Donna Chen was just the sort of person who would have been so touched by the story of a dog lost in tragic circumstances, rescued by a kayaker, that she readily would have forwarded it on to friends.
Instead, Chen’s friends this week were focused on that rescue story because the dog, a Hungarian Vizsla named Barney, was with the 53-year-old Siesta resident when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver Jan. 7.
A video recorded by the kayaker, showing the scared dog paddling toward him in the bay and his pulling it aboard, has been seen by countless Sarasota residents in the wake of the Saturday afternoon incident on Midnight Pass Road, when a Nissan Altima driven by 22-year-old Blake Talman hit the 53-year-old Chen from behind as she and Barney were running on the sidewalk along Midnight Pass Road.
“It’s just like Donna to somehow make the story of Barney and his rescue bigger than her own,” said Chen’s close friend, Susan Asselstine. “That’s just how she was. Even in this tragedy, she’s managed to put others before her.”
Asselstine and Chen became friends when their sons were in the same preschool class. “When your kids are friends, you’re friends,” said Asselstine. “The two (boys) are practically inseparable. They go to school together, play soccer, lacrosse and football together. Sometimes, we even called them the ‘Chennelstines’ — it’s like our families are combined.”
Friends and family members who spoke with the Pelican Press called Chen a devoted mother of three, a caring wife and a great friend and sister.
Born and reared in Boston with five brothers and sisters, Chen finished school in Tampa and worked as a registered nurse at Venice Memorial Hospital. At a young age, she began to demonstrate a desire to do things for others.
“Even as a kid, she brought our parents breakfast in bed every day for 10 years,” said her sister, Cheryl Elsbree. “She always put everyone else before herself. She had such a lovely spirit.”
Elsbree described Chen as “an amazing sister.” She added, “We were like best friends growing up. We did everything together — we had matching cars in high school, got married at almost the same time and even had kids at almost the same time. She’ll really be missed.”
Chen met her husband, Wellington Chen, now a semi-retired physician, while the two were working in the Venice emergency room together. The couple had been married 26 years, raising three children on Siesta Key: William, 20, Tiffany, 18 and Andrew 15.
Wellington Chen said he admired Donna’s caring nature toward her family. He urges others to appreciate their mothers.
“I don’t think we celebrate moms enough,” he said. “I think I’m a good father, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replace her.”
Donna Chen enjoyed nature and being outdoors. She was an avid gardener and loved to exercise. She was on the dance team in high school, she liked to snow ski, and she regularly took her two dogs for runs near Siesta Key Beach.
She especially enjoyed reading and sharing stories of dogs doing amazing things, her loved ones said.
“Barney’s story is one she would’ve read and sent to all of us,” said Elsbree. “Of course, Donna’s story has to have a happy ending. Something positive will come out of this for the community.”
Visitation for Donna Chen is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 13, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Toale Brothers Funeral Homes. Her funeral will be conducted Saturday, Jan. 14, at 11 a.m. at the Church of the Palms, 3224 Bee Ridge Road.
Chen’s family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, people make donations in her name to M.A.D.D. and The Humane Society.
Drunk driver has long record
On three separate occasions Jan. 7, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies had conversations with a 22-year-old Bradenton resident before he struck and killed Siesta Key resident Donna Chen, 53, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
But the last time the deputies saw Blake C. Talman and his passenger in the crash, 24-year-old David J. Brewer of Sarasota, the two men were walking to the beach, Community Affairs Manager Wendy Rose told the Pelican Press this week.
Deputies ran a check for warrants on Talman, Brewer and their companion, Michael E. Blakey, 26, of North Port, after the first encounter, Rose said, but the check turned up nothing. It was not until this week, she said, that the department learned Talman had a record of six felony arrests and 23 misdemeanors, while Brewer had a record of four felony arrests and 11 misdemeanors.
According to a check of Sarasota County Clerk of Court records, Talman last was convicted in April 2011 of driving while his license was suspended.
Still, Rose said, “It’s legal to drink on the beach. It’s legal to have alcohol on the beach.”
Because neither Talman nor Brewer displayed rude behavior or were disorderly, Rose said, deputies had no grounds to arrest them. They did arrest Blakey about 12:30 p.m. on a charge of Disorderly Intoxication, because he was being rude, she said.
The Florida Highway Patrol said Chen was killed about 1:10 p.m., after she was struck by the 2000 Nissan Altima driven by Talman as he was fleeing from another accident on Midnight Pass Road.
As of midday Wednesday, Talman remained in the Sarasota County Jail under total bond of $118,000 in connection with Chen’s death and the earlier traffic incident. He also has been charged in connection with a collision that occurred after he struck Chen.
Talman is scheduled for arraignment Jan. 26 in the first traffic case, while his arraignment has been set for Feb. 3 in the other cases.
The first report deputies received about Talman, Brewer and Blakey came from a lifeguard, Rose said. The lifeguard reported that the three men were bothering two teenage girls. When the deputies approached the men, Rose said, Talman “acted as the peacemaker, apologizing for his friends’ behavior, trying to shake the hands of the deputies …”
Talman added that the concession manager had allowed the three to plug in their boom box and play music at the concession, Rose said.
When the deputies ran the warrant checks and found nothing, Rose said, the deputies told the three men to move along. The three said they were going to the Village, she added.
A short time later, Rose said, Warren LaBonte, the concession co-owner, told deputies Blakey was back. When the deputies approached Blakey, she said, he “was mouthing off,” and he began walking to the beach parking lot. One deputy followed him, Rose said, and took him into custody.
According to Deputy Jason Strom’s report, “Blakey was drinking from a plastic whiskey bottle at the pavilion, cursing and causing a disturbance while families and small children stood in line to purchase food from the concession.” The report adds that LaBonte had told the deputy “Blakey was disrupting his business and scaring customers away.”
After Blakey’s arrest, Rose said, Talman and Brewer approached the deputies and asked if they could just take their friend with them. When they were told they could not, she said, “they asked about bail and were told it would take two or three hours to process (Blakey).”
Rose added that Blakey told Talman and Brewer repeatedly, “Don’t tell them where my truck is.” Then Talman and Brewer headed off in the direction of the Village, Rose said.
A short while later, she said, the deputies learned Talman and Brewer were sitting with a group of motorcyclists in the picnic area.
Again, she said, the deputies told the pair to move on.
The deputies watched them walk toward the beach, she said.
— Rachel Brown Hackney