Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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."