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Repeat drunken driver sentenced to 15-to-life in DUI murder of mother of twins

They stood up in the courtroom, one by one, as their cousin called their names, and embodied the gaping loss that Rosa Lua’s death left behind.

All but one of the extended Lua family nieces and nephews rose, from second-oldest Ashley, 16, to Niko, 10 — and finally to Lua’s own two children, 6-year-old twins Zane and Zara. Kaitlin, the eldest, is away at college.

In Sonoma County Superior Court on Tuesday for the sentencing of the repeat drunken driver who killed Lua, each wore a button with a photo of them and Lua and the number of their birth order, because as their ranks swelled, Lua jokingly began calling them by their digits.

In July, a jury convicted two-time DUI driver Fernando Leon-Aguilera, 33, of second-degree murder, under the legal argument that he knew the dangers of driving while impaired and disregarded them.

After an emotional hearing at which four Lua family members spoke and Leon-Aguilera read a remorseful statement saying he accepted responsibility, Judge Mark Urioste sentenced him to a prison term of 15 years to life.

“On March 21st, 2019, my world changed. Our world changed,” Ashley said of the morning they learned that their aunt had been killed hours earlier when Leon-Aguilera slammed his car into the back of hers at about 100 mph as both traveled south on Highway 101 just north of Santa Rosa at about 11 p.m.

Lua’s car flipped and struck a fence and a tree before coming to a stop in the shoulder. She died at the scene. She had left her children, then 3, at her mother’s home in Windsor that night.

Leon-Aguilera of Santa Rosa must serve about two-thirds of his sentence, minus credits for time already served, before he will become eligible for a parole hearing.

Ashley, whose mother is Lua’s sister, said she will miss her aunt’s laugh, the way she always spoke her mind and her big personality.

“I’m left with an ache in my heart and I don’t know how to fix it or if it will ever stop hurting,” she said.

“He’s had a first chance,” she said of Leon-Aguilera. “He’s had a second chance. Now all he needs is to be locked away for a long, long time.”

Leon-Aguilera was convicted of drunken driving in 2009 and 2011. As part of a DUI sentence, defendants are advised that if they drive impaired again and kill someone, they could face murder charges.

In a bit of incongruity, Urioste read the advisement to Leon-Aguilera again in court Tuesday.

All three of Lua’s siblings, Carlos Lua, Elena Elliott and Marisela Killian, spoke of their loss and their family’s tragically abrupt new makeup. Elliott and her husband, who have two teenagers of their own, volunteered to care for Zara and Zane. Lua became a single mother by choice.

“Neither 15 years, 20 years, nor a life sentence will bring Rosa back,” Killian said. “Our family wants to move forward. But what’s next?”

Two years after the collision, Lua’s belongings are still in storage, she said. They’ll wait until the family is emotionally ready to deal with it.

In the meantime, the family honors Lua in ways great and small, from taking care of her children to laying flowers at her grave after the hearing, to smiling at the strict healthy food rules she had for the twins that don’t get followed quite as stringently now.

Shortly after her death, Lua’s loved ones struggled with choosing a casket. They ultimately decided that since Lua loved baking, dressing up and decorating for holidays, they’d lay her to rest in a simple pine casket – which the kids could all embellish in “Rosa decorating style.”

Following the family’s statements, Leon-Aguilera stood, faced the packed courtroom — mostly the Lua family and about 15 of his family and friends — and read a lengthy apology for his actions.

He apologized for the pain and suffering he caused, for the Luas as well as his own family.

He said he accepted responsibility for his “poor judgment” and deciding to drive drunk again.

“The night of March 20, 2019, I made the worst decision of my life. I chose to drink and drive, and because of my actions that night, Rosa Lua lost her life. I cannot blame anyone but myself.

“I was selfish and the only thing I was thinking about was me,” he said. “The reality is, I should have known better.”

What hurts the most, he said, is knowing that he has deprived Zane and Zara of their mother: “That kills me inside.” He said he prays for Lua every day.

Leon-Aguilera pledged to remain sober and become an advocate against drunken driving. He said he’s already made headway in that with his fellow Sonoma County Jail inmates.

“I want to help others before they make the same mistakes I did,” he said.

Later, Lua’s older sister Elliott said she wanted to think Leon-Aguilera was being truthful.

“We live his mistake every day,” she said. “I want to believe it, but then again, I am a big believer in actions speak louder than words. So, I guess time will tell.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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