BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — PEABODY — The charges against a Peabody man who police say was at the wheel of a car that slammed into the back of a flatbed tow truck in May, killing his passenger, have been upgraded to manslaughter.
But a Salem Superior Court judge yesterday reduced Matthew Fowler’s bail from $50,000 to $5,000 after hearing from his attorney about his strong ties to the area, including a newborn child.
During his arraignment yesterday in Salem Superior Court, Fowler, 38, of 3 Highland Terrace, Apt. 2, Peabody, pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge, as well as charges of motor vehicle homicide, second-offense drunken driving and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Fowler’s blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit on the night of the crash, a prosecutor said.
The May 24 crash on Walnut Street killed Fowler’s friend, Daniel Walker, 31, of Peabody, when Fowler’s Hyundai sedan veered into the rear of the illegally parked tow truck, shearing off the top of the car.
Prosecutor Susan Dolhun urged Judge Timothy Feeley to keep the bail at $50,000, citing the potential penalties Fowler now faces, including several minimum mandatory sentences if he is convicted.
Dolhun recounted to the judge how the accident was discovered by an EMT traveling on Walnut Street around 12:30 a.m. The prosecutor described how Fowler made eye contact with the EMT, then walked away.
The gruesome injuries to his passenger would have been immediately apparent to Fowler, and Fowler was covered in blood that was not his, she said.
The key to the car was also missing; investigators later found it in Fowler’s clothing when he was being treated at a hospital for minor injuries he had suffered in the crash.
Police found Fowler on Tracey Street, about a third of a mile from the crash scene, said the prosecutor. While Fowler had insisted that he wasn’t trying to flee, only going to seek help, Dolhun pointed out that Fowler passed some 46 residences, as well as a fully staffed fire station.
And when police tried to get him to go with them, he repeatedly insisted that he was going home to be with his wife, due to give birth to their child in two weeks.
That child has since been born and was present in the courthouse, along with Fowler’s wife, Lisa, a social worker.
A test of the blood drawn from Fowler at the hospital revealed a blood alcohol level of .25, more than three times the legal limit.
Dolhun said Fowler and Walker had been playing darts at the Swampscott VFW hall, then headed to the Salem Moose Lodge, which is just down the road from the crash scene. An accident reconstruction report concluded that while the truck was illegally parked, Fowler still had nearly 13 feet of roadway available to pass the truck.
Defense attorney Gary Zerola urged a lower bail, suggesting that his client’s strong ties to the community make him “in no way a risk of flight, not even a little bit.”
“He’s a really great guy ... who had a bad night,” Zerola said.
Besides his wife and newborn child, Fowler has an older child he supports from his first marriage and family living on the North Shore.
Zerola also pointed to the support that Fowler’s family has tried to offer the family of Wright, including attending a fundraiser held to help pay for Wright’s funeral expenses.
The lawyer suggested that Walker’s family does not want to see harsh penalties for Fowler.
Feeley agreed to reduce the bail to $5,000 as requested by Zerola, with the added condition that Fowler wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and remain confined to his home under house arrest unless he is making a court appearance or has a medical emergency.
The judge also advised Lisa Fowler that she cannot have any alcohol or firearms in the home.
Fowler’s release was delayed until his wife can set up a “land line” phone in the apartment, which is required for the electronic monitoring bracelet he will wear.
Feeley acknowledged that the case is “incredibly serious,” but said, “Bail is bail. Bail is to deter flight, bail is to reasonably assure the presence of a person at all proceedings. Mr. Fowler has no history suggesting that he will not appear.”
A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.