The Reckoning 

David DelSignore wouldn't hurt a soul. And then he did.

Page 2 of 4

"I reversed my truck," he remembers. "I see one girl just running up and down the side of the street. As soon as I get out, I hear her yelling, 'You killed my friends, you killed my friends!'"

•••

DelSignore got out of the truck. He saw three girls lying motionless on the side of the road.

He called Sorensen—no answer. He called Fredericks—no answer. Then he called 911.

One of the girls started moving. DelSignore carried her to his truck, sat her up in the passenger's seat, and turned up the cab's heat. "She was shaking," he says. "She had blood on her. I thought she was going into shock, so I told her friend to stay with her—to try to keep her awake."

DelSignore returned to the two girls who were still lying motionless. One was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. Both had blood on their faces. Their shoes were knocked off their feet.

He tried to warm them, rubbing their shoulders and arms with his hands. He was crying.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The fire trucks showed up first, then the ambulances and the troopers and the sheriff's deputies. DelSignore was taken to St. Patrick Hospital for blood work before being taken back to the scene of the accident, where he saw a girl being lifted into the back of an ambulance.

A highway patrolman asked if he knew what had happened. DelSignore said he didn't want to know. The officer told him two of the girls, Ashlee Patenaude and Taylor Cearley, were dead and their friend, Teal Packard, was severely injured.

DelSignore submitted to a Breathalyzer. He blew a .147. The legal limit is .08, a little more than half that.

•••

Two days later, a photograph of DelSignore dominated the front page of The Missoulian. His eyes looked small, eclipsed from below by dark, swollen bags. His head was tilted awkwardly, as if it were too heavy. He was biting his lower lip and wearing bright orange jail coveralls, the sagging V-neck exposing a wedge of hairless chest.

On December 31, DelSignore was released from Missoula County Jail on his own recognizance. Sorensen arrived that morning with a promissory note stating that if DelSignore ran, Sorensen and five others (including each of their parents) would pay the $120,000 bail.

DelSignore hadn't slept in days. He'd barely been able to eat. He'd also been denied the prescription drugs Flexeril and Gabapentin, which he took for severe back pain stemming from an injury he'd suffered at Costco in 2005. "He looked so pale," Sorensen says. "He was lost."

On New Years Day, Wendy McDaniel, to whom DelSignore had grown close in 4-H, took him to breakfast along with her family. They ate at Paul's Pancake Parlor, a diner with a mural of the University of Montana football stadium. It was the first time he'd been out in public since the accident, and though he wore a hoodie and dark sunglasses, a man in the restaurant recognized him. "I could hear him say to his friend, 'I can't believe they just let people like that walk the streets.' I felt sick."

•••

Nine months later, DelSignore addressed a crowded room in Missoula District Court. He wore a black suit and gray tie. His voice trembled as he spoke over a broken din of sobs from the audience: "There is nothing I can say or do to bring these girls back. That is my own fault. I can't bring your girls back—I can't. I can't apologize enough to anyone here.

"I do deserve to be punished. My family has stood by my side. I have brought so much shame to them. They raised me to make better decisions. I don't want any harm to come to them for standing by my side.

click to enlarge David DelSignore in the prison print shop. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"I'm not going to beg for mercy. Allow the community and families to receive peace of mind knowing that the person that caused so much devastation is going away."

The hearing was the final scene in a narrative that galvanized Missoula, where DelSignore's story seemed the final straw in a stack of headline tragedies. There was the March 2009 incident, where an off-duty bartender collided head-on with a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, killing them both. Then, in August of that year, State Sen. Greg Barkus steered his powerboat onto a rocky shoreline on Flathead Lake. Among the four injured were U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg and two of his staffers, one of whom was in a coma for more than a week after the accident.

But DelSignore was not an unraveling alcoholic or an influential politician. He was a man who lived by means and ends that fit neatly and quietly into society. He was the proverbial Everyman.

"He's the ultimate cautionary tale," said Gwen Florio, a reporter who covered the case for the Missoulian.

On the one-year anniversary of the accident, the Missoulian ran an article with the headline "Families struggling to cope a year after drunken driver killed 2 girls, injured 2 others." It quotes family members, friends, and a Hellgate High School freshmen basketball coach, Phil McLendon, who said, "I still think about those girls all the time. I have their families in my prayers and thoughts." The same day the paper ran an editorial that used the story of the accident as a lead-in to a discussion of the state legislature's obligation to pass more stringent DUI laws:

"It is the Missoulian editorial board's fervent wish that the shock and pain and grief that swept through our community as news of the senseless tragedy spread—the same hurt experienced by everyone, at one time or another, who has ever had the misfortune of being touched by the devastation wreaked by drunken driving—will not be for nothing."

For a year, DelSignore's story was the sort of news that highlights political, social, and moral divisions in an otherwise homogenous community. The catharsis of these divisions could be tracked on Missoulian.com comments, where the tone sometimes was like a boisterous town hall meeting: "What were these girls doing walking along Highway 200?" "David should rot in prison." "Maybe it's time to build some streetlights."

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