Driver in fatal Acadia crash will plead guilty to federal charges

·3 min read

Jan. 21—The driver and sole survivor of a deadly crash in Acadia National Park has indicated that he will plead guilty to federal charges.

Three people died when the Dodge Challenger driven by Praneeth Manubolu crashed into trees off the Park Loop Road on Aug. 31, 2019. The group was visiting from New York and New Jersey and returning to their campground after drinking in Bar Harbor that night, according to court documents.

Manubolu was charged with three counts of manslaughter, as well as operating under the influence of alcohol and unsafe operation. The case has been proceeding in the U.S. District Court of Maine because the national park is owned by the federal government.

The trial was set to begin next month in Bangor but defense attorney Walt McKee filed a motion Thursday to hold a plea hearing via video.

That motion did not disclose which charges Manubolu will plead guilty to or whether he struck a plea agreement with the prosecution. McKee did not respond to an email about the case Friday. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Joyce said in an email that the office would not answer questions at this time.

Manubolu, who was 28 at the time of the crash, is not in custody. The motion says he is living in Atlanta under supervised release and wishes to stay there while he waits for sentencing.

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

McKee had tried unsuccessfully to suppress a blood sample taken from Manubolu in the early morning hours after the crash that indicated he was intoxicated.

Court documents show Manubolu's blood alcohol content at the time was 0.095 percent — over the legal limit of 0.08 percent in state and federal law.

In August 2020, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock decided the blood draw was unconstitutional and threw out that evidence, reasoning that it was not done correctly because police did not obtain a warrant for the blood test and because no exigent circumstances existed.

Federal law allows warrantless blood draws only in certain circumstances, and this case has centered on whether the government met its legal burden to draw blood from Manubolu without a warrant or his consent.

Federal prosecutors appealed Woodcock's ruling, arguing that the test should be admissible in court. Prosecutors said the time involved with obtaining a warrant in a rural region like Acadia National Park would have allowed the alcohol in Manubolu's blood to dissipate.

Last September, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed Woodcock's decision, ruling that a Bar Harbor police officer and a park ranger acted correctly when they ordered hospital staff to take the blood sample. Manubolu's injuries were described as minor, but he was transported by police to a local hospital for observation.

Manubolu, a citizen of India, was living in New Jersey at the time of the crash that killed Lenny Fuchs, 36, Laura Leong, 30, and Zeeshan Mohammed, 27, all of New York City. Police discovered the crash scene around 3 a.m.

The four had spent the evening at a Bar Harbor tavern for dinner and drinks before going to a dance club, according to court documents. The four friends walked around "stargazing" after their night out on the town before getting into Manubolu's car and driving to a campground in Acadia where they planned to spend the night.

First responders described the accident scene as "horrific," according to court documents.