Blind World Magazine

Blind woman whose Seeing Eye dog was killed, is sad and angry.

October 12, 2005.
Durham Herald Sun - Durham,NC,USA.

CARRBORO -- In the span of 60 horrific seconds one week ago this morning, Danielle Iredale's world closed around her.

Five years earlier, when she first met her Seeing Eye Dog, Inka, a young German shepherd, Iredale said her world expanded. With Inka at her side she didn't need to pause to find her way around obstacles with a cane; Inka would just gracefully re-route her and keep the two of them on course.

There was, however, no route around the white Nissan that came veering across BPW Club Road last Wednesday, hopped a curb, struck Iredale and killed Inka almost instantly.

After hitting them both, the driver left the scene of the accident and returned to his home. Stephen Coffee, 27, of 180 BPW Club Road, F-14, Carrboro, was later found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.16 and was charged with felony hit and run, felony harming an animal and several misdemeanors, including driving while intoxicated.

Now out of the hospital, Iredale is on crutches and must rely on the help of her mother and others to get around her Carrboro apartment.

She was scheduled to begin work soon at a school in Raleigh, and that must be postponed, she said, until the effects of a concussion have worn off and she is better able to move around.

Training with a new guide dog takes time, Iredale said, so once off crutches she will need to travel by cane, something, she said, she finds a little scary.

"Now that I've been hit I'm really afraid," she said this week. "Now I don't have anyone to cross-check me as I walk."

Iredale, who is in physical therapy for a broken leg and other injuries, said she is eager for her life to get back to normal, but she won't begin working with a new dog until she feels she has properly mourned Inka.

"The thought of 'How could this happen?' is all you are left with," Iredale said, choking back tears. "When she was in her harness, I never thought to worry about her.

"I thought we could protect each other."

Iredale said she does not remember much of the accident. However, she said that while a witness' report had her wearing headphones, she never wears anything in her ears while traveling outside the house.

Neither police nor paramedics reported finding headphones at the scene.

Once she is ready, Iredale will be able to enroll in a class with Seeing Eye Inc. in Morristown, N.J. She will stay there for three weeks and train with a new dog. The entire process costs $50.

According to the Seeing Eye Web site, the average service life of a Seeing Eye Dog is between seven and eight years. Inka had only served for five.

Along with the sadness at Inka's loss comes a sense of anger and a determination for justice, Iredale said.

Coffee, who was charged in the accident, is being held in the Orange County Jail under a $25,000 bond, but Iredale said she feels certain whatever punishment he may receive will not be harsh enough.

"It's good there is a felony charge, but it comes down to a very low penalty," she said. "It's not adequate to the horrible loss of killing a Seeing Eye Dog. This is on par with manslaughter."

District Attorney Jim Woodall said Tuesday that given Coffee's record -- which does contain alcohol-related offenses, but no felonies -- if found guilty he could receive 10-12 months in prison for the hit and run.

The charge of felony harming an animal is a charge specific to someone who kills a law enforcement or guide animal and is a very rare charge, Woodall said. Someone with Coffee's record could be sentenced to eight to 10 months for that charge, but because the statute calls for a nonactive sentence, he would only spend a fourth of that time in jail, with the rest being some form of probation.

For his felonies, which include driving while intoxicated, driving with a revoked license and resisting arrest, Coffee could be sentenced up to 12 months if he is found guilty.

If found guilty and given the maximum sentence for all his charges, Coffee could serve as much as 26 months behind bars with more time on probation.

Iredale says this is not enough.

She said she is looking into pressing civil charges, because she doesn't feel the current laws truly capture the devastation and loss someone feels with the loss of a service animal.

Another route she is considering is working to lobby the state legislature to pass tougher laws that include harsher sentences for those who harm service animals.

"There's no reason the law shouldn't change," Iredale said.


To help Danielle "Aoife" Iredale and Inka:

Iredale said she has not set up an official fund yet, but anyone who would like to help can make a donation to Seeing Eye, Inc. in honor of Inka by calling (800) 539-4425. While Iredale does not need money for a new dog, donations to the group will help with training and community education for all the organization's clients.

Iredale also said a legal defense fund has not yet been established, but will be soon, and she will provide information about that fund as soon as it is available.

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