David DelSignore wept before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole last week as he recalled the night four years ago when he killed Missoula teenagers Ashlee Patenaude and Taylor Cearley.
“There’s absolutely nothing I can say to show how much guilt and remorse I have for the lives that I have taken and the lives that I destroyed,” DelSignore told the board and roughly 20 others who came to share their thoughts on whether he should be released from prison.
In 2010, DelSignore pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide and negligent assault for causing the Dec. 26, 2009, collision on Highway 200 that killed Hellgate High School basketball players Patenaude, 14, and Cearley, 15, and injured their friend Teal Packard. After serving nearly four years of a 15-year prison term, the minimum required under state law, DelSignore is eligible for parole this summer.
Emotional testimony from the families of DelSignore’s victims, who pressed the board to keep him in prison, highlighted the difficult nature of the board’s deliberations.
“He will go on with his life,” said Gary Erb, Taylor’s grandfather. “My granddaughter is in an urn in my daughter’s bedroom.”
Roughly a dozen DelSignore supporters, however, provided impassioned testimony in favor of his release. They said he is a good person who made a grievous error. If released from custody, they vouched that he’d commit himself to working in the local community to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again. “I ask that you release David DelSignore so he can begin his mission to better his community,” said Kamrie White, who DelSignore mentored in the local 4-H program before the accident.
At the parole board’s request, DelSignore, now 34, recited the events that unfolded along Highway 200 just before midnight on Dec. 26, 2009. He was celebrating a friend’s birthday that night, drinking at Finn & Porter and at Al’s & Vic’s. At the end of the evening, DelSignore called friends to find a sober ride home. When he couldn’t find a ride, he decided to drive the roughly 13 miles to Turah himself.
After passing the Thunderbird Motel on Highway 200, DelSignore said he felt something like rumble strips under his truck. The screaming alerted him something was wrong.
Once outside the vehicle, DelSignore saw three girls laying bloody in the snow. A fourth teenager ran along Highway 200.
“I found one of the young girls running up and down the side of the road yelling, screaming, that I had just killed her friends,” DelSignore told the board.
When emergency responders found him, DelSignore was kneeling over one of the bodies. He had wrapped Packard, who was still alive, in his coat and placed her in his truck, turning the heater on high.
A Breathalyzer performed after the collision indicated DelSignore had a .147 blood alcohol content. The legal limit is .08.
The incident triggered a firestorm of anger in the community over alcohol-related drunken driving fatalities. Five months after DelSignore killed Patenaude and Cearley, Tracy LaJoie, of Missoula, hit and killed 54-year-old Faith Bible Church pastor Fred Emory. In October 2010, Daniel Rodgers registered .203 on a Breathalyzer after crashing his car into Sacajawea Park and killing his passenger, 32-year-old Dave Mishcock. News stories also regularly documented individuals who accumulated as many as 10 DUIs and were released.
But those testifying for DelSignore stressed that he was not a habitual offender and didn’t have a drinking problem. Paul Sells, a licensed clinical social worker, wrote in an evaluation of DelSignore prior to his 2010 sentencing that, “Somewhat amazingly to me from all the information I can gather, and which I believe to be reliable, Mr. DelSignore does not have a pattern of alcohol or substance abuse …”
“David’s a good soul and a great person,” said Wendy McDaniel, who worked with DelSignore in 4-H. “I just hope that he can forgive himself, some day.”
The supportive testimony proved tough to take for the victims’ families. “I’m sorry his friends feel like he is suffering,” said Ashlee Patenaude’s mother, Jenipher. “You have no idea as a parent how much I am suffering unless you lost a child of your own.” She went on to detail the night of the accident and how she hurried to the crash scene to find her daughter on the side of the road.
As the parents and grandparents of the victims testified, each urging the board to keep DelSignore in prison, DelSignore sat in a small armless chair in the middle of the meeting room with clenched hands. Todd Patenaude, Ashley’s father, said DelSignore should do at least four more years.
The board ultimately agreed with DelSignore supporters that DelSignore’s mentorship work and his clear remorse leave him uniquely equipped to convey an anti-drunk driving message to area kids. The board believes it makes more sense to prepare him for release, rather than leave him in prison.
“In this case, we do have the ability to move forward,” said Board Chairman Michael McKee.
The board recommended DelSignore be transferred to a secure inpatient counseling program where he will remain for six months. After that, DelSignore will live for six more months in a prerelease center. Last week’s decision leaves DelSignore poised to be paroled in roughly a year.
DelSignore said he’s eager to demonstrate that he’s worthy of a second chance. “What I want to do right now,” he said, “is I want to prove to everybody that I am not a monster.”