‘Sadness’ still lingers from Memorial Day 2022 boat crash in Savannah

Friends remember the Leffler family, longtime Alpharetta residents, and await trial of boat pilot charged with homicide and BUI
The Coast Guard conducts a rescue at the scene of a deadly boat crash on Memorial Day weekend 2022. Four members of the Leffler family were killed in a boating crash. Parents, Lori and Chris Leffler, along with sons Zach and Nate died. Daughter Kate survived. (U.S. Coast Guard video screenshot)

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard screen shot

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard screen shot

The Coast Guard conducts a rescue at the scene of a deadly boat crash on Memorial Day weekend 2022. Four members of the Leffler family were killed in a boating crash. Parents, Lori and Chris Leffler, along with sons Zach and Nate died. Daughter Kate survived. (U.S. Coast Guard video screenshot)

SAVANNAH ― The messages came fast and furious to Doug Pesce’s mobile phone around midday on May 28, 2022.

Word of a horrific boat crash on the Wilmington River had spread that Memorial Day weekend morning, and rumor had it a Calvary Day schoolteacher piloting a boat out of the Savannah Boathouse marina was involved. Pesce met that description, and friends knew he’d planned to hit the water that day.

“Calvary students work the docks” at the marina, Pesce said, “so the news spread quickly. Friends called to check, thinking it could be me.”

Instead, it was one of Pesce’s colleagues and close friends, Chris Leffler, piloting the boat. Leffler, his wife Lori, sons Nate and Zach, daughter Katie and one of Katie’s friends were aboard the vessel when it collided with another craft near a hairpin bend of the river that winds between the Savannah River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Four members of the Leffler family died in the accident, as did a passenger on the other boat, Robert “Stephen” Chauncey. Katie Leffler and her unidentified friend survived, as did the driver of the other vessel, Mark Stegall.

Four members of the Leffler family were killed in a boating crash on the Wilmington River in Savannah on Memorial Day weekend in 2022. Mother Lori Leffler, son Zach Leffler, father Chris Leffler and youngest son Nate died. Daughter Kate, not pictured, survived. (Facebook)

Credit: Facebookj

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Credit: Facebookj

Law enforcement investigators determined Stegall at fault in the collision. Their report alleges he was driving “recklessly” on the wrong side of the busy waterway and had consumed alcohol that morning. A Chatham County grand jury indicted Stegall on 16 counts, including 10 counts of homicide by vessel, in August 2022 and he entered a not guilty plea at an arraignment hearing a year later.

Yet as the two-year anniversary of the boat crash nears, a trial date has not been scheduled. A motion hearing slated for May 21 was postponed until November at the request of the defense, which is challenging the admissibility of blood alcohol-related evidence in the case.

Stegall has been free on a $75,000 bond since September 2022.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Chatham District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones said her prosecutors are prepared to try the case. The court clerk and the judges, not her office, handle scheduling, she said. She pointed to a yearslong case backlog, one made even longer by a 13-month-long jury trial suspension during COVID-19 pandemic, for the slow pace.

Reached for comment, one of Stegall’s attorneys, Tom Withers, confirmed that the defense is the source of the current delay but said the prolonged pre-trial period is not unusual in a case such as Stegall’s.

The wait still frustrates Pesce and other close friends of the Leffler family. Stacy Volz, who tutored the Leffler boys when they were younger, calls the case an “open wound.” Michelle Procopio, another Calvary teacher, talks of “finding justice” for Katie Leffler, who is now in grad school and has asked for privacy in regards to her loss.

“There’s just this lingering sense of sadness,” Volz said. “The wheels of justice do move slowly. Painfully slow.”


Credit: R.J. Smith / For Savannah Morning News

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Credit: R.J. Smith / For Savannah Morning News

Unforgettable influences

The Lefflers relocated to Savannah just months before the accident. They moved to the Georgia coast from Alpharetta, where Chris had taught at King’s Ridge Christian School.

