Prom pictures, family vacation photos in India and childhood memories flashed upon a screen in a slide show of Ria Patel’s life played before a packed Hennepin County courtroom, the accompanying music punctuated by her mother’s sobs.
They were the memories of a 20-year-old woman killed last September when her boyfriend crashed his vehicle in northeast Minneapolis and fled the scene. But until then, she “lived 20 years on earth spreading her energy and touching lives,” her cousin Raveena Patel said.
Roughly 20 family and friends of Patel, a University of St. Thomas student, looked on as Michael L. Campbell, 21, was sentenced to more than four years in prison Thursday in Hennepin County District Court. Hennepin County District Judge Fred Karasov added 90 days to his sentence for violating probation for a previous hit-and-run conviction. A jury found Campbell, of Minneapolis, guilty last month. The Patel family became suspicious when they asked Campbell where Ria Patel was the morning after the crash. Prosecutors called Campbell’s negligence in deciding to flee after the crash and his irresponsibility in misleading the Patel family harmful.
Ria Patel’s parents did not speak at the sentencing, which was the first hearing they attended since Campbell was charged.
“For six months, they have been so distraught and struggled to step out of the house, but they wanted to see justice for Ria,” her uncle Hitesh Patel said.
After a night celebrating Raveena’s 21st birthday, Ria Patel’s body was left in the passenger seat of Campbell’s crashed Ford Focus in northeast Minneapolis on Sept. 17. He left the scene and wasn’t located by authorities until two days later in Wright County.
In court, Campbell testified that he knew Patel was dead and yet he sent Raveena Patel a text message almost nine hours later asking about Ria’s whereabouts.
Raveena Patel testified that Campbell then spoke with her on the phone and denied being in a vehicle with Patel the night before. The family recorded video of the phone conversation that was presented in court.
Court testimony, including some of his own, indicated that Campbell ran about 3 miles to the home he shared with roommates on Randolph Street NE. He then locked himself in his room for several hours, calling Patel’s phone from a blocked number multiple times.
Eventually, he took an Uber ride to St. Michael, where his parents live, although he did not go to their house.
He attempted suicide three times, according to his attorney, before sending Raveena a text admitting to driving the car. He said Ria Patel kissed him and he took his eyes off the road, resulting in the crash, which brought down the attached traffic light that crushed the passenger side of the car and Ria Patel.
Karasov said the fact that Campbell fled and failed to immediately come forward contributed to the 52-month sentence.
He denied Campbell’s appeal to seek treatment after 10 months in jail, as the jury found his driving grossly negligent whether it was because he was potentially still drunk or because he took his eyes off the road.
Addressing the court, Campbell cried as he expressed his remorse.
“Ria was my best friend and the girl I loved most in the entire world,” he said. “She made life so much more enjoyable with her presence.”
Campbell added that he wished he was closer to her family over the course of their seven-month relationship.
Ria Patel graduated from the International School of Minnesota in Eden Prairie and was a junior at St. Thomas at the time of her death.
The Patel family has started the Ria Patel Foundation, which advocates against distracted and drunken driving. In a news conference following the sentencing, Hitesh Patel said that while he felt Campbell’s apology in court was sincere, “it’s too little too late. Had he came out originally and took responsibility it would have caused less pain.”
“We’ll be suffering the life sentence,” Hitesh Patel said.
A GoFundMe was started after the crash and remains open for donation in supporting the foundation.
“We don’t want any family to go through the same suffering and distress,” Hitesh Patel said.
Trevor Squire is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.