The day after Christmas 2009, David James DelSignore woke up as he had every morning for 15 years, thinking about rabbits. There were 75 in his backyard, mostly Netherland Dwarfs born under his care, mostly the offspring of offspring of rabbits that he'd acquired over his life of breeding and showing.
DelSignore, who will turn 31 this year, adopted his first rabbit, Oreo, from Prince William Animal Shelter in Manassas, Va., when he was 15. Within a year, he had more than 300 rabbits. He built their cages and kept them in an old barn on his family's small farm. He named every one—300 rabbit names, 300 rabbit name plates. Daisy, a Himalayan, was the first of his rabbits to win Best of Breed, then Best in Show, at a Virginia rabbit competition. DelSignore was 16.
In 2002, he transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to Montana State University in Bozeman to pursue a degree in animal husbandry. He drove to Montana with three Netherland Dwarfs in the back seat of his car. In 2005, degree in hand, DelSignore moved to Missoula and soon became involved in a 4-H chapter, mentoring kids in rabbit showmanship. He became the president of the Missoula chapter of the American Rabbit Breeders' Association and the supervisor of its youth chapter. He also founded the Treasure State Youth Rabbit and Cavy Club, which today has about 25 members.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- David DelSignore in his Deer Lodge cell.
That December dawn foretold nothing unusual; just another morning spent tending to Beyonce, Payce, and Picante; Madeline, Mad Mike, and Matilda; and Aires, DelSignore's senior buck, who at the ripe age of 12 still ate and mated, and had lost little of his body condition. The animals were fed, sheltered, warm. For DelSignore there had been many mornings exactly like that morning: rabbits and coffee and some time with his labradoodle, Oliver, all leading to a 15-minute commute from Turah to work at Costco in Missoula. Until December 26, 2009, his life was measured in degrees of normalcy, gauging rabbits.
At 11:30 p.m., the frontage road east of Missoula between the railroad tracks and the Clark Fork River is rurally dark. The area is boxed in to the north and south by Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel, creating Hellgate Canyon. (In the 19th century, French trappers called it Porte de l'Enfer, because Blackfeet nation warriors used it as an ambush point.) Hellgate Canyon's east entrance begins just after the Thunderbird Motel. The streetlights stop not far beyond there.
About 12 hours earlier that day, DelSignore took a break from the checkout lines at Costco and called Brandon Sorensen, a close friend who had been visiting family in Three Forks for the holidays. Sorenson was due back in Missoula that evening. They made plans to get a drink and exchange gifts.
DelSignore punched out at 6 p.m. He stopped by Quality Supply for some animal feed and headed home, to Turah. He checked on the rabbits, reheated some lobster bisque, turned on Jurassic Park 3, and poured himself a glass of wine. Sorensen was due back in town around 9.
DelSignore arrived at the DoubleTree Hotel 20 minutes before Sorensen. In the bar of the hotel's restaurant, Finn & Porter, the bartender recommended a new merlot from Argentina and they each ordered a glass. They shared a bowl of chowder and a crab cake, and talked about the holidays and their families and when they would open gifts.
Sorensen and DelSignore each drank two glasses of wine before Brad Fredericks, whom Sorensen had invited, arrived. It was Fredericks's 27th birthday, and he wanted to celebrate. They all ordered another glass of wine.
By the time they left Finn & Porter, DelSignore had drunk four glasses of Argentine merlot. "It was the holidays," he says. "We were celebrating Brad's birthday—I didn't really think about it."
- Photo by Chad Harder
- A photo of Ashlee Patenaude and Taylor Cearley on the Highway 200 roadside memorial.
Sorensen and Fredericks headed to Al & Vic's, a bar on the north end of downtown with pool tables that ate quarters and a jukebox with Robert Earle Keene and Van Halen.
DelSignore followed in his truck, a 1999, champagne-colored Chevy Silverado. He remembers arriving at Al & Vic's needing a glass of water, but found his friends had ordered him a Long Island iced tea, the sweating glass already on the table. DelSignore says he didn't want to drink it but his friends chided him; they called him a pussy. He drank it all, and told them he needed to go home. It was cold outside. He wanted to check on his rabbits. He left just after 11:30 p.m.
As he drove down East Broadway, the gape of Hellgate Canyon looming, he called a friend whose family he'd spent Christmas Day with. Though it would later be a matter of dispute, he remembers hanging up before his truck passed the Thunderbird Motel.
Soon after, DelSignore says, he felt his truck roll over a rumble strip, though there is no rumble strip on that section of road. What he may have felt was the graveled shoulder, which separated the asphalt from a patch of frozen grass and a steep bank that drops toward the river. He doesn't recall an impact. What made him stop was the screaming.