A woman riding a horse bareback with a friend at Balmoral Park after a night of drinking was killed when her intoxicated fiance jumped in a truck to find her and sideswiped the horse, officials and relatives said today.
Angus Lake, 41, stood with his head down as he appeared at a Will County court hearing this afternoon on charges of aggravated driving under the influence in the death Michelle Eustis, 25. Assistant state’s attorney Mary Fillipitch said Lake had a blood-alcohol level of .147, nearly twice the legal limit for driving. He was ordered held on $500,000 bail.
“I think he was drinking too much," said Michelle's father, Chuck Eustis, who works as a trainer at the south suburban track. "He was just in court and said he never saw them when he hit them. He was speeding out of control and had too much to drink.”
Eustis, of Crete, suffered head injuries, and her death has been ruled an accident, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.
The incident happened just after 5 a.m. Monday on Balmoral's backstretch, where horses are stabled and cared for, according to Michael Belmonte, the general manager at Balmoral. "It was a very unfortunate situation," he said. "Our sympathies go out to the girl's family."
Lake and Eustis both worked as horse trainers, according to her father. Sunday night Lake attended races at the track with Eustis and Heather France, 21, a horse groom.
After the races ended, Eustis helped settle her father’s horses in his stable. Then she joined Lake, France and a few others at a party on the grounds, Chuck Eustis said.
At some point Michelle Eustis and France went to a stable about a half-mile away and got one of Chuck Eustis’ horses -- Rendezvous, an 8-year-old gelding that had not been raced lately.
When the two women didn’t return, Lake got in his truck and went looking for them, the father said. He apparently didn’t see the two women and the horse in the darkness and hit them, Chuck Eustis said, repeating what a witness told him.
“Angus went looking for them and he ran right into them. He ran them over. That’s basically all I know,” he said.
While authorities said Lake and Michelle Eustis were engaged, Chuck Eustis said they had only been dating for about a month. “No marriage. No engagement. No nothing.”
Michelle Eustis grew up in Beecher, and both her father and grandfather were horse trainers. Chuck Eustis is the trainer of St Elmo Hero, a 5-year-old gelding that has won 25 straight races and took the harness-racing world by surprise in the past year. The horse last raced at Balmoral in February, when it won its 24th straight race before winning a $28,000 race in Toronto on April 2.
Chuck Eustis said his daughter developed a natural affinity for the animals.
“Ever since she was born she’s always loved horses,” he said. “I’ve always had race horses and my father always had them. She started going to the track with us when she was 3 years old. In the summer time and after school that’s all she ever wanted to do is be with the horses.
"When she was done with school, she came to work with me. She can do everything. She can get them ready, she’ll bathe them, jog the horses. She gets them ready to race and takes care of them afterwards.”
Lake is a long-time acquaintance of the family, he said. They weren’t close friends, but they knew each other from the horseracing community.
“He’s kind of a friend,” Chuck Eustis said. “I know very little about his past. I don’t want to speculate. You hear so many different stories.”
Two years ago, the Eustis family moved to Crete. Michelle Eustis lived with her parents and her 6-year-old daughter Haylee and aspired to become a trainer of champion horses like her father, Chuck Eustis said.
“I’m not very good right now,” he said, adding that he has struggled to explain the tragedy to his granddaughter. “We tried to explain that her mother went to heaven. She doesn’t understand. Before she fell asleep last night, she asked about Michelle. She hasn’t grasped the idea that she’s passed away.”
He said friends have gathered at their home and they are trying to cope.
“We’ve had more friends over and trying to deal with this situation. It’s impossible for me and her mother. We can’t really cope. She was too young to have gotten hit like this for no reason.
“I miss her dearly and I don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s too early for her to die like this for no reason.”
The other woman involved in the accident has been hospitalized in Joliet, said Eustis. She suffered a broken leg, broken shoulder and was partially paralyzed in the accident.
The horse, Rendezvous, suffered bruises and cuts, but was not severely injured.
Freelance reporter Jim O'Donnell contributed to this report.