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Residents still mum year after boat crash

July 29, 2018

When Dominique Effinger lost control of her family’s speedboat last July, its dramatic capture on Lake Gage by a Department of Natural Resources officer was caught on video, enthralling online viewers far outside northeast Indiana.

Four of the 21-foot boat’s 10 passengers had serious injuries, including one whose hand was reportedly partly amputated. Another one suffered a skull fracture. Effinger, a 2015 Bishop Dwenger High School graduate and Indiana University student, was charged with two felonies and three misdemeanors related to the boat accident and operating while drunk. 

On Friday, she is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. sentencing in Steuben Superior Court in Angola.

Effinger, of the 6300 block of Hursh Road in Fort Wayne, pleaded guilty July 2 to criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon, a charge that carries the same 21/2-year sentence as the other charges combined.

Through her Fort Wayne attorney, Michelle Kraus, Effinger filed a plea agreement to reduce the sentence to 11/2 years. A judge will decide how much of that time will be spent behind bars or on probation.

Steuben County Prosecutor Jeremy Musser will have his say in court when Effinger, now 21, is sentenced. Until then, there’s very little he would reveal about what happened about 7 p.m. July 15, 2017, when the boat Effinger was driving threw nine people overboard. One young man told police he jumped.

Musser did say Effinger will be responsible for restitution for injuries and property damages but he would not divulge the totals.

A spokeswoman for the DNR indicated that costs for damages to a DNR Boston Whaler patrol boat will also be included in the case.

In the year since the boat accident, Effinger’s Lake Gage neighbors have not forgotten the accident, but showed little eagerness to discuss it publicly.

“They took the stance last year we weren’t going to talk to anybody because most of us are personal friends,” one woman working at a general store on the 327-acre lake told The Journal Gazette.

Twenty-five percent of the lake houses are owned by Allen County residents, according to David Rollins, president of the Lake Gage-Lime Lake Association. He responded to questions by email.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, children walked to the general store in pairs to buy penny candy. A few racks with clothing for sale included items mostly printed or embroidered with Lake Gage, similar to the Vera Bradley bags and wristlets available with the same embroidered lake ID.

According to county tax records, one of Vera Bradley’s founders has a lake cottage there. So do Don and Lisa Effinger, Dominique Effinger’s parents, who own two lake houses, across the road from each other.

Effinger and her friends had been drinking, some of them said for several hours, before the boat smacked up against the waves, according to the probable cause that included statements from lake residents who witnessed the accident and helped the injured to shore.

Where the drinking occurred that afternoon is unclear in the affadavit, and the DNR cannot speak on the matter “due to the fact the case is still in criminal proceedings,” Lt. Angela Goldman, a DNR spokeswoman, said.

One boat occupant, Jason Garcia of Carmel, told a DNR officer that he had been contacted by “other people” telling him not to talk to the detective. 

Other boat occupants were identified as Nick Brady, Luke Parker, Stephen Malloy, Claire Wiland, Alison Colby, Catherine Ralston, Daniella Higdon and Taylor Bolin. All of them were contacted through Facebook by The Journal Gazette. The only one who responded said he preferred his privacy be respected.

Higdon of Naperville, Illinois, received an injury to her wrist that one lake resident described in court documents as her “arm was ripped open and it appeared her hand was barely hanging on.” In a DNR February report, Higdon’s father, Steven, told an investigating officer that Higdon had “all ten fingers” and had blood flow to the fingertips of the injured arm.

Bolin of Noblesville was identified in court documents as the young woman who suffered a skull fracture, multiple fractures to her right forearm and a jaw fracture, and was airlifted : like Higdon : to a hospital.

Ralston of Long Grove, Illinois, suffered a deep cut to a finger, exposing the bone, and in a later interview said she had suffered two broken fingers and some severed hand tendons.

A witness included in the DNR accident report filed in February said he was a boat passenger when the accident occurred and the boat he was in picked up Effinger and Higdon. 

“Dominique came to the front of the boat with him,” the report said. “He said that Dominique was shaken up and kept saying, ‘my father is going to kill me,’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ He said that she asked him for a hug to help calm her down.”

As a result of the boat accident, the Lake Gage/Lime Lake Association board of directors created a new position of safety director. The safety director’s job is to promote safety on the lakes and write a monthly newsletter from May through August, Rollins said.

Additionally, Rollins has had discussions with the Steuben County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol, the primary law enforcement agency for the county’s lakes.

“We have communicated to the membership the phone number to call at the Sheriff’s Dept. to report non-emergency safety/illegal operation issues on the lakes,” Rollins wrote in an email.

On the day The Journal Gazette visited with lake residents, one woman who lives there year-round said little seemed to change as far as boat handling.

“They still come in too close : they’re supposed to be 200 feet from the shore, otherwise the boat should be on idle,” she said, standing near the road.

She watched the boat accident, as did others who were out that day. Rollins said Lake Gage is on the small side with 240 lakefront residences and a total of 289, some on the adjoining 30-acre Lime Lake.

Residents can easily see from one side of the lake to the other and the lake has “some of the cleanest, clearest lake water in Indiana,” Rollins said.

The woman’s husband and another man sat on chairs overlooking the winding road and lake and talked about the incident.

Effinger probably won’t see any time in jail, the man said, “because nobody died.”

One woman tending her garden in the front of her lake house on West South Lake Drive, where the runaway boat damaged two docks in its unmanned circling, said she wouldn’t talk because she was friends with the Effinger family.

“It’s very sad,” was all she told The Journal Gazette.

A few doors down, another man said he had owned his lake house for 50 years. Had the lake culture changed, he was asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

jduffy@jg.net

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