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Violent incident in bank recalled

A series of witnesses testifying in the opening day of an armed robbery trial described the painful burns and lingering effects of being pepper sprayed.

Dustin Aaron Clark, 36, is on trial before Justice Monica Bast and a jury of seven men and five women in Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench.

Clark is charged with armed robbery with violence, assault with a weapon, possession of a dangerous weapon, wearing a disguise to commit an offence, mischief and theft under $5,000.

He was arrested by Red Deer City RCMP investigating a violent robbery at the TD Canada Trust branch in Village Mall on Sept. 23, 2013.

Crown prosecutor Jason Snider said in his opening statement on Wednesday morning that the question does not involve what happened, but whether the right man was charged.

“Is the right person on trial? Do we have the person here that committed the offence?” he said.

Bank teller Verlie Joy Paul testified that she had been helping a customer and looked up from what she had been doing when she heard someone discharge a spray can.

Almost immediately, her skin felt like it was on fire, her eyes were stinging and she started to choke.

There would be no relief.

A man wearing a hoodie and dark sunglasses with a bandana pulled over his face was standing between Paul’s wicket and the one beside her demanding money.

Paul said her neighbouring teller was crying and unable to comply with the robber’s demands.

She told him she had no cash drawer, but would get some cash from one of the dispensers, fumbling with the machine because she couldn’t see clearly.

“My face was burning so bad, I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t breathe — I just wanted him gone.”

Paul said it took a week to get rid of the smell from the spray.

Teller Anna-Marie Cooke said it was the second time in her career that she had been on duty during a bank robbery.

Cook said she froze up, crediting Paul with taking the initiative to fulfil the robber’s demands.

People in the courtroom witnessed unexpected drama while Cooke was reviewing surveillance video with Snider.

Most eyes in the courtroom were focused on the video screen when she fainted, falling to the floor with a soft thump.

Sheriffs rushed to her aid and court was adjourned for a few minutes while paramedics were called to assess her for injuries and see what help she might need.

Defence counsel Norman Clair said during the adjournment that it was the first time in 30 years of practising criminal law that he had seen a witness collapse on the stand.

Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions where witnesses are required to stand during testimony, said Clair.

Once she had recovered, Cook was allowed to take a seat for the rest of her testimony.

Mall customer Shawn Deschaine, who was at the south side of the bank at the time of the robbery, said he gave chase when he saw a running man and heard someone yell: “That guy just robbed the bank.”

Deschaine said he pursued the man around the back of a store toward a residential area, where a car was parked at the side of the road.

The robber got into the passenger side of the car and then got out again with Deschaine still in pursuit.

Deschaine said he was within four feet of the fleeing robber who suddenly turned around and sprayed him in the face.

“(It) hit me in the face and my eyes immediately closed.”

Deschaine said he wiped his eyes and opened them long enough to see the man jump over a fence and disappear.

Witness Donna Krause, who lives in the neighbourhood, said she was sitting inside when she heard a bang from a window on her house. Outside, she confronted a man who told her he was “hiding his clothes.”

She said she told him she was going to call the police and didn’t see him again.

The trial continues today and is scheduled to last until the end of next week.

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