Mario Careaga is "selfless," a parade of witnesses told Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes on Monday. He is "responsible." He is "totally upstanding."
But he is also guilty of driving drunk and causing the death of Miami Heat dancer Nancy Lopez-Ruiz in September 2010, and for that, Holmes sentenced the insurance executive on Monday to 15 years in state prison.
"I wish it was me instead of Nancy," Careaga said, apologizing to the victim's family. "I just hope someday they [her family] can forgive me."
Careaga, 46, sat in court while more than a dozen character witnesses took the stand, each hoping to persuade Holmes to show leniency in sentencing Careaga, who was convicted in March of DUI manslaughter.
But Holmes went with the maximum allowable sentence for a DUI manslaughter conviction, citing Careaga's blood alcohol level of 0.24 percent as the basis for her decision. "The blood doesn't lie," she said. "That's a lot more than social drinking."
Careaga is in the Broward County Main Jail. Holmes set a bond of $100,000 for Careaga to go free while his lawyer, David Bogenschutz, appeals his conviction.
Among those who vouched for Careaga were: Kathleen Cannon, president and CEO of the United Way of Broward County; Dennis Haas, president and CEO of ARC Broward, a non-profit group that provides services and educational programs for people with autism, Down syndrome and other disorders; and Emilio Benitez, president and CEO of Childnet, the foster care management agency that serves Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Holmes also heard from Careaga's personal and professional friends, who described him as a generous donor and fundraiser for causes that affect children. Cannon said he was "a heart and soul volunteer," while Haas called him an "ARC Angel" whose efforts have allowed his organization to continue functioning while government support has dwindled in recent years.
Then Holmes heard from the victim's family, who reminded her of the future that was cut short when Lopez-Ruiz, 22, was killed on the westbound section of road where Sunrise Boulevard splits from Federal Highway.
"Nancy was a very sweet child," said her father, Armando Ruiz-Ibarguen. "From the time she was very little, we noticed how enthusiastic she was about dancing. We did everything we could to pursue her dream."
He asked Holmes to sentence Careaga to the maximum prison term.
"You killed my sister," said Meylin Lopez-Mauldin, looking directly at Careaga. "When you get out of prison and the air touches your skin, and you can reach the sky, think of my sister. She won't."
Another sister, Marjorie Lacy, told Careaga his apology would carry more weight if he would drop his appeal and serve his time. "If you're really sorry for what you did, you don't ask for another go at it," she said.
Later, when Bogenschutz made it clear he would appeal the conviction, Lacy said it proved the defendant was not genuinely sorry.
On the night of the accident, Lopez-Ruiz had stopped her motorcycle on a gore, a striped section of road not intended for vehicular travel. Careaga, who had been drinking at a party at The Galleria mall, slammed into the victim without warning. He told jurors he was trying to avoid a car that was riding recklessly behind his. But prosecutor Kristin MacKenzie convinced jurors that Careaga could have avoided the crash if he had not been drunk. Blood tests showed Careaga was driving with a 0.24 blood alcohol level, three times the legal limit.
Careaga admitted drinking, but denied consuming enough alcohol to reach such an extreme level of impairment.
Lopez-Ruiz had just secured a spot on the Miami Heat dance team, which performs during home games at the AmericanAirlines Arena. A college student originally from Tampa, she was due to begin performing publicly two weeks after her death.
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