Drunken driver accepts plea deal in fatal '07 crash

August 31, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Michael Penachio was accused of driving drunk and leaving the scene of the crash that killed Danielle Baker.

It was an emotional day for two families whose lives were unalterably changed by one man's broken judgment three and a half years ago.

Penachio and his family had hoped to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, but on Tuesday he accepted a plea deal first offered many months ago - five years in prison and two years work release when he gets out.

Danielle Baker was a young mother. The drunk driver who took her life is himself a father of three. He was surrounded by family in court Tuesday.

It was a March night in 2007 when Penachio - his blood alcohol content twice the legal limit and driving his Mercedes over 100 miles an hour - rammed Baker's car from behind on the Eisenhower expressway.

The Dodge Neon exploded in flames. Baker, a 22-year-old mom pursuing a career in broadcast journalism, died instantly. Her body was burned beyond recognition.

In court, Penachio read from a hand-written note. As two families cried, he turned to the Bakers and said, "I'm sorry for all the pain and sorrow I've brought into your lives, and sorry it's taken this long for you to hear me say it. There are no words or actions that can bring Danielle back. I wish there were. All I can do is pray that you will heal and find joy again."

The Bakers had been frustrated that the case had been dragging. They had demanded there be jail time for Penachio. They found his apology sincere.

"I'm glad that it's over. I would say that nobody really won. I feel for his family as well. And I just hope everybody is able to heal and everybody just gets a chance to move on," said Derrick Baker, victim's father

Penachio was immediately taken into custody to begin his five year sentence. As a father of a child with cerebral palsy, his family had earlier hoped for a sentence that would've allowed for probation and work release.

"The bottom line is now the tax payers in Illinois end up picking up a child's care because we don't allow people to work this off by being in jail and going to work every day," said Stephen Komie, Penachio's lawyer.

"There are victims on both sides. I wish there is something that could be done where the law could see that and punish accordingly," said Joey Penachio, wife.

But Penachio's actions that night three and a half years ago ended one life, and forever changed many others.

"Hopefully, eventually the Baker family can find peace and move on and find some joy in their lives again," said Steven Penachio, brother.

Danielle Baker's daughter is now four years old. Penachio, who was a financial broker, put over $50,000 into a fund to help one day pay for her college education. There has been a civil settlement with the Baker family.

Penachio, though sentenced to five years, could in reality be released from prison in about half that time because of "day for day good time" provisions.

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