Former NIU student sentenced to three years after emotional hearing

By Melissa Westphal

A DeKalb County judge sentenced former NIU student Maria Sarantopoulos to three years in prison Thursday for leaving the scene of an accident in the Sept. 2000 death of fellow student Nicole Murawski.

Judge Douglas R. Engel returned to the courtroom with his decision in less than 10 minutes Thursday afternoon after nearly four-and-a-half hours of hearing from witnesses for both the prosecution and defense. Emotion was high among friends and family members on both sides, but Murawski’s family seemed pleased with the hearing’s outcome.

“Sure, there will never be emotional closure, but this does something on the criminal end,” said Mike Murawski, Nicole’s father. “I think we were all surprised. The state did a wonderful job.”

Sarantopoulos, 24, of Loves Park, pleaded guilty to the Class 2 felony charge on Sept. 7, down from a grand jury’s additional indictment of reckless homicide. The charges stem from the night of Sept. 15, 2000, when Sarantopoulos struck Murawski as she crossed Annie Glidden Road just north of Crane Drive, shortly after 1 a.m.

Much of Thursday’s sentencing hearing was devoted to reconstructing the night of Sept. 15, according to police testimony and people who were with Sarantopoulos. Before anyone was brought to the witness stand, Mike Murawski had the opportunity to tell the courtroom about his daughter, reading from an impact statement he wrote about her life.

“I could stand here and scream for days and no one could understand how much this hurts us,” Murawski said. “God has a natural order to life and death and a parent should never have to plan their child’s funeral. Nickie is the first think that we think of when we wake up and the last thing we think of when we go to sleep.”

DeKalb police Det. John Petragallo and Cpl. Burt Johnson both testified about their roles on Sept. 15. Petragallo first reported to the scene to take photos of the accident, but then was dispatched to the apartment of 23-year-old Michael Stack, an NIU student and former Huskie football player, where Sarantopoulos had driven after the accident.

According to police testimony, Sarantopoulos had gone to Molly’s Eatery and Drinkery with her roommate, 27-year-old Tonya Sarrels, between 10 and 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 15. On the way to the bar, both she and Sarrels finished one 12-ounce beer in the car, which Sarantopoulos was driving.

Petragallo testified that Sarantopoulos told him she had anywhere between four and five beers at Molly’s before running into Stack and promising to meet him later at his apartment. Sarrels left the bar with some other friends.

On her way to Stack’s apartment, Sarantopoulos was driving northbound on Annie Glidden when she struck Murawski. Noticing that the person she’d just hit wasn’t getting up from the roadway, she pulled over in front of a police car that was issuing a citation to another driver, waited about 30 seconds and proceeded to Stack’s apartment.

Once there, Sarantopoulos made several phone calls to Sarrels, telling her to check out the accident scene. In an emotional testimony, Sarrels said she drove past the accident and to and from Stack’s apartment several times, all the while encouraging Sarantopoulos to turn herself in but never actually seeing her face to face.

“I looked at (her friend) Debbie thinking there was no way she could cover this up,” Sarrels said, adding that one of Sarantopoulos’s phone messages had told her not to say anything about the accident to anyone.

Stack testified that he and Sarantopoulos were intimate before she told him she’d been in an accident. After receiving a tip, Petragallo went to Stack’s apartment to question Sarantopoulos, eventually bringing her to the DeKalb Police Department.

At the police station, Johnson administered a breathalizer test, which reported that Sarantopoulos had a blood alcohol concentration of .049 at 5:45 a.m, more than four hours after the accident. The legal limit for driving a car in Illinois is .08.

After prosecution, witnesses reconstructed the events, Sarantopoulos’s brother, mother and friend, 23-year-old Jeanette Austin, took the stand, telling the courtroom about her past relationships and current mental state after Sept. 15.

“She’s become depressed, a lot quieter and she’s not as outgoing as she used to be,” 25-year-old Apostolos “Paul” Sarantopoulos said about his sister. “This has devastated her, it’s horrible that she had a part in it and she knows that she’s made a mistake that she with carry with her for the rest of her life.”

Family members also told the court about Sarantopoulos’ father, who has diabetes and has had several health problems that have caused even more grief for the family. Sarantopoulos lives with her family part-time, while trying to finish her education at Illinois State University.

After defense lawyer Randy Wilt rested the case, Sarantopoulos read a statement to the court, expressing her grief and pain over the past year. She’s been seeing various counselors since the accident and has continued having intense nightmares.

“I did not drive away to abandon Nicole,” Sarantopoulos said. “I was scared and not thinking. My emotions and memories are very painful. This is something I never wanted or expected. I take full responsibility for leaving that night.”

Engel said although nothing can bring Nicole Murawski back to her family, he was recommending prison time because Sarantopoulos didn’t contemplate the seriousness of her actions the night of the accident. She left the scene without administering aid to the victim and she was under the influence of alcohol, he said.

“I think we were all surprised,” Mike Murawski said. “I just hope this shows guys around here and around the campus that you can’t go out partying and drinking and not expect to pay the consequences of your actions.”

Sarantopoulos has 30 days to appeal the sentence to a higher court or ask Engel to reconsider the decision. She remains free on bond because Engel didn’t find her to be a threat to the community.