CONWAY, SC (WMBF) – The Louisiana man who was charged in connection with a 2015 car crash that killed two young North Carolina girls has pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and was sentenced to a total of 35 years in prison.
The judge ruled that Neil Dejean will serve the maximum penalty for the two reckless homicide charges, 10 years each, which will run concurrently. He also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years on a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in connection with the crash. That sentence will also run concurrently, so Dejean will serve 15 years in prison.
The family of the two girls who were killed appeared at the hearing and wore purple in their honor.
"Hugging a headstone is no where near hugging your child," said the mother of 11-year-old Dakota Shepherd, one of the two girls killed in the crash.
"I still haven't been able to say goodbye," said one family member. "Two years later, I still can't bring myself to do it."
The crash happened on July 21, 2015 on U.S. 17 Business near the Pirateland Campground in Horry County, according to the arrest warrant.
Neil Dejean, who was driving a Mercedes, allegedly struck a Dodge minivan that was turning left into private property.
Two passengers in the van, 11-year-old Shepherd from Timberlake, N.C., and her cousin, 9-year-old Skyler Emore, were both pronounced dead at the scene from internal injuries.
"It's been two years, and I realize we are here today to figure out how much time the defendant should serve for this, but what I want people to understand is that the moment he hit my van, that's when my life sentence, my husband's life sentence, my sister's, my brother-in-law's, my entire community, that's when our life sentence started and we don't get a second chance," said Suzanne Shepherd, Dakota Shepherd's mother, during Tuesday's court hearing.
The arrest warrant alleged that Dejean was driving at a high rate of speed and in a reckless manner when the collision occurred.
Three open LandShark beer bottles were reportedly found in the floorboard of the Mercedes in plain view, according to the warrant.
While DeJean's defense attorney, Joe Mcollough, argued a work-related injury from 2009 caused severe damage to DeJean's brain, saying such an injury would make a person act impulsively, the judge ruled that a phone call between the defendant and his wife was reason enough to believe he was fully aware of what he did the night of July 21, 2015.
In that call, which Leslie DeJean made to her husband while he sat in a jail cell, she was heard saying "You killed two kids."
He responded, "I know that; I know that" and also said "I'm so sorry."
According to a trial roster from the 15th Circuit Solicitor's Office, Dejean was originally set to be tried the week of June 19, 2017.