Driver in deadliest incident ever in Acadia National Park plans to plead guilty

·3 min read

Jan. 21—A citizen of India who is accused of causing the deadliest incident ever in Acadia National Park is looking to plead guilty to three counts of manslaughter in federal court.

Praneeth Manubolu, 30, is accused of driving a car that crashed on the Park Loop Road on Aug. 31, 2019, killing all 3 of his passengers. They had traveled to Mount Desert Island the day before from metro New York City to go hiking in Acadia as part of a gathering arranged through the app Meetup.

Killed in the crash were Lenny Fuchs, 36, Laura Leong, 30, and Mohammad Zeeshan, 27, all of New York City. It was the deadliest of incidents in the park — including drownings, murders and other deaths — ever.

Manubolu has been living and working in Atlanta since being released on bail three weeks after the crash. Manubolu had to surrender his passport to the U.S. attorney's office as part of his bail conditions.

On Thursday, attorneys representing Manubolu filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Bangor, seeking permission for Manubolu to plead guilty remotely by video, rather than entering the plea in person at the federal courthouse.

Manubolu's defense attorney, Walter McKee of Augusta, wrote in the motion that his client would like to enter the guilty plea remotely in order to avoid traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act makes remote pleadings possible, with approval from judges, in the interest of public health and safety and to avoid undue delays in resolving cases.

"Travel to the state of Maine for a plea would not be impossible, but would be a significant hardship to the defendant and expose him to the potential for being infected with the COVID-19 virus," McKee wrote.

Federal prosecutors have not indicated whether they might agree to the motion, McKee wrote.

McKee did not respond Friday to messages about Manubolu's possible guilty plea. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment, which is its practice for pending cases.

Manubolu and his passengers had been drinking at a bar in Bar Harbor not long before the crash, which happened around 2:45 a.m., according to court documents. Manubolu is believed to have been driving his 2019 Dodge Challenger "much greater than the posted 25 mph [speed limit] of the roadway" when the car slid out of control near the trailhead for the Gorge Path and slammed into a tree, a park ranger wrote in a crash report.

Roughly 90 minutes after the crash, police took a blood sample from Manubolu at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor that showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.095 percent — higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Manubolu's attorneys later challenged the legality of the blood sample, arguing that his rights were violated when it was collected without police first obtaining a warrant. A federal judge ruled in favor of Manubolu and barred the test results from being admitted as evidence in the case, but that decision was overturned on appeal last fall after prosecutors argued that pressing demands at the crash scene made getting a warrant impractical.

Manubolu had been scheduled to go to trial on manslaughter and other related charges in federal court in Bangor on Feb. 14, 2022.

In the 105 years since Acadia was founded in 1916, 83 people have died in Acadia from a variety of causes that range from falls, drownings, crashes and even murders. The crash on Aug. 31, 2019 is the only instance in which three or more people have died in the park.