Victim’s family calls it ‘pathetic’
By SCOTT DAUGHERTY, Staff Writer
Published 02/26/09

Despite criticism from one victim’s family, a county judge yesterday sentenced a 20-year-old Baltimore man to 18 months in prison for a fatal 2007 wreck that claimed the lives of two friends.

Advertisement That was the maximum sentence Nicholas Vakoutis III could have received in the deaths of 16-year-old Justin Wesley Grahe of Pasadena and 19-year-old Ronald Jake Houck of Baltimore. He pleaded guilty Jan. 12 to two counts of auto manslaughter as part of a plea agreement that capped the possible sentence.

Still, the Grahe family said after the hearing in the county courthouse in Annapolis that Vakoutis deserved a much longer sentence.

“That’s pretty pathetic if you ask me,” Milton Grahe, Justin’s father, said of the sentence.

The Houck family declined to comment after the hearing.

Milton Grahe noted that Vakoutis was cited for speeding and drag racing in the months leading up to the July 29, 2007, wreck, even though he was acquitted of both charges after police failed to show up to testify in those cases.

“He obviously didn’t learn his lesson,” he said, adding that Vakoutis deserved at least five years behind bars.

Vakoutis and his mother Carol disagreed. Vakoutis, who hasn’t driven since the wreck, according to his mother, publicly apologized and said he wished he could trade places with his two friends.

“I’m not asking for your forgiveness,” he said. “I probably don’t deserve it just like I don’t deserve to be here.”

Deputy State’s Attorney William Roessler said Vakoutis was driving a Toyota Yaris north on Marley Neck Road just north of Tanyard Cove Road about 8:30 p.m. when he lost control.

He said Vakoutis was driving 85 mph on the 50 mph speed limit road when he drove over the crest of a hill and veered into the right shoulder of the relatively straight road. Vakoutis tried to keep the car on the pavement, but it began to spin counterclockwise. The vehicle slid off the left side of the road and up an embankment where it slammed into an oak tree.

Justin Grahe died at the scene and Houck died a few days later at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Justin Grahe’s 17-year-old brother, Joshua, and Vakoutis also were seriously injured in the wreck. Both, however, were treated and eventually released.

Vakoutis was cited for speeding on March 11, 2007, in Pasadena and drag racing on June 18, 2007, in Glen Burnie, but county judges found him not guilty in both cases.

According to court officials and recordings from court, Officer David Gentile did not appear in court for the speeding ticket and Officer Joshua Ruggiero did not go to court for the drag-racing ticket. Prosecutors do not usually handle traffic tickets.

With no police officers or prosecutors in court to explain the charges, the judges acquitted Vakoutis.

Roessler said that even if Vakoutis had the speeding and drag-racing convictions on his record, he would probably have offered the same plea with the same 18-month cap.

“I was still left with proving manslaughter strictly on speed without drugs or alcohol,” he said, adding that it is difficult to prove auto manslaughter in such cases.

Circuit Court Judge William C. Mulford II described the wreck as a “senseless tragedy.” He recalled losing three friends in high school and college in fatal car accidents and said that he believed Vakoutis’ apology.

“There is no doubt in my mind you are sincere,” he said from the bench. “But having said that, I have two dead men.”

Mulford sentenced Vakoutis to 10 years in prison, but suspended all but 18 months to be served at a local jail.

That sentence falls in the middle range of those handed down in the county for automobile manslaughter. In recent years, county judges have ordered people to serve between nine months and five years behind bars. Most “active” sentences, however, top out at 18 months so the defendant can serve the time in a local jail.

Upon Vakoutis’ release, he will be placed on probation for three years. During that time, Vakoutis must pay the Grahe family more than $8,000 in restitution, perform 150 hours of community service and obey all laws.

Mulford stressed that he didn’t even want to see Vakoutis run a stop sign.