Raleigh man pleads guilty to fatal 2012 hit-and-run

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2013 

— Joseph Rechel rose in a crowded Wake County courtroom on Monday and looked at the family of the woman he hit with his pickup truck a year ago on New Year’s Day.

Melissa Sue Johnson, according to prosecutors, was crossing South Saunders Street at about 7:15 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2012. The 32-year-old woman, who died at the scene, had been drinking that day, according to Jason Waller, an assistant district attorney in Wake County. She was on her way to a South Saunders convenience store several blocks from her Summit Avenue home, her family said.

Rechel, 56, was heading southbound on South Saunders Street in his Ford Ranger when, prosecutors and witnesses said, Johnson stepped out into the road from the median.

Instead of stopping, though, Rechel kept going, keeping his involvement in the accident from police, his family and others for six days.

On Monday, Rechel pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run for leaving the scene of the accident. He was sentenced to 60 days in prison and at least 16 months of supervised probation. While on probation, he is to serve a day in jail on the anniversary of the accident and on Johnson’s birthday.

“I live with this every day,” Rechel told Johnson’s family and friends in court. “I pray the Lord to comfort you in your pain and in your sorrow, in your anguish. If there was any way I could take this back I would.”

Johnson’s friends and family said the past year has been difficult for them, wondering if Johnson might have lived if Rechel had stayed at the scene that night.

Johnson grew up in Clayton, went to high school there and later attended classes in Smithfield, hoping to obtain a high school equivalency certificate. She worked for a stint in a Clayton coffee shop, her mother said, fixing lattes and other hot drinks.

The family moved to Raleigh from Clayton during the past decade.

On the night of the wreck, Johnson was upbeat and looking forward to a brighter future, her friends said Monday.

“Melissa was a simple person,” said Jack Styles, a friend. “She hoped for a better future, and she had plans for 2012. I think 2012 would have been her year.”

Her family told Rechel he should have stopped.

Prosecutors said Rechel had been drinking that evening, though his attorney said there was no evidence.

Rechel panicked, according to his attorney William Webb.

But the flaw in his character exhibited that night was not in keeping with the man described as a good employee, a friend who reached out to others and a new father who reveled in parenthood, Webb argued before Judge Paul Ridgeway.

“Your honor, you just see someone who acted out of fear,” Webb said, adding that Johnson died at the scene.

Had Rechel stopped, Webb said, her injuries were such that she still would have been unlikely to survive.

Mitch Hazouri, owner of Mitch’s Tavern on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, testified as a character witness for Rechel.

Rechel has worked as a roofer, a cabinet-maker, a musician and a restaurant worker. Many of his employers testified that he was a reliable employee who would go out of his way to help others.

As a musician he was always willing to put on benefit concerts.

Rechel worked as a cook at Mitch’s Tavern for six years, then returned after the accident, seeking work again.

“I was fully aware of Joe’s circumstances when he came to me,” Hazouri told the judge. “I have a high regard for him as an individual.”

Rechel became a father at age 53 and works hard to provide for his daughter and wife, his friends said. His father abandoned him when he was a boy, but he is a doting parent.

Rechel makes mud puddles for his daughter to jump in, friends testified. He bought her a ukulele for Christmas so he could teach her music, but she prefers “the big guitar,” friends testified.

Friends and former employers urged the judge to hand down a sentence that did not include jail time. Rechel, who makes $12 an hour, is the sole provider for his wife and child.

“His income is crucial,” Webb said.

Rechel cooperated with police, his attorney said, after a body-shop owner pointed investigators toward him six days after the accident. Rechel had gone to a Wake County body shop looking for a new grill for his truck.

Ridgeway said he tried to strike a balance with his sentence.

“I think everyone in this courtroom recognizes how difficult this is for the court,” Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway said Rechel was not charged with killing Johnson, he was accused of leaving the scene of the accident.

He sentenced him to 60 days in jail — 10 days for each of the six days he kept the family on edge, wondering what had happened to Johnson.

“There’s nothing that we’re going to do here today that is going to bring back Melissa or solve the grief you have,” Ridgeway said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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