A St. Paul man pleaded guilty Monday to shooting and wounding a school bus driver earlier this year on a snowy Minneapolis freeway, leaving the driver deaf in his left ear and unable to return to work because of nerve damage to his hand.
Kenneth Lilly, 32, waived his self-defense claims and entered the plea to first-degree assault in a deal that has him facing three to eight years in prison. One of his attorneys, Thomas Plunkett, said defense attorneys will argue for the low end of the range when Lilly is sentenced on Oct. 31.
The original counts against Lilly — second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault — will be dismissed as part of the plea deal. Lilly shot five times at Thomas Benson, who was 78 at the time, on Feb. 5 just south of downtown.
Benson was grazed in the head by one bullet and hit in the arm by another. An elementary school student on the Minneapolis School District bus was physically unharmed.
"Unfortunately, because of his hand injury he will not be able to work as a bus driver again," said Benson's attorney, James Sheehy. "The entire incident and the injuries have had a very significant and detrimental impact on Mr. Benson's life."
Benson was not present in court.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Lilly recounted how he was driving near the merging of Interstates 94 and 35W when the small school bus bumped into his vehicle. Under questioning by Plunkett, he said he stopped his car and exited in order to exchange information with Benson.
"The bus moved forward and struck me," Lilly said.
Plunkett asked Lilly how he reacted.
"I drew and discharged my weapon," Lilly said, adding that the 9-millimeter handgun was on his belt because of his work as a security guard.
Plunkett noted that the injuries caused Benson to go deaf in one ear and suffer "protracted tingling."
Senior Hennepin County Attorney Dan Allard followed up with Lilly, asking if the bus struck him at "fairly low speed."
"I could say so, yes," Lilly said.
Allard noted that the bus did not knock him down. Lilly, whose attorneys had given the court notice early on that he would claim self-defense, agreed. Lilly also acknowledged Monday that he was waiving his self-defense claim.
Allard asked Lilly if he learned afterward that a young child was on the bus at the time of the shooting.
"That's something I'm truly sorry for," Lilly said.
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office issued a statement after the hearing noting that Benson was trying to merge in a snowstorm when the school bus "scraped" Lilly's car and that Benson was not aware of the contact.
"Mr. Benson did not think Mr. Lilly's purported self-defense had any merit," Sheehy told the Star Tribune after Monday's hearing. "He is glad Mr. Lilly pleaded guilty."
Benson had to give up the job he loved because of nerve damage, Sheehy said.
"Consequently, his left hand is numb most of the day and he cannot grip properly with it," Sheehy said. "He also has scars from the bullet wounds."
According to the criminal complaint, after the impact Lilly stopped his car and tried to get on, but the bus driver refused, telling him there was a child on board.
Lilly, who was wearing his security guard uniform, pulled a handgun from his holster and fired at the bus windshield.
Lilly called 911 from the scene and reported that he got in a crash with the bus, pulled over and got out of his vehicle.
"I tried to get his information," Lilly told the dispatcher. "A self-defense incident occurred because he tried to run me over. So shots have been fired."
County Attorney Mike Freeman at the time called Lilly's actions "outrageous" and said it was "sheer luck" that no one was killed.
Lilly also was involved in a previous shooting. In 2015, prosecutors found Lilly "legally justified" when he shot and killed 16-year-old Lavauntai Broadbent during a robbery attempt at a small park at the west end of St. Paul's Summit Avenue. Broadbent brandished a handgun when Lilly, who had a permit to carry, pulled out his own gun and shot him.
Lilly, Plunkett and Lilly's other attorney, Charles Clippert, declined to comment after Monday's hearing. Lilly remains out of custody on bond.
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