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The Reckoning

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

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After more than two hours of testimony, Judge Larson asked the mothers of the two dead girls to stand and state the ages of their daughters.

"Fourteen," Jenipher Patenaude said.

"Fifteen," Shawna Cearley said.

Larson sentenced DelSignore to 30 years at Montana State Prison with 14 years and seven months of that time suspended.

•••

DelSignore keeps a collection of pictures in his prison cell. Pictures of his parents, who still live in Virginia; of his brother and sister, who live in Colorado Springs; of his friends back in Missoula. He has a picture of Oliver the labradoodle, and his rabbits.

"They all have different homes now," he says. Some of his Jersey Woolys and Netherland Dwarfs went to live in Spokane, with a family he'd met at a rabbit show there. A few live with friends in Missoula, but most of them, along with Oliver, live in Potomac with Wendy McDaniel and her family, who send DelSignore pictures of the rabbits. "A lot of guys here think it's weird," he says, referring to his fellow inmates, "but I love getting the pictures. My animals have a good home there."

DelSignore says he thinks about the accident. He says there are good days, when he feels motivated, eager to improve. And there are bad days, when he can't get out of bed, and everything seems to make him cry. "Every day I am ashamed of what I've done to these families. I didn't want any of this. I don't think it's anyone's intention to get into a vehicle and...I accept the fact that I'm here in prison."

•••

Two benches sit at the accident site, perched atop a high bank overlooking a slow bend in the Clark Fork. "Ashlee Renee Patenaude" and "Taylor Lee Cearley" are burned into the wood, a name for each bench. Between the benches is a waist-high pedestal cobbled together with river stones, rings, bracelets, and charms embedded in the mortar. One charm says "Love." Another says "Peace." On top of the pedestal is a color picture of the girls. Their eyes are the same arresting shade of blue. They stare directly at the camera. Flanking the photograph, chiseled into stone, are their birth dates: Ashlee, January 10, 1995; Taylor, July 14, 1994. Following each birthdate is a dash and another date: December 26, 2009.

At night, two newly installed streetlights cast an orbital glow.

Between the accident and his sentencing, DelSignore avoided the stretch of road that passes through Hellgate Canyon. He says before he was sent to Deer Lodge he never visited the memorial, out of respect for the families. He hopes they will one day forgive him, but he knows, if it happens at all, that it will take time.

•••

Letters help. From DelSignore's family, his co-workers at the flower shop, the McDaniel family, and from Kamrie White, who sends him a letter nearly every day.

Kamrie is 15, a sophomore in high school. DelSignore had mentored her in the 4-H program, showed her how to care for and handle her sable-colored Holland Lop, a breed of rabbit with floppy ears and seemingly too much flesh and fur for its small, roundish frame.

Kamrie hosts a website at springfeverhollands.com. Under the "About Us" tab, she writes, "I started out with my first rabbit Peanut Butter from Jennie Webb at 10 years old. After awhile you could say I got the 'bunny fever' and ended up with 20! I am now 15 years old and am raising and showing quality, pedigreed, Holland Lops. Thanks to all my great friends I have met." Among those who she thanks are David DelSignore.

In August, two months before the sentencing, DelSignore joined Kamrie and her family at the Missoula County Fair, where Kamrie was showing her rabbit. Before Holland Lops were called, DelSignore took her aside and gave her a final tip: "If you have confidence in your animal, if you believe in it," he said, "then the judges will see that, and you will do well."

That rabbit show would be his last before DelSignore went to prison. He plans to return to the circuit after his release, but just when that will be is uncertain. In 2014 he'll be eligible for parole, and though he thinks about life after prison often, he says, he isn't ready to get his hopes up.

Part of his release will be obligatory speaking engagements, educating kids on the dangers of drunken driving. "I'm eager to turn this situation into something positive for someone else," he says.

Something positive like the memory of his last rabbit show.

Kamrie won Grand Rabbit.

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