Lenny Fuchs, one of 3 people from New York City who died in an early morning car crash in Acadia National Park on Aug. 31, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Olga Ilyayeva

Lenny Fuchs moved to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, and he later became a lawyer in New York City’s legal department. Laura Leong grew up in California and moved to New York to study fashion design and advocate for fair trade. Mohammad Zeeshan, a native of Pakistan, worked as an emergency medical technician in and around the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

All three shared a love of the outdoors, which is what brought them together to Mount Desert Island last summer to spend a weekend hiking in Acadia National Park and enjoying the island’s natural beauty. That weekend ended tragically, though, with the three losing their lives in the deadliest crash in the park’s 100-plus year history.

Nearly a year after the Aug. 31, 2019, car crash that killed the three New York City residents, the driver charged with manslaughter — 29-year old Praneeth Manubolu — is facing three counts of manslaughter and other charges in federal court in Bangor. Earlier this month a judge ruled that the results of a blood-alcohol test should be barred from testimony in a criminal trial — which could happen as early as November — because police did not get a warrant to administer the test on Manubolu, who remains under house arrest in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the friends and families of his passengers, who died on the Park Loop Road in the crushed wreckage of Manubolu’s 2019 Dodge Challenger, continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones.

“He was a child at heart,” Olga Ilyayeva, Fuchs’ widow, said recently about her husband, whom she first met through friends in 2009. Their two children — Jasmine, now 6, and Matthew, who is 3 — still are trying to grasp that their father is never coming home, she said.

“For a while, Matthew was asking ‘where is Papa?’” Ilyayeva said. “Now he just says ‘he flew away.’ It’s been difficult. We’ve been heartbroken.”

Fuchs, who was 36 when he died, was 7 when he and his parents moved to New York from Lviv, in western Ukraine in the early 1990s. He was an only child, she said, and was close to his mother and father.

“His parents were devastated,” Ilyayeva said, adding that Fuchs’ father was in poor health and died just a couple of weeks ago. “Probably, the loss was too much for him.”

After growing up with his family in Brooklyn and Staten Island, Fuchs attended New York University as an undergrad and then graduated from New York’s Cardozo School of Law in 2008. Fuchs was an environmentalist keen on composting, going on eco-friendly tours for vacations, and participating in park cleanups in his Queens neighborhood, Ilyayeva said. He enjoyed taking their daughter to Queens Botanical Garden.

“He was a bit of a tree hugger,” she said. “He had a very positive energy. He loved being out in nature, hiking. He hiked a lot.”

Trip to Maine

Fuchs had been interested for years in visiting Acadia, Ilyayeva said, and he had gone on other weekend outdoor getaways with people he met on Meetup, an app that connects members with mutual interests.

That trip to Acadia happened last August, when Fuchs rode to MDI with Leong and Zeeshan, whom he had met on a prior Meetup trip, she said. Ilyayeva did not know the others who went on the trip with Fuchs.

The trio met other Meetup gathering participants, including Manubolu, at Smuggler’s Den Campground in Southwest Harbor on Friday, Aug. 30. That evening, several of them drove to Bar Harbor to get a late dinner, with Fuchs, Leong and Zeeshan riding with Manubolu.

In Bar Harbor, they ate at the Dog & Pony Tavern where, Manubolu later told police, he consumed two shots of whiskey prior to the crash. From there, they went to the dance club Carmen Verandah, where they had more drinks before deciding to leave and go look at the night sky, according to court documents.

Brian Dominy, a law enforcement ranger at Acadia, wrote in an incident report that a man named Francisco Mancheno had organized the weekend hiking trip on Meetup and saw the foursome both at the campground in Southwest Harbor and in Bar Harbor, though he did not ride with them in Manubolu’s car. Mancheno later told Dominy he had seen the group getting food at the Dog & Pony Tavern around 1:10 a.m., and then saw them in Manubolu’s car outside the tavern about 15 minutes later.

Mancheno said “it looked like they were very loud and happy, and they invited him to come with them to look at the stars,” the ranger wrote. Mancheno declined, saying he wanted to go back to the campground and get some sleep. Before the group drove off, Mancheno recommended that they take an Uber back to the campground, according to Dominy’s report. He did not see them after that.

What happened between when the group left the club, and the moments before Manubolu crashed the car three miles away around 2:45 a.m. on a curve of the Park Loop Road, near the trailhead for the Gorge Path, is not described in court documents.

