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Raleigh man pleads guilty in New Year's Day 2012 hit-and-run

Posted February 4, 2013

— A Raleigh man pleaded guilty Monday to hitting a woman with his pickup truck more than a year ago and then leaving the scene.

Melissa Johnson, 32, was crossing South Saunders Street on the evening of Jan. 1, 2012, when Joseph Daniel Rechel hit her with his Ford Ranger and fled the scene.

Rechel, 56, pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run and was given a suspended sentence of 16 to 29 months, plus 60 days active prison time and an extra four days in jail on the second anniversary of the crash.

"I live with this every day," Rechel told Johnson's family during a hearing Monday. "I pray the Lord to comfort you in your pain and in your sorrow. If there was any way to take it back, I would."

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jason Waller said Johnson had been drinking that evening and stepped out of the median into the road when Rechel hit her.

Waller said that Rechel hadn't been speeding and, had he not left the scene, he likely would not have been charged.

Rechel was arrested five days later, after investigators received a call from a salvage yard about a man looking for a grill for his damaged truck.

Waller said not only did Rechel try to fix the truck to cover up the accident, he also lied about the damage, saying a beer truck at a Food Lion backed into him.

It was only under police interrogation that Rechel confessed to the crime and said he knew she was dead when he left the scene.

"That's the tragedy," Waller said.

Melissa Johnson Raleigh man pleads guilty in 2012 hit-and-run

Will Webb, Rechel's attorney, said his client was stressed, concerned for his family and panicked and "stewed in his worry."

"He made a terrible decision in an unavoidable accident," Waller said.

In addition to his active prison sentence, Rechel was sentenced to two years of supervised probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway called the sentence difficult for the court, because Rechel had no prior criminal record.

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

"It was all over the news, and he had six days to come forward, and he didn't," her friend, Jack Styles, said.

Styles, who had known Johnson for 12 years, said that, on the day she died, she was "upbeat and happy" and was looking forward to the future.

"Melissa was a simple person," he said. "She hoped for a better future, and she had plans for 2012. I think 2012 would have been her year."

"We've lost a very precious person on our life," Johnson's aunt, Teri Shaw, said. "You should have stopped. That's all there is to it."


This story is closed for comments.

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  • OneLove Feb 5, 2013


  • LocalYokel Feb 5, 2013

    I would like to know how speeding, hit-n-run, and lying is an "...unavoidable accident"? I guess only someone paid to lie can state something like that.

    64 days in jail for murderous driving. That's not a bad deal for Rechel.

    also, I'm pretty sure there is an aggressive driver with a red truck in the Google reference map street view. More documentation of bad driving problems we have in Raleigh.

  • Wendellcatlover Feb 4, 2013

    "Also, he cared enough about his truck to get it repaired but not enough about the woman to go and report this. Big UNC Fan

    I think he was trying to fix his truck to hide the fact that he had been in a fatal accident - not because he cared about fixing it necessarily.

  • Wendellcatlover Feb 4, 2013

    "stewed in his worry. He made a terrible decision in an unavoidable accident," Waller said.

    It may have been an unavoidable accident, but hit and run is a crime. Judges - quit coddling these lawbreakers, and hand down some sentences that actually mean something!!! There have been ssssoooooo many hit and runs lately, and sorry, but I don't think this sentence will do anything to deter the next one!

  • sunshine1040 Feb 4, 2013

    The problem is he Lives with it every day she does not get that chance

  • babbleon Feb 4, 2013

    re: Drinking and driving:

    Way to make up a lie out of nothing. Mr. Rechel has no prior record, Ms. Johnson was the one who had been drinking and stepped out in front of his truck.

    It is actually possible to drive around New Years without drinking, and pedestrians / bicyclists can surprise you.

    He shouldn't have left, he should have tried to help Ms. Johnson, but he panicked, and that doesn't require alcohol.

    From my own experience: LEOs can actually be hugely helpful in accidents. If you have an accident, call 911. It may save a life.

  • marciamal1 Feb 4, 2013

    Again, we have drinkers in the news - stay away from the bottle and the wheel!!! Another life lost!! terrible - my thoughts and prayers are for her family. Terrible!!!

  • 75Tarheel Feb 4, 2013

    "Obviously he left the scene cause he was drinking and didn't want to get felony death by motor vehicle"

    "obviously"? The article stated that Ms. Johnson was drinking, not Mr. Rechel

    I would tend to agree that he "probably" was drinking. His actions AND inaction screams out: "I was drinking, I paniced, I kept my mouth shut and let her die in the street, I didn't come forward as any decent person would, and I went to the junkyard to get my truck fixed so I wouldn't get caught because I thought more of the truck than the lady I left lying in the street."

    So, it sounds about right to me "He was drinking and driving and killed someone."

  • sc2005 Feb 4, 2013


    "Obviously he left the scene cause he was drinking and didn't want to get felony death by motor vehicle"

    "obviously"? The article stated that Ms. Johnson was drinking, not Mr. Rechel

  • Jimmytwotimes Feb 4, 2013

    Obviously he left the scene cause he was drinking and didn't want to get felony death by motor vehicle.