KRIS WERNOWSKY • KWERNOWSKY@PNJ.COM • OCTOBER 29, 2009
There are no winners.
Michael Steele, a young husband and a hard worker who rode his bike to work, is dead.
Christina Rivkin, a wife and mother of two with an alcohol problem unchecked by in-patient care and participation in a 12-step program, is going to state prison for the next 20 years, followed by 20 years of probation.
She had faced up to 50 years on DUI-manslaughter and charges of leaving the scene of a crash at a sentencing hearing Wednesday in Pensacola. She pleaded guilty in September.
Rivkin, 32, spent the evening of June 10 drinking vodka alone at her home. She had been sober for weeks. But in the midst of a separation from her husband, who took their children that evening, she was weak.
“I drank instead of calling my sponsor,” she told a judge at the sentencing.
Steele, 25, kissed his wife goodbye as he set out on his bicycle destined for the overnight shift stocking shelves at a Winn-Dixie.
Rivkin said she last remembered sitting on her chaise lounge at home. Her phone buzzed with a text message prompting her to leave. But she had drunk too much. By then, she had blacked out.
Without her purse, in her pajamas, she climbed into her sport utility vehicle and pulled away from the house.
Steele pedaled down Nine Mile Road near Brewster Street. No one will ever know if he heard or saw Rivkin’s GMC Yukon come up from behind. With a blood-alcohol level at more than three times Florida’s legal threshold, and sending a text message on her cell phone, Rivkin struck Steele.
Steele rolled over the hood of the SUV and off the passenger side. He sailed about 40 feet through the air. He died when he hit the pavement.
Rivkin didn’t notice.
She drove away, dragging the bicycle for several feet. She returned an hour later and almost barreled into the crime scene lit with the red and blue lights of cruisers.
The emblem from a Yukon found on the ground at the scene was a perfect fit for the one missing from Rivkin’s vehicle.
Prosecutor John Molchan played an audio recording taken from an investigator inside the ambulance where they drew Rivkin’s blood for testing. She cursed him. She didn’t care who he was. She didn’t care what he said.
Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Chris Nussbaumer explained to Rivkin what she had just done.
“You have taken the life of a human being,” he said. He directed her attention to a lifeless body covered with a sheet on the pavement.
Brittany Steele’s phone rang. It roused her from her sleep.
A man from Michael’s work said her husband never arrived. She worried that he had a flat tire on his bike and set out in the car they shared to find him.
As she drove along the path her husband took to work, she saw the commotion. She pulled into a nearby Waffle House. Her phone rang again. Her mother, Sandra Prather, came and picked her up and they went to find Michael. With trepidation, they returned to the scene filled with law enforcement.
“I told her that whatever you do, don’t get out of the car,” Prather said in court Wednesday. “I didn’t know that when I ran up to where he lay that he was dead.”
A law enforcement officer approached Steele and handed her a wallet, a set of keys and a lunch box.
He expressed sorrow for her loss.
As she advocated for the strongest sentence allowed, Steele said that Rivkin will always have her two children, no matter how long she stays in jail. She said they waited to have children because they wanted to be financially stable.
At 20, Brittany Steele is a widow.
She misses Michael’s smile. She misses the way he ran his fingers through her hair. She has nightmares. She is haunted by anxiety.
“I have a constant fear that everyone I love will leave me,” she told the judge Wednesday.
Rivkin stood there, her arms bound in silver shackles. She fixed her eyes to the ground.
“He was more than my husband, he was my best friend and my constant companion,” Steele said.
And then there’s Rivkin. Described as an all-American girl, a basketball standout and a college graduate who would never hurt a fly.
But her life was hampered by a longtime alcohol problem that ripped through her personality — Jekyll and Hyde, as Circuit Judge Frank Bell explained it.
She had a DUI in Ohio when she was only 18 and another more recent DUI in Escambia County. Her husband, an Escambia County sheriff’s deputy, had her committed five times during her drunken rages. She spent time in treatment recovery centers and outpatient detox centers. She tried everything.
“To say it did not succeed would be an understatement,” Molchan said.
Rivkin sobbed in the courtroom at the certain fate of prison. The burden of Michael Steele will remain with her as long as she breathes.
“I wish I could trade places with him,” she said.
In his 36 years as a judge in Escambia County, Bell said he’s dealt with case after case of alcohol-related deaths. He’s seen the Legislature heighten the penalties and yet, he said, the problem persists.
“It does not seem to affect irresponsible people,” he said. “They just don’t think they’re going to get caught.”
The judge, who seemed torn by what to do, said that this crash and this death destroyed many lives.
Rivkin is separated from her husband and her children. Prather lost a son-in-law who she described as a “light in their lives.” Steele lost the love of her life and will never get to experience giving birth to his child and a life of possibilities.
“Everybody loses,” Bell said.