A car rests against trees after it rolled and crashed on Park Loop Road in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Praneeth Manubolu, 28, allegedly was driving the vehicle and has been charged with causing the deaths of three passengers, according to park officials. Credit: Courtesy of Acadia National Park.

Leong was in the front passenger seat and Fuchs and Zeeshan were sitting in the back when the car drifted off the side of the road, skidded out of control for roughly 165 feet, and then slammed passenger-side into a tree, crushing the car’s roof, according to police reports. Because of the force of the impact and the fatal injuries to his passengers, Manubolu appeared to have been driving “much greater than the posted 25 mph [speed limit] of the roadway,” Dominy wrote.

Manubolu, with a “goose egg” bump under his right eye and cuts to his face and arms, was standing in the road when police arrived about 10 minutes later, having crawled out of the mangled car and called 911 on a cell phone. Fuchs, Leong and Zeeshan were unresponsive and, after police tried to extricate and revive them, were declared dead at the crash site.

Blood tests

About an hour after emergency responders arrived at the crash site, police convinced Manubolu to take an ambulance to Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, so his injuries could be better evaluated. Manubolu initially said he didn’t want to leave his friends, but agreed to go to the hospital after Bar Harbor police Officer Jerrod Hardy said he would accompany him.

Praneeth Manubolu. Courtesy of Hancock County Jail.

It was there, though Manubolu said he did not want a blood sample taken, that Hardy had his blood drawn to test his blood-alcohol content. According to Dominy’s report, the results showed that roughly 90 minutes after the crash, Manubolu’s blood-alcohol level was 0.095 percent — higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

However, earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock ruled that the results of that test will be barred from testimony if Manubolu’s case goes to trial because police violated his constitutional rights by not getting a warrant before getting the blood sample. Woodcock has not ruled on the admissibility of the results of a second blood test on Manubolu — taken by hospital staff for medical reasons, without a request from police — which later were presented to a federal grand jury.

The results of the second test have not been made public but, according to a transcript from a motion to suppress hearing held in March, the judge said there is evidence of “some amount of alcohol” in Manubolu’s blood from the second test.

Attempts to contact friends and relatives of Leong and Zeeshan for this story were unsuccessful, and Mancheno did not respond to a message sent to him on Facebook. But information about the lives of Leong and Zeeshan can be found publicly posted on sites such as Facebook, GoFundMe and LinkedIn.

Mohammad Zeeshan

Zeeshan, who was 27, took classes at several New York-area colleges before finding work as an emergency medical technician, most recently for SeniorCare EMS. A native of Karachi, Pakistan, Zeeshan came from a large household and was in the habit of helping his relatives, according to a cousin who created a GoFundMe page for Zeeshan’s parents.

He worked hard, often “with little to no sleep,” the cousin, Hamza Khan, wrote on the site. “Zeeshan was always there to help others, and left a positive impact on everyone he met.”

In a post on SeniorCare EMS Facebook page, CEO Michael Vatch wrote last year that the company felt “a deep sense of loss” from Zeeshan’s death.

“His love of the job was evident from the start,” Vatch wrote, adding that Zeeshan started working for SeniorCare in June 2016. “EMT Zeeshan was a regular ‘go-to’ employee, often filling last minute vacancies for the company and was a valued member of our team.”

Laura Leong

Leong, who was 30, graduated from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California, in 2007, according to information posted on her social media pages. After working at fashion boutiques in San Jose and Palo Alto, and as a production crew assistant at San Francisco fashion shows, Leong enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in January 2013.

“I have always been fascinated by the notion of creating something tangible out of an abstract idea,” Leong wrote in a short bio posted on the school’s website in 2016, the year she graduated. “I want to bring together my love and knowledge of design and the importance of social consciousness. I plan to emphasize the human interconnectedness of the global fashion industry as I start my career.”

After graduating from FIT, Leong worked for a while as an associate designer for Gelmart International, according to her LinkedIn profile. On her Facebook page, which has since been converted to a memorial account, she posted photos of herself on trips to Siena, Italy; London; Havana, Cuba; and Turkey. She also posted a photo of herself in 2016 sitting on the edge of the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park in Utah.

“Peace of mind,” she posted in a comment with the photo. With another picture that showed her standing on a rocky outcropping, dramatically pointing out over a valley, she wrote: “Adventure is out there.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....