By Jill Harmacinski
---- — METHUEN – After picking up his dry cleaning, John F.J. Sullivan was driving west on Pelham Street when he heard a “thump,” and thought he hit a deer, he told police.
Minutes later, after driving north to the mall in Salem, N.H., Sullivan saw that his windshield was cracked and his front right headlight was smashed. In a statement to police, the 46-year-old Methuen man wrote, “I figured I might have hit a person because of the extent of the damage.”
Sullivan, of 23 Laurel Ave., drove to back to Methuen, to the police department, and asked if he’d struck someone. Police told him he had and the elderly victim, Manok Leach, was critically injured.
Sullivan, a former news editor at The Eagle-Tribune and most recently The Salem News, is charged with hitting Leach, 70, as she tried to cross Pelham Street at Mystic Street at 5:36 p.m. Tuesday and then leaving the scene of the accident.
Witnesses reported seeing the woman fly into the air after she was hit. Another driver thought someone had tossed a garbage bag back out of a car, before realizing a pedestrian was hit and lying in the street, she told police.
Leach, of 22 Mystic St., suffered a shattered pelvis, brain bleeding and other internal injuries as a result of being hit by Sullivan’s 2002 Toyota Camry, a prosecutor said yesterday. Manok’s late husband, Richard Leach, was hit by a car in the same area six years ago.
She was dressed in a black down jacket, jeans and gray shoes as she tried to cross Pelham Street, Sullivan’s defense attorney said.
Judge Michael Brooks released Sullivan on personal recognizance at his arraignment in Lawrence District Court yesterday morning. Brooks rebuffed a request by Prosecutor Kelleen Forlizzi to set Sullivan’s bail at $10,000 and bar him from driving while the case is pending.
“He is not an immediate threat. He is a man who found himself in a tragic, horrible situation,” said attorney Andrew Goldstein, who represented Sullivan at arraignment yesterday.
When Sullivan was arrested Tuesday night, police refused to identify him when questioned by The Eagle-Tribune. But, in fact his name and arrest information was posted on the Methuen Police Department’s Facebook page on Tuesday night.
Sullivan was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the crash, police said. Goldstein said Sullivan does not having a texting plan on his cell phone, nor was he talking on his cell phone when the accident occurred.
A self-employed freelance writer, Sullivan worked at the The Eagle-Tribune and a sister paper, The Salem News, from 2003 to 2011. His latest job was as night editor at The Salem News before being laid off.
Tuesday evening, police found Leach lying, injured in the westbound lane of Pelham Street. A nurse from Holy Family Hospital had stopped to help the woman, according to a police report.
Another driver, Richard Drorbaugh, 50, told police he was driving eastbound and stopped to allow Leach to cross in front of his car. She walked very slowly. Just after she passed in front of his car, he went to drive away and suddenly he saw Leach “being thrown into the air.”
Two other witnesses saw Leach flying in the air but could not describe the car that hit her.
Shauna Clark, 35, with her son as a passenger, was driving westbound on Pelham Street, “when she witnessed what she thought was a bag of trash being thrown from the passenger side of the vehicle in front of her,” police wrote.
She soon realized a woman was lying in the middle of the road.
Until yesterday, Goldstein said Sullivan had never been a defendant in a courtroom. His driving record is nearly impeccable, with only one minor accident in 2011, but no speeding tickets or traffic violations.
Describing Leach’s dark clothing, Goldstein said Sullivan never saw Leach in the street.
Police were interviewing witnesses when they received a call from dispatch that Sullivan was in the police station lobby. A police record indicates Sullivan arrived there at 6:03 p.m. The statement he wrote for police is time stamped at 6:13 p.m.
Sullivan is due back in court on Feb. 13.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screename EagleTribJill.