Days before their wedding, Naji El-Kadi and Jihan Haida spent the afternoon at the Dadeland Mall. He helped her pick out lipstick, heels and a tiara.
That evening, as guests from around the world were boarding flights to Miami, the couple sat on her mother’s back deck in West Kendall, listened to Lebanese music and basked in the glow of their future. El-Kadi wanted triplets, big anniversary parties and to one day return to his family in Lebanon, from where he left in exile decades earlier.
The wedding never happened. Moments after El-Kadi left that morning, a drunk driver plowed into his Toyota Prius, killing the 48-year-old security company owner. Relatives arriving in Miami suddenly found themselves in town to attend a wake, not a wedding.
The wrenching story was aired in court on Wednesday as the drunk driver, 25-year-old Jessica Araujo, pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter. There was a grim irony in it all: A vegan and health enthusiast, El-Kadi has insisted that no alcohol be served at his wedding.
“I’m sorry that you have to live with the guilt of killing Naji. I’m sorry that every time you will miss your loved ones, you’ll remember that someone will never be able to see his because of you,” Haida, 41, tearfully told Araujo. “I’m sorry that every time you are at a wedding, you will remember that you have killed a man two days before his.”
Araujo will be sentenced Oct. 27. She made no excuses as she spoke to El-Kadi’s family and supporters while seated in the box for in-custody inmates. Sobbing and heartfelt, Araujo owned up to her deadly mistake.
“I pray the Lord will show you how deeply remorseful I am. Do know I will accept the highest form of punishment – that is bearing this cross for the rest of my life,” Araujo said, crying. “I know the pain I have caused you will never cease, but I do hope the pain will become duller and easier to bear.”
Araujo accepted guilt with no plea deal, meaning Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Richard Hersch must decide how much prison time to give. Under Florida law, she must serve a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison, but sentencing guidelines call for her to be imprisoned between 10 1/2 to 21 years.
The man she killed led an eventful life. El-Kadi came to the United States in the early 2000s, fleeing civil war in Lebanon. He was granted asylum – which may have saved his life, but barred him from returning to Lebanon, where his mother and siblings remained.
El-Kadi, of Boca Raton, was part of a tight-knit South Florida Lebanese Druze community. He worked private security, earning a degree in criminal justice and getting a private investigator’s license. He later started a company called Loukan Security & Investigations, named after a nephew in Lebanon.
He was also a fitness guru who did not eat meat, shunned alcohol and smoking and earned a black belt in Taekwondo.
EL-Kadi met Haida through family friends in 2015. The two soon engaged and actually married in civil court in February 2016. But the traditional religious ceremony was not set until April 23, 2016.
“He finally found love,” said Zeina Zabib, one of his best friends. “He was happier than he’d ever been.”
The wedding was to be held at a hotel ballroom in Fort Lauderdale, attended by 120 people, guests from as far away as Michigan and Vancouver, Canada. Haida’s mother flew in from Lebanon, along with her 7-year-old niece who was to serve as the flower girl.
The days before the wedding were busy as the last-minute preparations were completed. On April 20, 2016, after they went to the mall, El-Kadir and Haida ate a traditional Lebanese dinner and listened to the music of Fairuz, an iconic singer from the country.
The night waned. Haida wanted to practice their their wedding dance to “Unchained Melody,” the song immortalized in the movie Ghost. El-Kadi demurred. Just past 1 a.m. early the next day, he kissed her goodbye; he had to leave to work an early-morning security shift in the gated Seven Isles community in Fort Lauderdale.
“Naji got in his car, waved bye at me, I put my two hands in a heart shape, blew him a kiss and he drove off,” Haida told the judge.
Less than one mile away, his Prius was driving through Southwest 120th Street at 127th Avenue when he crossed paths with Araujo. She blew a red light and crashed into El-Kadi. He was airlifted to Kendall Regional Medical Center, where he died.
Less than an hour and a half later, Araujo’s blood-alcohol level was more than triple the legal limit, according to toxicology tests. She was also found with cocaine.
That morning, Haida awoke home alone with a nagging feeling of dread. Her mother and sister had gone to do last-minute shopping. She kept calling El-Kadi. No answer. Then, a voice answered and identified himself as a police officer.
Haida’s heart stopped. The voice would not give her details about what happened. Within an hour, however, four unmarked police cars arrived with the horrendous news.
Stunned relatives rushed to her home, even as some didn’t know the wedding would not happen. “The flowers for the wedding came. The cake came. The photographer would call,” Haida said. “It was awful.”
She told the judge on Wednesday: “How would I know that ... the flowers we chose to decorate our wedding ballroom would be decorating the funeral home.”