ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A St. Augustine man who was sentenced Friday to 41 years in prison for a deadly wrong-way DUI crash nearly two years ago apologized during his sentencing hearing, saying he will never forget what happened that night.
Troopers say 33-year-old Michael Rhein was drunk when he crashed into a truck the day after Christmas in 2020.
Last month, Rhein pleaded no contest to three counts of vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of Raquel Haralambou’s unborn twin girls and Haralambou’s younger brother, who was visiting from Ohio when the crash happened.
“If I could give my life to get theirs back, I would in a second,” Rhein said through tears Friday as he read a statement in court. “I ask God every day, Why was I not taken instead of the ones that were?”
Judge R. Lee Smith said he believed Rhein’s emotion was genuine, but that didn’t change what happened.
“I’ve wrestled with what’s the right thing to do,” Smith said. “On the one hand, there are three people who are dead, who will never breathe again -- two babies who never got to take a single breath. I have no question Mr. Rhein that you are suffering anguish with this too. I don’t doubt that. I’ve seen it on your face at every hearing.”
Rhein was facing up to 45 years in prison. Court records show about a dozen people sent the judge character reference letters, asking for leniency.
“I will work the rest of my life spreading awareness and educating people,” Rhein said during the sentencing hearing. “I hate myself every day for the void I’ve left.”
That void also includes Raquel Haralambou’s ability to have more children. She spent two months in the ICU, undergoing numerous surgeries, and doctors had to revive her twice. They had no choice but to give her a full hysterectomy.
Haralambou and her family spoke during Friday’s sentencing.
“Something I have to get off my heart is letting you know that I don’t hate you. I want to, but I can’t because God has told me to forgive, but I will never forget,” Haralambou said. “I want him to hear my voice and realize how that one night meant the world to us. And how you stripped so much away from us. I ask you to take into account that the years Michael serves in prison will be shorter than any of their lives.”
Smith called the statements “haunting.”
“No matter how long I put you in prison, you are never going to escape the haunting memories of this incident and the haunting, impactful words that were made in the statements here today, and that’s a prison in and of itself too,” Smith told Rhein.
According to troopers, Rhein’s blood alcohol level was more than two times the legal limit when he barreled down State Road 207 in his pickup truck the day after Christmas with no headlights on and slammed into Haralambou and her family head-on.
They had just finished seeing Christmas lights in St. Augustine.
“You could be doing the right thing the whole time, and because of somebody doing something, in the blink of an eye, or someone thinking one thing is OK and it’s not, changed our lives forever,” Haralambou told News4JAX before Friday’s sentencing.
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Raquel’s husband, Daniel, who was driving their truck, and her sister-in-law, Brittany, were also hurt in the crash.
The Haralambous’ daughter, who is now 4, miraculously walked away from the crash with just a scratch on her forehead.
“It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to deal with,” Daniel Haralambou said before the hearing. “I feel like I wanted to wake up from a nightmare. When you look at the car and see how demolished it was, you don’t know who’s going to make it and who’s not going to make it.”
Rhein was sentenced to 41 years on nine total charges, including deadly DUI, vehicular homicide and reckless driving.
Rhein now has 30 days to appeal his sentence.
There’s also a civil suit pending in the case.