In this Aug. 31, 2019, file photo, a car rests against trees after it rolled and crashed on Park Loop Road, killing three people. Credit: Courtesy of Acadia National Park

A man from India who crashed his car in Acadia National Park in 2019, killing all three of his passengers, was sentenced Friday to serve more than three years in prison.

Praneeth Manubolu, 31, told federal Judge John Woodcock that he is sorry for causing the Aug. 31, 2019, crash that killed his three new friends. He said he deserves punishment and does not deserve to be treated kindly by anyone.

Praneeth Manubolu wears a bandage under his right eye in this September 2019 booking photo from the Hancock County Jail.

“I feel ashamed to be standing before everyone. I have failed as a basic human. I have failed at every step. I don’t know what to do, your honor,” Manubolu said in a quiet, halting voice. “I am not supposed to be alive, your honor. This is not my life.” 

Woodcock called the incident “an egregious chain of grossly negligent actions.” He said prison time was necessary and ordered Manubolu to serve 41 months behind bars.

The family of one of Manubolu’s deceased passengers was in the courtroom for the sentencing. The parents and brother of Laura Leong, 30, who grew up in California and moved to New York to study fashion design and advocate for fair trade, addressed Woodcock during the sentencing.

“Mr. Manubolu, you took away our sunshine,” Ronald Leong, Laura’s father, said while holding a photo of his daughter at the courtroom podium. “I feel like this accident could have been avoided. Why were you speeding 76 mph in a 25 mph zone? Why didn’t you slow down? What were you thinking?”

Laura Leong’s mother, Doris Leong, said her daughter was outgoing and had a great sense of humor. She said she didn’t want her daughter to move to New York City from California to pursue a fashion career because it was so far away. But her daughter always came home to visit at Christmas.

“We lost our peace of mind. Things are just so fragile. I’ve had sleepless nights. I’ve woken up with my heart racing,” Doris Leong said. “I swear to God I thought she would outlive all of us.”

Prior to the sentencing, the Leongs sent Woodcock a video, roughly 15 minutes long, of Laura’s life that the judge said was “heartbreaking.” The video was not played in the courtroom during the proceeding.

The car crash is the deadliest event ever to happen in Acadia National Park — including drownings, falls, accidents, shootings and even murders.

Manubolu, a software engineer with a work visa to live in the United States, and his three passengers had traveled to Acadia together from metro New York City hours before crashing his Dodge Challenger on the Park Loop Road. They were part of a group that used an app called Meetup to organize occasional hiking and camping trips in the Northeast. 

Manubolu was driving his 2019 Dodge Challenger at 76 mph in a 25 mph zone on the park road when the car veered out of control at around 2:45 a.m. and slammed into a tree near the trailhead of the Gorge Path, park officials have said. The three passengers in the car — Leong, Lenny Fuchs, 36, and Mohammad Zeeshan, 27, all of New York City — were dead when police arrived roughly 10 minutes later.

They had been drinking at a bar in Bar Harbor about 90 minutes before the crash and, roughly 90 minutes after it occurred, Manubolu had a blood-alcohol content of 0.095 percent — an amount that exceeded the legal limit of 0.08 percent, park rangers said.

Manubolu’s attorneys had sought to bar the blood results from a possible trial, saying that the blood sample had been taken improperly because police had not first obtained a warrant to collect that evidence. In 2020, Woodcock agreed with the defense attorneys and ruled that the blood test results were inadmissible as evidence, but last fall that decision was overturned on appeal, which would have allowed a jury to be given the test results if the case had gone to trial.

Woodcock said that he also had received a letter from Lenny Fuchs’ widow, Olga Fuchs. In the letter, she said she and their 7 year-old daughter believe Lenny Fuchs would ask for leniency for Manubolu, he said.

“He would take responsibility for being in the car because he knew he should not have been there,” the judge said, citing Fuchs’ daughter’s comment in the letter. “No one meant to kill Daddy.”

Manubolu’s uncle, Rajasekhar Reddy, also spoke at the sentencing. A doctor in Atlanta, where Manubolu has been living since the crash, Reddy said that Manubolu maintains that he should have been the one to die in the crash, not his new friends.

“He’s not the person we knew. He’s a shell of that person,” Reddy told Woodcock. “He hasn’t smiled since that incident. There’s so much grief and sadness in him.”

Woodcock noted that Manubolu seems truly remorseful for what happened, and that there is nothing else in Manubolu’s life that comes close to the bad decision he made when he got behind the wheel after drinking shots of alcohol in Bar Harbor. He said Manubolu made this decision even after someone else in their group, who did not ride with the foursome, suggested that they take a cab back to the campground where they planned to stay.

After Woodcock announced the 41-month sentence, Manubolu tearfully implored the judge to impose some sort of work requirement or community service, but the judge said doing so was beyond his authority. He told Manubolu that only he could decide what to do after he serves his sentence and that, as the sole survivor of the wreck, he should find a way to contribute to society as a way to honor the lives of the people who died in his car.

“To give up on your life is wrong. It is not right,” Woodcock told Manubolu. “You have an obligation to use your education and your talents to help other people. That is what you need to do with your life.”

Manubolu’s defense attorney, Walter McKee, told Woodcock on Friday that his client likely will be deported back to India as a result of his sentencing, and asked that Manubolu be able to serve at least part of his sentence in his home country. 

McKee said that Manubolu likely would be sent to India after starting to serve his sentence in the U.S. He said how much prison time Manubolu might serve in the U.S. before he is sent back to India is unknown.

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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....