Driver in boat accident gets home detention

August 4, 2018

ANGOLA : A Fort Wayne woman accused of recklessly driving a motorboat that tipped on Lake Gage last summer, ejecting all 10 passengers and seriously injuring four, was sentenced Friday to six months on home detention.

Dominique Effinger, 21, pleaded guilty July 2 to felony criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon as part of a plea agreement. 

The criminal recklessness charge carried a maximum sentence of 21/2 years in prison.

Steuben County Superior Court Judge William Fee sentenced Effinger to 11/2 years, with one year suspended and six months on home detention.

Her lawyer, Michelle Kraus, asked that Effinger be allowed to serve home detention in Monroe County so she could finish her senior year at Indiana University. It is uncertain in which county Effinger should serve her detention.

Fee also ordered Effinger to pay restitution of slightly more than 15,000.

Restitution costs could increase, Steuben County Prosecutor Jeremy Musser said.

No civil suits have been filed yet, Kraus told The Journal Gazette after the sentencing. When Steven Higdon, father of Daniella Higdon, one of three women injured in the accident, was asked if he intended to file a civil suit, he responded “no comment” as he walked out of the courtroom.

Effinger faced other charges, including two felony counts of operating a motorboat with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher resulting in serious injury. Those charges were dropped as part of the plea agreement. 

A preliminary breath test on Effinger after the accident, which occurred just after 7 p.m. on July 15, 2017, showed an alcohol level of 0.122 percent, court documents said. At 10:09 p.m., Effinger’s alcohol level registered at 0.098 percent, according to DNR final report.

The case drew national attention after a video was posted on social media of the boat Effinger had been driving circling the lake unmanned for more than an hour, after Effinger, then 20, and her passengers were thrown into the water.

Before Fee delivered his judgment, he heard emotional testimony from both Steven and Daniella Higdon and Catherine Ralston, whose injured hand was wrapped in protective gauze. Taylor Bolin of Noblesville suffered a skull fracture and did not appear in court. 

Both Higdon and Ralston, who are identified as Effinger’s sorority sisters, said they did not want to see Effinger jailed but felt she should have some punishment in light of their injuries.

After the accident, “she continued to live her life as if nothing had happened,” Ralston said, “continuing to party, to go on vacations, to go to Lake Gage.

“I couldn’t understand how anyone could move on so quickly,” she said, adding that “her actions speak louder than any words.” Ralston asked that Effinger spend her home detention away from Bloomington.

If not for a surgeon in Indianapolis, Higdon said she most likely would have lost her arm. Both women said they suffered physical infirmity because of their injuries, as well as emotional and mental anguish, including panic attacks and flashbacks.

“I slept with my mom for the first few months because I was too afraid to be alone,” Higdon told the judge. The pain after the accident was “excruciating,” Higdon said. “Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured myself in the water again.”

Each young woman said that her hands were disfigured and that she would not be able to wear a wedding ring properly.

Effinger had 11 people come to the stand as character witnesses. Several of them, including Kraus, said that before the accident, anyone searching for Effinger online might find photos of academic achievement or good work in the community.

Greg Eifert, a family friend from Fort Wayne and a Lake Gage neighbor, said Effinger showed courage in a storm five years ago, keeping an entire boat of children safe.

Kraus played intake audio from the Steuben County Jail right after the accident, where Effinger is heard asking about her friends repeatedly. 

While Kraus argued that “it would be a disaster” if Effinger was not able to complete her senior year, the judge said he believed Effinger behaved with criminal recklessness even if she were now remorseful, and the injuries were so severe that he had to take into consideration the victims’ wishes.

“There was no doubt every young person was in fear of their life,” Fee said. “Bad things can happen to good people. It can happen in the blink of an eye.” 

Throughout the hearing, Effinger’s mother, Lisa, dabbed her eyes. Dominique Effinger stood between her two attorneys, Kraus and William LeBrato, and said she took full responsibility for her actions and was sorry for what had happened.

“I plan to tell my story from here on out in the hope of making a difference,” Effinger said.


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