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Off-road driver facing manslaughter charge in Old Saybrook has gone missing

By Karen Florin

Published January 20. 2014 1:00PM   Updated January 20. 2014 11:56PM

Old Saybrook — A 43-year-old local man wanted by police on a manslaughter charge in connection with an off-road Jeep rollover in July 2013 that killed his girlfriend, Leah Coleman, has gone missing.

John Shepard was arrested at the scene of the crash, a gravel driveway near his Essex Road home, and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Police continued to investigate and obtained an arrest warrant charging Shepard with manslaughter with a motor vehicle. They have been unable to find Shepard to serve the warrant.

“It is our understanding he is not in the state,” Old Saybrook Police Lt. Kevin Roche said Monday. “Obviously we want him to turn himself in and face the charges that are pending. Unfortunately, it was a terrible accident.”

Coleman is “dearly missed” at the nearby VFW, where she worked as a bartender, said Robin Haslam, the permittee at the veterans club. Haslam said that after the accident, Shepard moved out of the home he shared with Coleman, 49, and her sons. He stayed in the area, working for a local towing company, but then dropped out of sight, Haslam said.

“We know it was a tragic accident and we don't blame him,” said Haslam. "But I feel he should have stuck around and paid the consequences."

The gossip in the barroom was that Shepard fled to Florida, according to Haslam. Roche said police heard the same rumor.

Shepard had retained Essex attorney Christopher L. Morano to represent him in the DUI case. Morano, reached by phone last week, declined to comment on the pending manslaughter charge or Shepard's whereabouts, citing his obligation to maintain client confidentiality.

“All I can tell you is I represented Mr. Shepard in the underlying operating under the influence case,” Morano said. “At the present time that's in rearrest status as he failed to appear (in court).”

Shepard was convicted of driving under the influence in 2009 and received a suspended prison sentence and a year of probation, according to state court records.

Shepard and Coleman had “gone out to play” in the Jeep when the fatal accident occurred on July 21, 2013, a Sunday evening, according to an affidavit on file in Middlesex Superior Court. Patrolman Oscar Delima, responding to a 911 call of an accident near 288 Essex Road, was flagged down at the end of a chained-off gravel driveway on VFW Highway by Coleman's son, Jesse Tassilo, who reported his mother had been in an off-roading accident and was unresponsive. Delima found Coleman lying on the ground near a Jeep Wrangler that was on its side. She had shallow breathing and a weak pulse. Delima performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until Coleman was transported to the Middlesex Memorial Shoreline Clinic in Essex, where she died.

At the scene, Shepard told Sgt. William Bergantino that he and Coleman decided to go out and play in the Jeep and that when they went around the corner, the Jeep suddenly rolled over and Coleman, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was thrown out, according to the affidavit. Bergantino detected the odor of alcohol on Shepard's breath and observed that he had glassy, bloodshot eyes and was slurring his words as he spoke, according to the affidavit. Shepard failed a field sobriety test and was placed under arrest.

Detective Sgt. Eugean Heiney, Detective Samuel Barnes and Patrolman Ryan Walsh, who is trained in accident reconstruction, conducted the follow-up investigation. The 1997 Jeep Wrangler was an open top model with no doors and a roll bar, according to the affidavit. Tire marks led from the area where Shepard had entered the private property to the point it rolled over. The marks were “consistent with rapid acceleration resulting in the vehicle fishtailing and losing traction on the gravel,” according to the affidavit. The tire marks indicated the front left wheel of the Jeep left the roadway and struck a mound of brush and dirt, causing it to roll over.

Coleman was survived by her mother, two sons and four siblings and was well-regarded by co-workers and customers at the VFW. Shepard, a customer at the bar, was also liked, according to Haslam, the post permittee.

“We don't want to ruin his life, either,” Haslam said. “But he should pay the price.”

Old Saybrook police are asking that anybody with information on Shepard's whereabouts to call Heiney at (860) 395-3142.

k.florin@theday.com

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