By Jill Harmacinski
---- — SALEM — A Lawrence man who had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit pleaded guilty to driving drunk on New Year’s Eve and crashing into an oncoming car on a Newburyport bridge, killing his longtime girlfriend, Donna Bergeron, 41, a passenger in his car, and seriously injuring two men.
Mikhael Sarkis, 51, pleaded guilty in Salem Superior Court yesterday to motor vehicle homicide while intoxicated and numerous related charges. Judge David Lowy sentenced Sarkis to 21/2 years in state prison, followed by five years probation.
The father of three children, Sarkis had no criminal record prior to the deadly crash. He will start his sentence today at MCI Cedar Junction and was given 317 days credit for time he’s already served at Middleton Jail since the crash.
Sarkis, a former bartender at Newburyport’s North End Boat Club, is also subject to a 15-year loss of license, numerous court fines and fees and mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings five times weekly.
Essex County Assistant District Attorney Ashlee Logan asked for Sarkis to be sentenced to 5 to 7 years in state prison for his role in the 11:30 p.m. accident on Dec. 31, 2012. The maximum penalty for a motor vehicle homicide while intoxicated conviction is 15 years in state prison.
Sarkis also faced up to 15 years in state prison on assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charges and 10-year maximum sentences for his conviction on operating under the influence of alcohol and causing serious bodily injury charges.
Sarkis drank “at least 15 beers” before the crash. He left Newburyport’s North End Boat Club in his Lincoln Town Car, and was driving in the wrong lane, the southbound lane, over the Gillis Bridge, which connects Newburyport and Salisbury, Logan said.
He plowed head-on into a Mercury Grand Marquis driven by Corey Burgess, 20, of Salisbury.
Bergeron, Sarkis’ girlfriend of eight years, was in the passenger’s seat of the Town Car. Bergeron was a Salem, N.H., native who lived in East Hampstead, N.H. at the time of her death. She was a longtime employee of the Atkinson Country Club.
Clifford Pollard, 62, of Salisbury, a back seat passenger in the Town Car, was seriously injured. Burgess was also hurt in the crash.
In court yesterday, Logan said Sarkis had been working as a back-up bartender at the boat club that night before leaving to give Pollard a ride home to Salisbury. A test taken after the crash showed Sarkis had a blood alcohol level of .28. In addition to his beer consumption, an open water bottle with alcohol inside was also found in Sarkis’ car, she said.
Defense attorney Nicholas Howie spoke of Sarkis’ extreme remorse, describing the event as a “horrible night.”
“Horrible decisions were made,” Howie said. “I know Mr. Sarkis would trade places with Donna in a heartbeat ... He lives with the horror of that night every day.”
Howie handed Lowy a stack of letters written on Sarkis’ behalf yesterday. Howie also said Sarkis has vowed never to drink alcohol again.
Bergeron’s family also wrote a letter to the judge. Logan said the family felt there was no punishment a judge could give Sarkis “that could be worse than what the defendant is going through now.”
A Lawrence High graduate who later earned a business degree from Northern Essex Community College, Sarkis previously owned Samantha’s Restaurant in Salem, N.H., until 2005. He later worked at Olive Garden and the boat club, Howie said.
Burgess addressed the court yesterday, describing how he’d just left work at the Seaglass Restaurant on Salisbury Beach that night and was headed to a friend’s house to ring in the New Year. His night of celebration became a nightmare as he drove southbound over the Gillis Bridge and saw headlights “coming right at me.”
“The car hit me dead on and after the impact it was silent. A really scary silent,” Burgess said.
Physically, Burgess said he suffered a foot and elbow injury. But, he said, the emotional and financial impact of the crash were tremendous. He couldn’t sleep, he lost his car and eventually his job. The crash forced him to drop out of college for a semester, delaying his education and career plans.
To date, he still has trouble sleeping and suffers anxiety and ongoing nightmares. Driving is also uncomfortable, he said.
“Knowing no matter how innocent you are, something can still happen,” Burgess said.
Burgess said he still drives over the Gillis Bridge on a daily basis. He will never be able to forget that night, he said.
“Why did this man drive?” Burgess asked. “How could someone let this man drive this way?”
Pollard did not issue a victim impact statement. Logan said he suffered a severe hip injury and was in the hospital and rehab for months.