A Louisiana man accused of killing two young girls and critically wounding a young man in a Myrtle Beach area wreck two years ago pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and a count of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in an Horry County courtroom Tuesday afternoon.
Prosecutors say Neil Joseph DeJean, now 49, was driving 116 mph, weaving in and out of traffic on a busy Kings Highway around 8 p.m. July 21, 2015, when he put on his brakes too late and crashed into a minivan. Two young girls were killed in the crash and a man who was celebrating his 22nd birthday that day was critically injured.
Judge Larry Hyman sentenced DeJean to 10 years in prison for each reckless homicide charge and 15 years for assault and battery. The sentences will run concurrently, meaning DeJean will serve no more than 15 years in prison and will be eligible for parole after 12 years.
Skyler Emore, 9, and her cousin, Dakota Shepherd, 11, both from the Timberlake, N.C., area were pronounced dead from internal injures at the scene of the crash on South Kings Highway near Pirateland Family Camping Resort, authorities said.
The girls and their family had arrived in the Myrtle Beach area for a vacation the day before the crash and were turning into a nearby souvenir shop to buy bathing suits for the girls when they were struck by DeJean’s black Mercedes.
Witnesses after the wreck told police DeJean was driving “like a bat out of hell” and seemed more concerned with his new car being wrecked than the children who were killed at the time.
In a phone call from from DeJean in jail, played in court, DeJean’s wife said she told him repeatedly to slow down that night. DeJean told his wife that his shoe had gotten stuck on the accelerator and he couldn’t slow down, but he didn’t tell her at the time because he didn’t want her to worry, he said in the recorded call.
Senior Assistant Solicitor Lauree Richardson Ortiz said that DeJean had slowed down to 86 mph before he struck the van and had he been going 45 mph – the posted speed limit – he could have missed it entirely.
DeJean of Duson, Louisiana, told police that he had drank alcohol and had taken pain medication earlier in the day and although blood tests at the hospital affirmed that an hour after the wreck the tests could not prove he was too impaired to drive, according to Senior Assistant Solicitor Lauree Richardson.
The girls were from a small community located between Roxboro and Durham, N.C.
Dakota’s parents and her brother, Justin Whitlow, were also hurt in the crash when their northbound 2005 Dodge minivan was struck by a 2013 Mercedes driven south by DeJean, according to S.C. Highway Patrol officials.
Dakota was a rising sixth-grader at Southern Middle School in Roxboro and Skyler attended Bethel Hill Charter School, according to a 2015 story in The Sun News.
The minivan was attempting to turn into a private property parking lot across from the campground entrance when it was struck, said Lance Cpl. Hannah Wimberly with the Highway Patrol. After the Mercedes struck the van, the van then struck a car parked in that parking lot.
DeJean was a former directional driller on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico before an injury on the rig ended his career.
DeJean’s attorney, Joseph McCulloch, called two witnesses to testify about another condition that may have influenced DeJean’s actions that day.
Doctors said DeJean suffered brain damage, specifically injuries to his frontal lobe, after getting hurt while working on the oil rig in 2009. Damages to a person’s frontal lobe can affect that person’s behavior and lead to impulsive actions like driving 116 mph, according to Dr. Leonard Goldschmidt, who took the stand as a clinical neuropsychologist.
Hyman agreed to send the doctors’ assessments of DeJean’s neurological condition to prison with him to aid in his medical treatment.