CONWAY 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 the charges before him in an Horry County courtroom Tuesday afternoon. Now, he’s facing more than a decade in prison.
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. Eleven-year-old Dakota Shepherd and her 9-year-old cousin, Skyler Emore, were killed in the crash. Justin Whitlow, Dakota’s stepbrother, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday that day, was critically injured.
“[We had taken Justin] out to eat to celebrate his birthday and when we left the restaurant, it all came to a screeching halt in that moment,” said Suzy Shepherd, mother of Dakota and Justin and Skyler’s aunt.
I tried to stop him … I just couldn’t.
Neil DeJean’s wife
July 21 became one of the happiest days in Suzy Shepherd’s life when Justin was born. Twenty-two years later, that day also became horrendous as it marked the moment Dakota – her “miracle child” – was taken from her, Suzy Shepherd told the court.
“I have to juggle celebrating one child, while mourning two others,” she said.
The young girls, both from the Timberlake, North Carolina area, were pronounced dead from internal injuries at the scene 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 Bargain Beachwear to buy bathing suits for the girls when they were struck by DeJean’s black Mercedes.
“It was so close. They could have made it, except for the fact that the Mercedes was driving so fast,” one woman, who had been driving in front of DeJean before he pulled into a neighboring lane to pass her and hit the red minivan, told police.
DeJean spent much of his time in the courtroom with his head hung over the floor at his feet, audibly weeping as family members spoke of their loss and witnesses recounted the horror of that night in a recorded statements played in court.
‘Please, Neil. Please slow down.’
Witnesses said 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.
“I tried to stop him … I just couldn’t. I was like ‘please, Neil. Please slow down, please slow down.’ He didn’t slow down. He just kept going,” DeJean’s wife told police in the recording.
They could have made it, except for the fact that the Mercedes was driving so fast.
She said that DeJean had just bought the Mercedes three days before the wreck.
“He thinks he’s 18 and the car, the car goes fast,” DeJean’s wife said, her voice audibly shaken in her conversation with police.
“All he did was go fast and then my mom was so scared. When she would say stop, all he would do is laugh,” said DeJean’s daughter, Gracie, who was in the car with them when they wrecked.
The DeJeans suffered injuries, too.
Shepherd said she and her husband, Curtis, were hospitalized for the rest of that week after the wreck. Justin was in a coma, she said.
“I had to leave my son here in a medically-induced coma on a ventilator and go home to say goodbye to the girls not knowing what his condition would be when I got back, not knowing if he was going to join the girls in Heaven or if he was going to eventually come home with momma,” Shepherd said, her voice shaking.
“Dakota was my daughter, youngest of four,” Curtis Shepherd said. “I not only lost my baby girl, I lost my hunting partner.”
Shoe stuck on accelerator?
In a phone call from from DeJean in jail, played in court, DeJean told his wife that his shoe had gotten stuck on the accelerator and he couldn’t slow down. He said he didn’t tell her at the time because he didn’t want her to worry.
I went to pull across to park and about halfway over, I heard her scream my name. I felt the collision and that was it.
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.
The victims “were traveling north so coming from Surfside to Myrtle Beach. They were turning left across traffic,” Ortiz said. “The driver of that vehicle, Mr. Curtis Shepherd, one of the girls’ father, looked and … did see one vehicle, but at a substantial distance. What he did not know was that Mr. DeJean was behind that vehicle that he saw and (DeJean) was driving erratically.”
“… When I looked, it looked clear to me,” Curtis Shepherd, who was driving the minivan, told police in a recorded statement. “I went to pull across to park and about halfway over, I heard her scream my name. I felt the collision and that was it.”
DeJean of Duson, Louisiana, told police that he had drunk alcohol and had taken pain medication earlier in the day. An hour after the accident, at the hospital, medical professionals tested DeJean’s blood for drugs and alcohol. Opiates, from the pain medication, and alcohol at a level of .06 showed up in the tests.
But the analysis could not prove DeJean was too impaired to drive, according to Ortiz.
DeJean was a former directional driller on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico before an injury on the rig ended his 13-year career.
DeJean’s attorney, Joseph McCulloch, called two witnesses to testify about a neurological condition that came after those injuries and that may have influenced DeJean’s actions that day.
Frontal lobe damage
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.
“That type of behavior, driving 116 miles per hour is atrocious and that’s the type of atrocious behavior we see in people with frontal lobe damage,” Goldschmidt said. “They just lack central awareness of the severity and the nature of the consequences … of what’s going on.”
Doctors say they reviewed DeJean’s medical records and conducted interviews, ultimately finding that his actions and behavior appeared to have changed dramatically after the brain damage.
This was not the devil behind the wheel. ... This is an ill person.
Joseph McCulloch, DeJean’s attorney
If doctors “had only made me aware of my condition, let me know why I was becoming a different individual my world would not be upside down right now,” DeJean told the judge. “I feel for them and I am ultimately so sorry, so sorry because I am not an inhumane individual.”
DeJean pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and one count of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature Tuesday.
“This was not the devil behind the wheel. This is not an evil man, not an evil person. This is an ill person,” McCulloch told the judge.
Judge Larry Hyman sentenced him 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.
Hyman agreed to send the doctors’ assessments of DeJean’s neurological condition to prison with him to aid in his medical treatment.