For the 19 years he was alive, Nicholas Acosta was the apple of his father’s eye. He was the child who Maximino Acosta called “mini-me” and brought to work with him to show off. The father beamed with pride when the boy gave his client stock tips and correctly predicted the rise of the online giant Amazon.
Alexander Gillis’ early ride through life was much less idyllic, born as he was to a former drug addict with full blown AIDS. But he still had the love and support of his uncle, Andrew, and other relatives who made good on their promise to his mother, who begged them to take care of him after she died.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath paused to consider it all Wednesday, moments before he sentenced Gillis to 48 years in prison for shooting Acosta to death on Dec. 29, 2015, when Gillis and four others robbed Acosta, a Florida Atlantic University student, of a half-pound of marijuana at an apartment near the school’s Boca Raton campus.
Colbath’s decision came at the end of an emotional sentencing hearing where Gillis came in willing to plead guilty to second-degree murder and leave his sentence in Colbath’s hands. Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott said Gillis’ cooperation with prosecutors led him to recommend a 60-year sentence to Colbath, while defense attorney Zena Duncan told the judge that the person most responsible for Aosta’s death was the mastermind of the robbery — who is now serving a 35-year sentence.
In the end, the judge split the difference.
“There’s a dead body here, a young man lost his life. There’s no way to get around that,” Colbath said. “Yes, he was selling marijuana at the time. But he certainly didn’t deserve that.”
Gilles was one of four men arrested in Acosta’s death. They were originally charged with first-degree murder, burglary and robbery with a firearm. Scott said Gillis was the one who shot Acosta in Acosta’s kitchen at the University Park apartments, firing three shots at him after the two had a brief struggle. Two of the bullets hit Acosta in the torso, and he died a short time later.
Also charged with Acosta’s murder were Rodrick Woods, 24, Donovan Henry, 20, and Gillis’ 24-year-old cousin, Adonis. A fifth suspect has not been arrested or identified publicly. Scott told Colbath that the investigation is still active.
Woods pleaded guilty in July to a lesser charge of second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against the other men. He is still awaiting sentencing.
In December, a jury found Henry guilty of second-degree murder, armed robbery and armed burglary, rejecting his claims that the other men forced him to participate in the robbery. Sentenced to 35 years in prison, he was a freshman majoring in engineering and a member the university’s men’s soccer team at the time of his arrest. Prosecutors argued he was the mastermind behind the robbery.
Adonis Gillis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges this summer and is also awaiting sentencing, although he’s already agreed to serve a minimum of 20 years.
Acosta gave the access code to Henry and Woods to enter the gated University Park apartments after they set up a meeting with him by saying they wanted to buy marijuana. Once Henry was in, he jiggled the handle to signal the other men, who were in ski masks and hooded sweatshirts, to rush in. Police say Alexander Gillis shot Acosta twice after ordering him and his girlfriend to the ground.
The group took about a half pound of marijuana and fled from the scene, a Boca Raton police detective testified Wednesday.
Gillis sat silently and listened as Maximino Acosta and his daughter, Nicholas’ older sister, Alisa Delaney, made tearful pleas to the judge and asked for a life sentence for Gilles. When it came time for him to speak, he said he didn’t have the heart to plead for anything on his own behalf.
“I can’t say give me back to my family because I took someone else’s family member from them,” Gillis told the judge. “I don’t understand my own actions to be honest with you.”
Under the term of Gillis’ sentence, the 24-year-old will have to serve the first 25 years of his sentence day for day before he is eligible to start earning time off for good behavior.
Andrew Gillis left the courtroom before Colbath pronounced his nephew’s sentence. The Acostas stayed behind, still wiping tears from their eyes from Delaney’s recounting on her older sister’s behalf of the last time they all had dinner as a family.
The oldest sister had complained that the food had taken a long time to come. Maximino Acosta smiled in response, she recalled, and said he didn’t care. He was just so happy that the were all together.
It was the last time they all saw Nicholas.
“He had a very kind heart,” Maximino Acosta said. “If anything, he got himself in a position he shouldn’t have been in, but he was not given a second chance to get back on track. He didn’t have a chance for us to come in here and ask you for another chance. I’m never going to see my son again.”