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Injured woman reflects on friend’s death at Balmoral Park

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Heather France tried to warn Michelle Eustis when she saw the truck behind their horse at Balmoral Park Racetrack.

The women were riding bareback in the dark early on an April morning. Their friends were drinking in a barn nearby. And after taking “five or six shots” in that barn, prosecutors say, Angus Lake went looking for them.

“We should probably get off to the side more because I don’t know if he can see us,” France told Eustis when the white Dodge Ram appeared.

That warning, France’s final words to her friend, came too late. She doesn’t remember what happened next, but police say Lake hit their horse with the pickup truck, knocking the women to the ground.

Eustis, 25, died, leaving a 7-year-old girl without her mother. France, 21, broke a shoulder, leg and ankle, lost days of memory and says she was forced out of school.

It has been seven weeks since the April 11 crash, and France can barely walk. Uninsured, neither she nor her mother know how her medical bills will be paid.

Lake was still in the Will County Jail last week, having lost an earlier bid to reduce his $500,000 bail. He’s scheduled to return to court on Tuesday. Prosecutors said his blood-alcohol content at the time of the fatal accident was 0.147 — nearly twice the legal limit.

Eustis’ father, Chuck Eustis III, won’t say what fate he thinks Lake deserves. France isn’t sure. But she’s content to know that Lake, who had a prior DUI conviction in Michigan, is behind bars for now.

“He should sit there for a long while, you know?” France said.

Not used to sitting around

Chuck Eustis said adjusting to life without his daughter has been pretty rough. He helps care for Michelle’s daughter, Haylee, who doesn’t fully understand what happened. He said they got a lot of support from friends, France included, at a recent benefit for Haylee in Crete.

But Eustis, a well-regarded horse trainer at Balmoral, said he didn’t return to racing until about three weeks ago.

“Michelle and me, that’s all we’ve done our whole lives,” he said.

Michelle Eustis, Lake and France met working at Balmoral. France said she’d spend her mornings cleaning stables before running off to classes at Fox College in Tinley Park. She was learning to be a veterinary technician. After class, she’d return to the track to care for horses.

“I’m not used to just sitting around,” she said.

But that’s exactly what France is doing at her home in Three Rivers, Mich., waiting for her body to heal. She started out sitting in a wheelchair with her arm in a sling. Now her arm is healing freely, and she’s using crutches to walk. She was told by her doctor not to put more than half her weight on her leg.

She has lost nearly a full term at school because of her injuries. Earning credits means handling animals, and she said the school wouldn’t make an exception for her with two weeks left in the semester. She withdrew.

A Fox College official declined to talk about France specifically, saying the school wouldn’t force a student to withdraw. But Lori France, Heather’s mother, said there was no way her daughter could do the classwork with her injuries.

“She only had one arm and one leg,” Lori said.

Her daughter said she won’t stay away from racetracks.

“I think I’m going to be more nervous walking alongside the road,” France said. “Stuff like that.”

Or drinking and driving.

“That’s why I am where I am,” she said. “Because somebody was so drunk and tried to drive.”

Deadly search

It all happened on a normal night after the races, she said. People were hanging out in a track barn, and some were drinking. France said she saw Eustis have a few beers with Lake.

Prosecutors said Eustis was Lake’s fiancee. France said she heard rumors of the couple’s engagement, but Eustis’ father said “absolutely not.”

Regardless, France said she wanted to go for a ride that night. France heard the truck behind them on Backstretch Road and warned Eustis. From there, her memory turns into a three-day fog.

Prosecutors said Lake slammed on the brakes when he saw their horse, spinning his truck and hitting the horse with the rear of the truck.

Lori France’s phone rang about an hour later in Three Rivers. She was walking her dogs and missed the call. The county police delivered the news on her doorstep.

“They just said that my daughter had been in an accident in Chicago,” she said.

It would be hours until Lori saw her daughter or knew the extent of her injuries. When she arrived at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where Heather had been transferred, a hospital official couldn’t find her.

“I was ready to jump over that counter and say, ‘Where the hell is my daughter?’ ” Lori said.

But she was soon taken to the crowded emergency room, where she found Heather and kept vigil by her side.

Heather expects to be in physical therapy for a few more weeks. Friends opened a donation account at Fifth Third Bank to pay her medical bills. Donations can be made at any branch.

“We have to pay for her physical therapy up front, so we are using that,” her mom said.

But Lori, who is unemployed, said she hasn’t paid a dime toward Heather’s hospital bills. They’re going into a folder, she said, and copies are sent to an attorney.

Heather said she’s eager to get back on her feet. She said she’ll likely have to work again before going back to school. And when she does return to classes, she said they likely won’t be at Fox College.

If Lake goes to trial, France expects to be a witness but doesn’t otherwise plan to be in court.

Though neither woman expressed sympathy for Lake as he sits in jail, Lori said she’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

She doesn’t know every detail about the crash that put her daughter in the hospital and killed Eustis, but Lake might be the only person who can explain it.

“You know, you can try and piece it together,” Lori said. “But he’s the only one who actually knows what happened.”



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