As the man who shot her son was sentenced to 30 years behind bars, Victoria Coward turned to him and amid tears pledged to help him through his time in prison.
The emotional exchange took place in a fourth-floor courtroom on Church Street Tuesday morning, where Jose Fuentes Pillich was sentenced to a prison term of 40 years, suspended after 30, plus three years of probation.
Pillich accepted a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge for his role in the death of Tyler Coward in June 2007. That’s when Pillich shot Tyler in the head and chest near the sundial in Edgewood Park, killing him. See previous coverage here and here.
Despite that brutal crime, Tyler’s mom Victoria and other family members found their way to forgiveness. They shared those feelings—as well as feelings of grief and anger—with Pillich in the courtroom on Tuesday.
The exchange offered a modicum of closure for Tyler’s loved ones. But his mom said it’s not over for her.
“It’s not closing until I can finish helping Jose out,” she said after the sentencing. She promised to visit him in jail, to make sure he doesn’t get depressed, and to help him to stay close to his own young son so that another family is not destroyed by the killing.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Pillich was escorted into Room 4A of Superior Court wearing an oversized orange jumpsuit over a white thermal shirt and black shoes. His wrists were cuffed behind his back and his ankles chained together. As he bent his head forward to listen to a court translator whispering Spanish in his ear, a tattoo was visible on the back of his neck.
When Assistant State’s Attorney Stacey Haupt yielded the floor to Tyler’s friends and family, Coward was the first to speak.
She recalled good times with her son: playing the organ in church while he played the drums, the way he would come up and wish her goodnight every evening and tell her he loved her.
Coward acknowledged that her son wasn’t perfect. He had sold drugs, but he was turning his life around, she said. Days after he was killed, he was due to start a new job at UPS.
She said Tyler had told her he was going to die, that someone was trying to kill him. “He just said it was a Puerto Rican.” Coward said she still doesn’t know what the dispute was about.
The night of his death, Tyler bid her goodnight, told her he loved her, and then went out. Coward took an Ambien to help her sleep but woke up an hour later when she heard a gunshot. But she didn’t just hear it.
“That one gunshot, I felt it here,” Coward said, touching her chest. “It was a painful feeling that I’ve never felt in my life.”
When she felt and heard the shot, she immediately said, “Tyler,” then fell right back deeply asleep. She didn’t wake up again until detectives were pounding at her door. Her son had been killed.
“That was my first child,” Coward said, beginning to cry. “That was my only son!”
“Mr. Fuentes [Pillich] has a mother. He’s blessed. He will see her,” Coward said, still weeping. Tyler won’t see his mother, she said. “I won’t play drums with him.”
“I forgive you,” she said to Pillich. “My son, I didn’t raise him to hate anyone and I don’t hate you.”
“I heard you have a little son,” Coward said. You have to raise him right and don’t let him go down the path you’re on, she said.
Pillich hung his head.
“There’s no hatred in my heart,” Coward said. “I’m no better than you. ... If I can help you in any way, I will.” Coward said she is always willing to meet and talk with Pillich, at anytime.
After Coward, three of Tyler’s sisters spoke, along with his dad and a friend. Several shook with sobs as they read from prepared statements.
“I miss his laugh. I miss his smile. I would do anything just to hear his voice right now,” said Tyler’s sister, Tai’Ronda Levine (pictured), weeping.
Tyler’s dad, Winston Levine, said he doesn’t hate Pillich. “But I’ll never be the same. Never be the same.” He shook his head and was quiet for a long moment. He said he still can’t understand that his son is truly gone.
Before Judge Roland Fasano read the sentence, Pillich was given an opportunity to speak. Through an interpreter, he said, “I ask for their forgiveness. The only one that forgives is Christ. From down deep in my heart, I offer my apologies. I’ve been paying for this for some time, and I will pay for it for the rest of my sentence.”
Turning to look at Coward, Pillich said, “I ask for your forgiveness.”
Jusge Fasano decried the “senseless violence” in New Haven. It will continue to happen until families intervene and take the guns and break up the fights, he said.
As part of his sentence, Pillich is forbidden from contacting Tyler’s family except his mom. That exception came at Coward’s request.
After Pillich was led away, Tyler’s family gathered in the hallway outside the courtroom. Some stood stoically. Other sobbed violently. Everyone embraced.
Coward said that she had taken comfort from a moment of connection with her son’s killer. She saw him “peeking” over as she spoke to him. She said she could tell he is remorseful. “It took something off of me.”
In other ways, the sentencing brought back all the pain, Coward said. “I felt like I was back at the funeral.”
She said her heart goes out to Pillich’s son, who won’t have a chance to grow up with his dad. “All he’s going to know is bars. They’ll never get a chance to touch and feel.”
Coward said she plans to visit Pillich in prison. “As soon as he says it’s OK. Anytime I can get out there is fine.”
“I want to keep his son in his mind,” Coward said. “That’d be like a gift to me in honor of Tyler.”