UPPER MARLBORO, Md. (AP) — Alexis Mejia remembers waking up in a hospital, with his wife by his side, and immediately crying out for somebody to tell him where his three young children were. A nurse had to explain that their 5-year-old twins, Alexander and Rosalie, and 1-year-old son Isaac didn't survive when a drunken driver rear-ended the family's car.
"At that point, my worst fear became my reality," Mejia said in a Maryland courtroom Thursday before a judge sentenced the drunken driver, 28-year-old Thomas Hawks, to 22 years in prison.
Prince George's County Circuit Judge Jared McCarthy told Hawks that he effectively wiped out an entire generation of the Mejia family, who were heading home from church and stopped at a red light when the crash occurred on the night of Dec. 30, 2018.
Hawks was driving home from a Washington Redskins game after drinking approximately 10 beers that day, according to a prosecutor. Hawks said he can't explain why he decided to get behind the wheel of his pickup truck when he had paid for a hotel room within walking distance of the football stadium, but he suspects alcohol impaired his judgment.
"The decision to drive that night haunts me every day," he said.
Hawks bowed his head as the children's parents, Juana and Alexis Mejia, tearfully and angrily explained how Hawks' fateful decision has torn apart their once-happy family. Juana Mejia said she misses her children's hugs, their kisses, the touch of their skin, and she still wakes up in the middle of the night thinking she will find them in their beds and crib.
"Every day just gets harder and harder," she said. "He didn't just kill my beautiful children but also the rest of our dreams and future with them."
Juana Mejia said her twins were taking piano lessons and looking forward to swim lessons. Their grandparents had bought them pianos a week before the crash.
"My children were and still are my everything," she said. "They were growing up to be such amazing human beings."
Alexis Mejia said he struggles daily to cope with sadness and depression.
"They say time will heal, but it's only getting worse," he said.
The judge said he couldn't recall a case in which an unintentional act wreaked "this much havoc and mayhem."
"We're dealing with the loss of a generation that will have ramifications for years to come," he said.
Hawks pleaded guilty in July to charges including three counts of vehicular manslaughter. His blood alcohol level was just over twice the legal limit. He was driving at a speed of 69 mph, well over the posted limit of 45 mph, when his Chevy Silverado rear-ended the Honda Accord carrying the five members of the Mejia family, according to county prosecutor Jennifer Rush.
"He was so drunk he didn't apply his brakes until one half-second before (impact)," Rush said.
Defense attorney Hammad Matin said Hawks, who was born in Chile and was 7 weeks old when his parents adopted him and brought him to Maryland, was a star athlete in high school and played college football before an injury ended his athletic career. He didn't have a criminal record before the deadly crash, but he lost his job at a bank in its aftermath.
Matin said his guilt-stricken client had pleaded with a police officer to shoot and kill him after the crash.
"That wasn't the rambling of some drunk person," he said. "That was a person who wanted to die that night."
The judge told Hawks that he likely will be in his early to mid-40s when he becomes eligible for release from prison. Once he's free and on probation, Hawks will be required to perform eight hours of community service on each of the birthdays of the children and their parents and the anniversary of the crash.
Hawks said he knows he can't expect the children's parents to forgive him.
"But I will never forget them, as I will live with the shame of what I've done for the rest of my life," he said.
After the hearing, Juana Mejia collapsed in a hallway outside the courtroom and sobbed as her husband and others helped her to an elevator.