Ally Marler was the ultimate free spirit. To the 20-year-old, whose motto was “Cowgirl Up,” life was all about her daughter, Leigha, family, friends and horses, including her horse Tater.
“Honestly, every day of her life, she lived to the fullest,” said her father, Doug Marler, on a recent afternoon. “She went out and she lived. If there was a rodeo, she’d go. If there were friends to go hang out with, that’s where she was going. She didn’t really worry about all the normal drag downs from life at all.”
Kim Marler says her daughter didn’t look at life in the typical way.
“It literally was about living,” she said.
She went out and she lived. If there was a rodeo, she’d go. If there were friends to go hang out with, that’s where she was going. She didn’t really worry about all the normal drag downs from life at all.
Doug Marler, Ally’s father
So on a Friday evening last May, that’s what Ally was doing — having fun with friends. But then a crash that night robbed Ally of her life, changing the Marlers’ forever.
The Florida Highway Patrol says Ally was killed May 6 by a drunken driver in Palmetto.
Ally’s parents don’t want anyone else to go through what they’ve been through as a family, so they are hoping to bring about statewide change to prevent others from losing a loved one to a drunken driver. They point to what they call lax, outdated state laws that state legislators are beginning to tackle. The maximum sentence for a DUI manslaughter similar to Ally’s case is 15 years.
“It just disrupted the whole order of everything for our family,” Doug Marler said at a stable in Manatee County where Ally’s horse Tater is kept. “The girl, honestly, through her gymnastics, through her horses, through everything, you ask anybody who knows her, if anybody on the face of the plant that was indestructible, it was that kid. Not ever once did I think it was going to be this. She would always bounce back. It was never not going to happen.”
Ally, who loved to laugh and have a good time, was an outdoors kind of person, her mom recalled.
“If it were outdoors, that’s what she wanted to do,” Kim Marler said. “She just loved being outside. ...Weekends were kind of where everything happened for her.”
Ally had plans to turn her love for horses into a career. She already had a business plan in place for LA Equine to train horses for a living.
“She was on cloud nine about getting ready to do that,” Kim Marler said. “She was going to bring horses in to train for a month or two months. ... She had a couple people already lined up.”
On Saturday, May 7, Ally was supposed to be training someone’s horse.
“She wanted to train horses for a living,” Doug Marler said. “That’s what she wanted to do.”
A crash, not an accident
The Marlers don’t call the incident on May 6 an accident because to them, it’s not. It’s a crash.
“We call it a crash because an accident is you tripped and you fell,” Kim Marler said. “That’s an accident. This was so preventable so we don’t call it an accident. We call it a crash.”
On May 6, Ally was a passenger on one of two motorcycles in Palmetto when Timothy Vaughan, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy who since has been fired, drifted into her motorcycle, forcing them to collide with another motorcycle, according to FHP. Marler was thrown from the motorcycle and subsequently run over by Vaughan, who has been charged with DUI manslaughter and other related offenses.
That’s an accident. This was so preventable so we don’t call it an accident. We call it a crash.
Kim Marler, Ally’s mother
Ally was transported to Blake Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
Just 20 years ago, Ally was born at the same hospital.
“When you drink, that vehicle is a weapon, and everybody that man passed by that night was a potential victim,” Doug Marler said. “It just happened to be at the wrong time and wrong place and whatever for it to be our daughter — and honestly, it could have been four kids that night.”
The trial in the case against Vaughan is scheduled to begin April 3.
‘You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy’
As long as Kim Marler is living, she knows the death of daughter is something that won’t go away. There are reminders of Ally everywhere.
“You may not think about it every second, but it just doesn’t go away,” she said. “I mean, I walk in my house because that’s where she grew up and that’s where she came from the hospital. I walk in my house and it’s a constant reminder, and do I want to pick up and move? No, because there are the good memories that are there. But the just not having her walk through that door ever again? You don’t really ever get over that.”
Since the Marlers lost Ally, they have become acutely aware of the threat of drunken drivers. In the United States, approximately every 51 to 53 minutes someone will get the phone call like the Marlers received on the evening of May 6.
“When we realized how many families really are affected by this, it is ongoing,” Kim Marler said. “It’s not like we are the last family who is ever going to be affected by this. We just don’t want anybody else to have to feel this way, because it is just with us for the rest of our life.”
The Marlers, knowing they must live with the tragedy for the rest of their lives, cannot fathom the maximum sentence for cases like Ally’s.
“DUI manslaughter sounds like this horrendous offense, but I’m thinking this has got to be a life in prison or something. And the maximum is 15 years for taking somebody’s life for something you actually chose to do,” Doug Marler said. “I was just appalled by that and the more I dug in, it just didn’t seem like anything fit the choice.”
So the Marlers are pushing for a change in Florida statutes.
“If you knew that you just made a bad choice and you went out and killed somebody with a DUI, but you knew you were going to get a minimum of 30 years or potentially up to life, that might curb your thought of ‘OK, I’m not going to take a chance on doing this,’” Kim Marler said.
The current laws are outdated, Doug Marler said.
“We certainly want to work with law enforcement and use our story for the better good,” he said. “From top to bottom, I think there are some changes that need to be made. We’ve been here our whole lives and it’s home. This is where we want to start.”
The Marlers are hoping to meet with both state representatives and senators to work on some changes in the 2018 state legislative session. But some change may be coming as soon as the current session. House Bill 949 would require mandatory placement “of ignition interlock device for specified period for first DUI conviction.”
“We are waiting to see if that actually goes through, because that will be a big check mark off of our list, because not only is it preventative while they are serving their sentence, they do show that it actually does create permanent behavioral change — which is huge, absolutely huge,” Doug Marler said.
Fundraiser for Ally’s daughter
As a toddler, Leigha didn’t understand why her mother is gone. When Ally was killed, Leigha was only 2 1/2 years old.
“She does well,” Kim Marler said. “There’s times when she doesn’t do well. Initially right after, she was asking for her mom a lot. Crying. We’ve told her that Mommy is in heaven with Jesus.”
The Marlers’ Christian faith has helped to carry them through.
“We know we will meet up with her again some day in heaven, so that has also been a help as far as being able to talk with Leigha about her mom when she asks questions,” Kim Marler said. “She doesn’t understand that she can’t go to heaven right now, but as a 3-year-old that’s not something you can really explain to them. One day she will be able to understand the concept of death, so we’ve not actually used the death word because she just doesn’t even understand what that is.”
A fundraiser has been organized for March 25 at Manatee County Posse Arena, 2409 Lena Road, for a trust fund to benefit Leigha.
The fundraiser, a 4D Barrel Race, will begin at 9 a.m. with the exhibition followed by the race beginning at noon. There will also be a silent auction as well as a bake and merchandise sale.
“The barrel racing community is just a tight-knit community,” Kim Marler said. “They are going to come out just because they love to do it, and they are going to come out because that’s what Ally did. And they want to help support her daughter.”
Everybody knew that Ally had a daughter, Kim Marler said.
“She was constantly posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram and all of that kind of stuff,” she said. “We’ve had tons of friends of her say, ‘We miss her Snapchats of her and Leigha being crazy together.’ I think it’s really to help support Leigha, but to also kind of help support the cause of the barrel racing community just being so close and tight-knit.”
Doug Marler added: “It will be a fun Saturday, and you will be able to help out a little girl who will need help as life moves on.”