Lawrence man pleads guilty in October fatal hit-and-run that killed bicyclist

A 22-year-old Lawrence man pleaded guilty Friday morning to two charges related to an October hit-and-run accident that resulted in the death of a Lawrence woman who was riding a bicycle.

The man, Joel C. Hernandez, admitted that in the early-morning hours on Oct. 16 he was intoxicated when he drove a car and struck 20-year-old Rachel Leek south of 10th and Tennessee streets.

“I believe that it had a bearing on my reaction time and that it had a bearing on the reaction of me leaving the scene,” Hernandez said while describing the night’s events to District Judge Michael Malone.

Malone accepted Hernandez’s guilty pleas to a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving a death and to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.

He had originally faced charges of leaving the scene of an accident that involved a death and failure to report an accident, both felonies; vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor; and improper passing, a traffic infraction.

Attorneys for both sides told Malone they believed Hernandez had no criminal history prior to the current case and that he would likely face a probation sentence for the felony charge under state guidelines.

James McCabria, an assistant Douglas County district attorney, said prosecutors plan to ask Malone to have Hernandez serve 60 days in jail. He would also have to perform 200 hours of community service in addition to any fines in the case.

Attorneys on both sides said during the plea negotiations that Hernandez was willing to take responsibility for his drinking that night. Hernandez did not stop the vehicle or return to the accident scene, so law enforcement officers were not able to test his blood-alcohol content that night.

During sometimes tearful testimony Friday, Hernandez described the events of the night to Malone, saying he drank six to 10 double-shot drinks at Abe and Jake’s Landing in Lawrence before driving two female friends home. He was driving the car of one of the friends. He said the accident occurred as he tried to look back to change lanes on Tennessee Street.

“In that time as I turned back is when the lady hit the windshield,” Hernandez said.

He told Malone he drove for a block before turning left onto 11th Street and stopping briefly at Kentucky Street.

“I didn’t see a bike. I didn’t see a person. I just knew that something had hit the windshield, and that’s when I stopped,” Hernandez said.

But he never returned to the scene. He said he planned to go to police the next day but encountered detectives before he made it to the station. He eventually turned himself in to authorities when prosecutors filed charges in the case.

Hernandez, a Lawrence High School graduate, was a Haskell Indian Nations University student at the time and briefly pulled out of classes during the case. He said he is now a Haskell student again.

Leek was an employee at WheatFields Bakery in downtown Lawrence.

Malone scheduled a sentencing in the case for 3:30 p.m. May 20, and he told Hernandez he would likely be taken into custody after that hearing. He is currently out on bond.