Richard Ziegler said his younger brother, Gary, had no problem pointing out the driving habits of others. Ziegler remembers his late brother telling him to slow down when he was driving too fast on the highway.
But on April 23, Gary Ziegler, 46, and Mikell Begley, 33, left Felony's Bar and Grill in Spring Hill after sharing beers and wings.
Begley lost control of the car on Forest Oaks Boulevard after swerving to avoid hitting a Hernando County Sheriff deputy's car, according to State Attorney's Prosecutor Bill Catto. The Ford Taurus flipped, hitting a fire hydrant and a tree before coming to a rest. Ziegler died; Begley survived with serious injuries and was arrested in August.
According to Catto, a blood test found Begley's blood alcohol level at .124 and .121. Florida law sets the legal limit at .08 percent.
On Thursday, Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. sentenced Begley to 11 years in prison for DUI manslaughter and DUI damage to property or a person. Begley, sitting in a wheelchair, wore a helmet in court due to his injuries from the crash. Begley received a concurrent sentence for battery on a law enforcement officer for a December incident when Begley spit in a correctional officer's face. Merritt permanently revoked Begley's driver's license.
Before sentencing, the court heard statements from Richard Ziegler, as well as Begley's brother, Jeff.
Ziegler said his whole family is devastated over his brother's death, and Gary Ziegler's widow needs her husband now more than ever to help raise their three children.
Ziegler recalled how his brother loved to decorate for holidays, especially Halloween, Christmas and the Fourth of July. Now, holidays "give his kids something to dread because their Dad is not there to work his magic," Ziegler said.
Begley's brother said Gary Ziegler was a friend as well, and that he was "concern(ed) with (his) brother's physical and mental well-being in prison."
Begley asked Merritt not to give his brother a "life sentence," saying if the judge did impose the maximum, his brother would have "zero life when he gets out." Begley added his brother was walking and "getting his thought process back" in a nursing home facility after his hospital release, but is "not getting the treatment he needs in county jail."
Begley, full of remorse, made an open plea to Merritt.
"No words can truly relate my deepest condolences," said Begley, barely audible through sobs. "I know Gary loved each and every member of his family and held them close in his heart."
Attorney David Walter Bower reinforced his client's regret, saying he accepts responsibility for the accident and would trade places with Ziegler if he could.
"This type of thing is difficult for a judge," said Merritt before announcing the sentence. "If you have any conscience at all, the most difficult penalty to deal with every day is you caused the death of another human being, a friend."
After the verdict, Richard Ziegler said he had "mixed feelings" about the sentencing.
"If he really cared about Gary, he would have thrown the keys under the seat," Ziegler said. Ziegler said he was disappointed in his brother for letting Begley drive, as well, but thinks his brother might have been asleep at the time of the crash.
"Otherwise, he would have seen the curb, or grabbed the wheel," Ziegler said.
Ziegler said he was relieved Begley was sentenced, and is planning to move to California to care for his ailing mother.
"She cries everyday," Ziegler said.