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Victim's family forgives driver at DUI crash sentencing

By Karen Florin

Publication: theday.com

Published January 03. 2013 2:00PM   Updated February 21. 2013 2:15PM
Aaron Flaum, Norwich Bulletin pool photo
Lisette Oblitas-Cruz breaks down at her sentencing Thursday in New London Superior Court as she looks at a photograph of 77-year-old Montville businesswoman and civic leader Phyllis Porter. Oblitas-Cruz received a 4-year prison sentence for her involvement in the Sept. 20, 2009, motor vehicle accident in which Porter was fatally injured.

This article was edited to correct an error that said Lisette Oblitas-Cruz was a mother of two. She doesn't have any children.

All Phyllis Porter's family wanted to hear was, "I'm sorry," from the woman responsible for the 77-year-old businesswoman and civic leader's death in a Sept. 20, 2009, crash on Route 32.

For three years, they had waited for a sign of remorse from Lisette Oblitas-Cruz, 31 from Port Chester, N.Y.

But they didn't know that Oblitas-Cruz had approached her attorney, Eugene Riccio, several times about apologizing to Porter's relatives. He had advised against it because of the pending criminal and civil court proceedings.

On Thursday, Oblitas-Cruz finally had the chance to address Porter's family members as she was sentenced in New London Superior Court to 4½ years in prison for misconduct with a motor vehicle and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Pushing her long, dark hair away from her face and wiping away tears with a tissue, she turned to them and said that not a day goes by that she doesn't feel sorrow for her actions.

"That day, not only Ms. Porter died, but part of me died with her, and I will never be the same," Oblitas-Cruz said.

She said she prays for forgiveness every day and that she gladly would comply with the Porter family's request to keep a photo of their loved one with her in her prison cell at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution.

Then, with Judge Susan B. Handy's permission and as judicial marshals hovered nearby, members of Porter's family filed into the well of the courtroom one by one to hug Oblitas-Cruz.

"We forgive you," Jim Porter, one of Porter's five children, said. "We all make mistakes."

His sisters and other family members, sitting together in the front rows of the gallery, voiced their agreement and wept openly. Oblitas-Cruz's parents, sitting at the back of the courtroom, cried quietly. It was difficult for even the most seasoned court observers to remain dry-eyed.

"I've been sitting on the bench for 20 years," Handy said. "These cases are by far the most difficult cases for any judge."

Handy thanked Porter's family for their graciousness and forgiveness and told Oblitas-Cruz that she doesn't doubt her sincerity. She said a lengthy prison sentence is appropriate.

"There had been some indication of your drinking and of your being distracted on the phone," Handy said. "After the accident, you drove off. Not far, but you did."

According to state police, Oblitas-Cruz was driving a Nissan XTerra on Route 32 near the intersection with Route 2A when her car struck a Toyota Sienna. The Sienna then crossed into the northbound lane and into the path of a Hyundai Elantra driven by Porter, who lived at 370 Hamilton Ave., Norwich.

Porter was taken to The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, then air lifted to Hartford Hospital where she died later as a result of her injuries. Her family members said they came from "all parts of the world" to be at Porter's bedside and that she was able to respond to them as they "sang her to Heaven," even though she had a broken neck. They said Porter was a loving woman who would have wanted them to forgive the woman who had caused her death.

Porter had owned and operated Porter's Florists in Montville for 50 years. She belonged to many groups, including the Montville Historical Society and the Chamber of Commerce, and was a passionate musician who loved to visit and perform at nursing homes.

Her daughter, Carol Moran, handed Oblitas-Cruz's attorney a picture of Porter with the request that she take it back to her prison cell.

"My family is not a (vengeful) family," Moran said. One of the four sister's main concerns, upon learning that Oblitas-Cruz was going to prison, was for the welfare of Oblitas-Cruz's young children, she said.

"Please promise me today that you will never, ever get into a car again and take a drink as long as you live," Moran said.

State police initially had charged Oblitas-Cruz with using a cellphone while driving, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and evading responsibility.

She initially posted bond, but has been incarcerated since June 2010, when the state upgraded the charges to second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle. She will get credit for time served.

Prosecutor Thomas DeLillo said Oblitas-Cruz's blood alcohol level at the time of the crash is unknown since she refused a chemical test. He said that after years of pretrial discussions and consultation with Porter's family, the parties reached a plea agreement involving the reduced charges of misconduct with a motor vehicle and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. DeLillo said two others who were injured in the crash were aware of the agreement.

The judge said she normally would impose a period of probation in such cases, but that it was not necessary since Oblitas-Cruz, a Peruvian native who is not a United States citizen, is likely to be deported as the result of her conviction.

According to state police, Oblitas-Cruz had just left Mohegan Sun when the crash occurred. A casino official told The Day that she had arrived at Mohegan Sun early that morning after the casino stopped serving alcohol. Investigators tracked her movements on surveillance tapes and said she was not served drinks by any members of the staff, casino officials have said.

Attorney M. John Strafaci said a civil lawsuit brought against Mohegan Sun by Porter's estate is pending. He said the suit has been on hold until the criminal case was resolved but that depositions and other pretrial proceedings can move forward.

k.florin@theday.com

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