The 24-year-old Carrabelle woman whose drunk driving led a crash two years ago that killed one of her passengers was sentenced last week to more than 10 years in state prison.
At an emotional hearing April 30 before Circuit Judge George Reynolds, Rebecca Ann Padowitz, 24, was given 125.4 months in state prison, with credit for 432 days spent in the county jail since the April 17, 2012 death, on her 22nd birthday, of Rona Lavon Hawkins, 28, of Sopchoppy in the fiery crash.
Padowitz also received three years’ probation, and was ordered to pay a $2,550 fine and $250 in attorney’s fees for the DUI- manslaughter count on which she was convicted March 13 by a jury of four men and two women.
Hawkins died at the scene of the one-car crash after his 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee, driven by Padowitz, spun out of control on U.S. 98 about 1.6 miles west of Lake Morality Road and about 0.8 miles east of the city of Carrabelle.
Hawkins, son of Sopchoppy mayor Colleen Skipper, was a star linebacker at Lincoln High School, from which he graduated in 2002.
Skipper did not attend the sentencing hearing, although a letter that she wrote was read aloud to the court by Hawkins’ sister.
In the letter, Skipper did not refer to Padowitz or express a view on a possible sentence. She wrote that she at first kept thinking her son had only been injured but once she learned the terrible news, she has struggled with coping with the devastating loss. She said the family, which includes Hawkins’ 10-year-old daughter, has searched for answers as to what happened that fateful night, and that while she did not want to endure a trial, Skipper said it has enabled her to find some solace in learning what happened.
Padowitz’s attorney, Brian Hill, of Port St. Joe, who was assigned the case as conflict counsel, had filed a motion to have Reynolds apply the non-binding recommendation of five years in prison and five years probation that was made by the pre-sentence investigator.
Reynolds chose not to go with a downward departure from the lengthier sentence, which was much closer to the maximum of 15 years that Padowitz could have received.
Informed sources say Padowitz had declined a plea agreement offered by the state’s attorney’s office of four years, and instead opted to go to trial.
In a tearful statement before the judge, she said that “I stand here today with the highest respect, your honor, also with faith, faith that God has put in your heart to have mercy on me.
“One life has tragically been lost, a nightmare that wakes me every day,” Padowitz said. “I just want to say I’m so truly sorry for what happened two years ago, the 17th of April, a day that was a celebration of my life but also a day that took another. I can’t change what happened that day, which took my best friend’s life and almost mine. I miss him so much and I know that pain will never go away, and now I’m faced with losing not only my life, but being a leader, role model and mother for my sweet baby girl, whom I hurt every day by being gone.
“Words can’t explain how much remorse I truly have about the whole situation,” she wrote, noting that upon her release she planned to move to South Florida and live with her aunt, Janice Simpson, who is the twin sister of Padowitz’s mother.
“I realize that I’m going to have to work twice as hard to make up the years I wasted making the wrong decisions,” she wrote. “I want to be someone my daughter can look up to and respect. I plan to start by making the choice to relocate where jobs, schools and public transportation are abundant.
“Since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve had a lot of time to think about who I was, who I am today and who I want to become, although I feel like I’ve grown both in terms of humility and my understanding of how my choices affect those around me,” Padowitz said. “I realize I still have a lot to learn and now all I can do is beg the courts to please have leniency on my sentencing today.”
On April 24, Padowitz wrote a letter to Reynolds asking for a 72-hour furlough from county jail so that she could visit her 4-year-old daughter and the rest of her family from Michigan and South Florida, before going off to state prison, but that request was denied.
Simpson wrote Reynolds a March 18 letter of support described her niece as “a very sweet girl that has made some horrible mistakes in her young life.” She described her as “as young mother who could still be a productive member of society, once she pays her debt to society.”
Simpson also expressed her pain for the victim’s family. “I can only imagine her (Hawkins’ mother) suffering,” she wrote. “I do hope that she is able to find peace.”
The judge also received a letter from Jessica Meloche, who described her sister as “one of the most generous and loyal people I’ve ever met. She loves her friends and family fiercely and both completely, oftentimes at her own peril.”
Meloche said Padowitz is not without faults. “She has poor judgment and wasn’t properly equipped to face the challenges that come along with adulthood,” she wrote. “She has so much to offer this world and I feel that justice would be served by giving a good person who did a terrible thing the chance to redeem herself by submitting to God’s will and having her to be a functioning member of society. No good can be done by allowing a young woman with so much potential to be locked away in an environment where that potential can never be realized.”
Padowitz’s father Glenn wrote a lengthy April 24 letter to Reynolds, in which he recounted his years living in Franklin County, and becoming a first responder and then after training at Gulf Coast State College, an emergency medical technician with the ambulance service, handling hundreds of calls per year.
“In seven years with the Carrabelle Fire Department, I have been responsible for saving several lives, and even brought back a few of my neighbors from death, and I returned them to their families,” he wrote.
Glenn Padowitz said that he had worked several motor vehicle mishaps “in that same place where the accident occurred. It is a dangerous curve with no shoulder and a four-to-six inch drop off the asphalt, causing cars to pull hard off the road, forcing the driver to overcorrect, ending up in the same place Becky died, with cars and trucks overturned.”
He said his daughter had received two fractured vertebra in her middle back from the crash, and fractured her upper bone in her right arm in several places.
“These are injuries that would continue to give her pain and paralysis for the rest of her life,” wrote Padowitz’s father.
The Padowitzs have been caring for their granddaughter, with whom they share custody with the girl’s father. He appealed for leniency. “Please don’t make (the granddaughter), Becky’s mother and I live without our loved ones,” he wrote. “I can’t see how the law sees this in (the granddaughter’s) best interest.”