booked into the Gwinnett County jail Sunday afternoon and charged with murder, according to the police report.
“At this point we have established probable cause to charge Mr. Sailors and when the investigation is complete, we will turn over the case file to the Gwinnett County District Attorneys Officer for processing,” Lilburn police Chief Bruce Hedley told NBC Latino. “To preserve the integrity of the case, I will not be releasing further information concerning this incident.”
Sailors’ lawyer says his client is a Vietnam veteran with no prior criminal history and thought he and his wife were about to be victims of a home invasion. “You have to understand this is a 69-year-old man who is a military veteran who has been honorably discharged,” Michael Puglise says. “He dedicated his life to community service, specifically the Christian Lay Ministry in Latin America.”
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Puglise adds that Sailors’ small, quiet, quaint town is now plagued with gang activity and the home next door was vandalized weeks before. He fired a warning shot and then when the car was accelerated to go in reverse he perceived it differently.
“He’s an elderly man, he perceived the car going towards his house, towards him.”
Asked about the contention that the victim rolled the window down and said sorry and he wasn’t doing anything wrong, Puglise said he wasn’t aware of the statement.
“Each person in the situation perceived things differently,” he says. “He most certainly did not hear anything.”
The victim’s brother, Diaz-Valencia, says Diaz was going to school to be an auto mechanic.
“He was a really happy person, he was a really good brother and he never had problems with anybody,” he says.
Diaz-Valencia says their father has been in the United States for more than 10 years and he and his brothers had been in the U.S. since 2006, coming from Medellín, Colombia. “My dad got us our papers and green card,” he says. “He had been here and he wanted to give us a better life.”
Diaz-Valencia, who goes to the Aviation Institute of Maintenance and is set to graduate in 9 weeks, says no one thinks his brother was gunned down because he was Hispanic.
“Nobody has said that,” he says. “We don’t think it’s about racism. Maybe the guy was angry, trying to protect his own property, but that’s why we have police.”
The funeral will most likely be on Thursday, Diaz-Valencia says.
He adds that he has no ill will towards the suspect, Sailors.
“I don’t want anything bad for him, just for him to be put in jail, he needs to pay for what he did,” he says.
“It’s not shooting first and asking second.”
NBC News producer Edgar Zuniga contributed to this story.