Teaching was Chris Leffler’s second career; he’d worked as a financial adviser before finding “his calling,” Pesce said.

“He just had a true genuine passion and desire to help kids grow,” Pesce said. “The great students he pushed to achieve more. The kids who struggled, he pushed them to grow and supported them along the way. He saw them as individuals and did everything to meet their needs.”

Lori was an executive with a consumer products company. Zach was a 23-year-old working as a data analyst in Atlanta and Nate was a junior at Calvary at the time of their deaths.

The other person killed in the boat crash, Chauncey, was a U.S. Army veteran. He served his country for 16 years before retiring and is survived by a young daughter.

Despite being relatively new Savannah residents, the Lefflers had built strong local bonds. The accident devastated the Calvary school community. Calvary’s 2023 class yearbook is dedicated to the memory of Nate and his father.

They were one of four families to follow Calvary head of school Hunter Chadwick from King’s Ridge to the Savannah K-12. Chadwick worked seven years as an administrator in the Alpharetta school before being hired at Calvary in 2020.

The draw of the coast and the chance to be a part of building on the success of Calvary, a popular parochial school affiliated with a large Baptist church, led to a steady, southerly trickle of King’s Ridge staffers.

“We are often asked if all of us moving here was planned; it was not,” Volz said. “We were all about the same age and at a similar point in our lives and felt personally called here to be a part of the energy and excitement of it.”

A Coast Guard helicopter responds to the scene of a boat crash that left five people dead over Memorial Day weekend in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Martin)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ryan Martin

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Ryan Martin

The former Alpharetta residents were close-knit, often getting together for group dinners. All spoke of the Leffler family with admiration, citing their kindness and love for one another as examples to follow. Chris coached their children on the baseball and football fields. Zach and Nate babysat those same kids. Lori was quick to help others, including friends of friends she didn’t know, in their professional pursuits.

According to Volz, Chris’ influence is best summed up in notes he created documenting realizations of things seen on Earth that he considered glimpses into heaven. His “pockets of heaven” might describe a dazzling sunset or a struggling student who’d finally come to understand something.

“The impression he made is hard for me to do justice to,” Procopio said. “Follow your heart and follow the Lord and He will come to you. That’s how he lived.”

A wreath hangs on a channel marker in the Wilmington River near the Savannah Yacht Club. A boat struck the channel marker in May 2022, killing a passenger, one of three serious boating incidents that happened within a month in Savannah. (Adam Van Brimmer/AJC)

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

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Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

Safety on the water

The Memorial Day weekend 2022 crash was one of three high-profile boating accidents in the Savannah area in a one-month span. One of the others left local businessman Joseph Moore dead when the vessel he was aboard struck a channel marker in the Intracoastal Waterway near the Savannah Yacht Club. The other incident involved two teens, both of who survived.

The rash of collisions put a spotlight on boater safety and education. According to data from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the crashes accounted for six of the seven boating-related deaths in Chatham County in 2022, and there hasn’t been a fatality since. There have been seven boating incidents since the start of 2023 but only two injuries.

Mark McKinnon with the Georgia DNR cautioned against reading much into trends, referencing the many factors that affect boating statistics. He cited weather conditions and what days of the week holidays such as July 4 fall on. Rain and midweek holidays drive numbers down.

“We will continue to patrol, educate on and enforce the laws, and also keep hammering home the messages of life jacket wear, not boating while impaired, and obeying the ‘rules of the road,’” he wrote in an email.

For Leffler’s pal Pesce, whom friends initially feared was involved in the fatal collision two years ago, boating remains a favorite downtime pursuit. But he admits to thinking about the Lefflers on every trip and said his wife remains uneasy about being on the water. She refused to go out for a year after the accident.

“We were supposed to meet them out there that afternoon on the water,” Pesce said. “Every time I get on board that boat I can’t help but think about it.”