GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – An Alberta judge choked back tears as he told a packed courtroom how he struggled to decide a just punishment for a driver who caused a crash that killed four high school football players.
A fifth player was pulled from the wreckage and survived, but suffered brain injuries and had to relearn to walk and talk.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice William Tilleman said Wednesday the case of Brenden Holubowich is the toughest he’s ever had to face.
The boys simply didn’t have to die, he said.
“Drinking and driving is sad, senseless, stupid and selfish,” Tilleman said, even though impaired driving was not a charge to which Holubowich pleaded guilty.
In the end, Tilleman sentenced Holubowich to three years in prison and banned him from driving for three years when he is released.
It was the same sentence recommended by Crown and defence lawyers after Holubowich stood up Tuesday and pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
Tilleman didn’t automatically approve the plea bargain. Instead, he told the court he needed to sleep on it.
Holubowich, 23, had been facing 16 charges, including impaired driving causing death and failing to remain at the scene of an accident.
His pickup truck collided with a car carrying five members of the Warriors football team from Grande Prairie Composite High School in October 2011.
Walter Borden-Wilkins and Tanner Hildebrand, both 15, and Matthew Deller and Vince Stover, both 16, were killed. Zach Judd, now 17, was pulled from the wreckage and spent 11 days in a coma.
He told court during the sentencing hearing that he struggles with anger and depression. And as the only teen to survive the crash, he often thinks of suicide.
The judge said he will never forget the emotional victim impact statements submitted in court by the boys’ parents. They described how they will miss watching their sons become men, get married and raise babies.
He noted one statement from Darren Davidson, Walter’s step-father, who wrote that he holds no contempt for Holubowich and hopes that everyone will be able to forgive him.
Tilleman said he also feels for Holubowich and his family. He said the young man is not the typical criminal he sees in court. He had no record, enjoyed a perfect driving history and has studied hard as an apprentice heavy-duty mechanic.
The judge also suggested Holubowich appeared genuine when he stood in court and apologized to the families.
“I could see in his face — if not in his words — his acceptance for what happened and not blaming anyone else.”
Tilleman said the gravity of the offence had him considering a longer period behind bars. But he eventually decided the three-year term was fair and in keeping with similar cases.
Many of the boys’ relatives expressed their disgust with the sentence. Zach’s mother, Desiree Judd, said outside the courthouse that the justice system completely failed the families.
“I really had hopes last night that the judge would come back with something better, but I guess we were all let down.”
Holubowich’s family also gathered outside the courthouse and, for the first time, spoke publicly about the crash. His mother, Teresa Bateman, who cried throughout the sentencing hearing, read a statement.
“We cannot imagine the loss or the grief that you’ve experienced and no matter how much we might pray, hope or wish that it isn’t so, this tragedy can never be reversed and for this we are sorry,” she said, her voice breaking.
She said she hopes other young drivers will learn how important it is to be careful behind the wheel. And she hopes the families of the victims will eventually forgive her son.
“Even if it’s a little bit at a time.”
Court heard Holubowich had been drinking with co-workers at a Grande Prairie bowling alley and was driving as fast as 151 km/h on the way home to the nearby town of Wembley.
The football players had just left a party outside the city. But within minutes, their car and three others pulled off a highway and into the driveway of a nearby business. One by one, they all quickly made U-turns to go in the other direction.
Their car, the last to make the turn, was struck as it straddled the centre line.
Holubowich never stopped to see if the boys were OK or to call 911. He ran on foot to his workplace, an oilfield transportation company, where RCMP found him an hour later.
Autopsy results show the boy driving the car, Matthew, had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Defence lawyer Chris Millsap said outside court that although his client had been drinking, there was no evidence he was drunk when he got behind the wheel.
Millsap pointed out that earlier in the night, Holubowich had driven a drunk friend home and carried him up some icy stairs. The man’s girlfriend testified Holubowich appeared sober.
Millsap said his client agreed to alcohol tests but they were inconclusive. He doesn’t understand why the judge repeatedly referred to the dangers of drunk driving in the case.
“I understand the concerns about drinking and driving, and I understand how alcohol was involved here to a degree,” Millsap said. “But this is not a case of drunk driving or impaired driving.”