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The Reckoning

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

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The anniversary story and accompanying editorial marked the last time DelSignore's name was published in the paper until Feb. 11, 2011, when the Missoulian ran this headline: "Missoula mother of fatal DUI victim pleads guilty to reckless driving." The brief article cited the outcome of an Oct. 17, 2009, incident where Shawna Cearley was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and possessing an open container while traveling down the same road where her daughter was killed two months later. Missoulian.com did not allow comments on the story.

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Between the date of his release from county jail and his sentencing hearing nine months later, DelSignore was permitted to live his life with relatively few stipulations. The judge had required that he routinely blow into a Breathalyzer, which remotely sent BAC scores to his bondsman, and that he find a new job; he'd been fired from Costco.

The Breathalyzer was easy. Even without a court order forbidding him from drinking, DelSignore says he "will never touch alcohol again." Finding work, however, proved more difficult, and it wasn't until early May that Nancy Larson and Lindsey Irwin, the mother-daughter owners of the Bitterroot Flower Shop, hired him as a part-time sales clerk. "Our main concern was that he was very over-qualified for the job," Irwin says. "We had no idea he was involved [in the accident]."

A few days after he began work, DelSignore asked Irwin, Larson, and a few others to meet him in the alley behind the shop. "He was crying when he told us," says Irwin. "He said that if we felt he was a detriment to our business, he would understand." Irwin and Larson, whose shop prepared flower arrangements for the victims' funerals, briefly deliberated about the hire before deciding that DelSignore already had become too valuable a member of the team to consider letting him go.

"He just wanted to be as regular as possible," Irwin says. Larson added, "Our only worry was compensating him enough for all the extra work he was doing."

During DelSignore's first few weeks at the shop, he took each of the other 15 employees aside and told them about the accident. They were understanding. "They were always asking me to go out, and I was always saying no," he says.

DelSignore enjoyed the work, and according to his employers, customers appreciated his disposition, attention to detail, and professionalism. "People would come in and ask to work with Dave. We don't get that very often," Larson says.

That summer, DelSignore's face and name repeatedly appeared on the front page of the paper, but only once did his presence have a negative impact at the flower shop, when a member of Ashlee Patenaude's family came in while he was working. DelSignore recognized her from a court hearing. They made eye contact and she immediately left.

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Head west from the lone stoplight in downtown Deer Lodge and the road climbs softly into the foothills of the Flint Creek Mountains. From the top of the bench you can see across a narrow valley to the crest of another bench. This is grassland, pastureland, windswept and sullen below the mountains.

David DelSignore holds a photo of a rabbit in his cell. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

In the cradle of that narrow valley sits the 68-acre footprint of the Montana State Prison double fence that surrounds DelSignore's home. Recently, five months into his sentence and 40 pounds lighter than when he arrived, he explained that his days have been spent making planters out of recycled license plates and scrap wood. The project is part of an initiative with the slogan "Healthy Mind, Healthy Body," and is the brainchild of Montana's First Lady, Nancy Schweitzer. Eventually, some 4,000 planters will be distributed to fourth graders across Montana. DelSignore is glad to have something to keep him busy. He makes 31 cents an hour, most of which goes toward restitution to the victims' families.

A month before the sentencing hearing, Paul Sells, a licensed clinical social worker, sent an evaluation of DelSignore to Cathy Dorle, the Missoula Department of Corrections Parole and Probation officer assigned to the case. In the evaluation, Sells wrote, "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...[He] has had tremendous remorse over his part in this incident, has never shied away from taking ownership for this terrible choice to get behind the wheel of his vehicle that night, and has stated convincingly more than once 'I'll never drink again...I deserve to be punished.'"

Two weeks earlier Sells had written to Morgan Modine, DelSignore's attorney. In the letter, Sells iterates the depth of DelSignore's remorse and the fact that, until the accident, he'd been an upstanding member of the community.

DelSignore had pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide and one count of negligent assault. At the October 8 hearing, Judge John Larson invited comments before he announced his sentence. Among those who spoke on the victims' behalf was Ashlee Patenaude's mother, Jenipher, who addressed DelSignore directly:

"You chose to get behind the wheel of that vehicle. You chose to talk on your cell phone or text or whatever you were doing and you ruined our lives...They were great girls and you ruined every single one of their lives. I can't forgive you and I won't. No matter how much time you have to serve, it will never be enough. I have an urn sitting in my living room. I have them in my head and in my heart and it's not good enough for me and you did that to me. I want you to suffer."

Several of the other parents and friends of the victims also spoke. DelSignore cried continually, but never lowered his head.

"I wanted to show them that I take responsibility," he explained.

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