An entire community suffers when a drunk driver kills somebody, a Crown prosecutor said during a sentencing hearing in Red Deer provincial court on Thursday.
Crown prosecutor Maurice Collard sought a sentence of five years for April Gail Beauclair, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to the March 31 crash that killed two Red Deer teenagers and injured three others.
Colton Keeler, 18, was killed at the scene. Tyson Vanderzwaag died six days later in hospital, just two days after his 18th birthday.
Judge Thomas Schollie sentenced Beauclair, a 30-year-old mother of two, to three and a half years in prison for two counts of impaired driving causing death. Officials with the Alberta Motor Vehicle Branch have also decreed that she will be prohibited from driving for at least five years following her release from prison — more than double the two-year prohibition that Schollie had previously ordered.
Court heard that Beauclair had been celebrating her upcoming 30th birthday with friends in Sylvan Lake on the evening of March 30 and had gone to bed to sleep off the effects.
She awoke at about 2 a.m. and decided to drive home, heading east on Hwy 11A.
A few kilometres down the road, at the intersection of Range Road 28-2, her car, travelling 110 km/h, slammed into the two teens who were trying to push-start a disabled car while its driver steered and pushed from the side. Two more young men were sitting in the back seat, too impaired to take part in their friends’ efforts to get the car moving.
Beauclair, dressed entirely in black, wept throughout the sentencing hearing, sobbing openly as victim impact statements from 13 of Keeler’s and Vanderzwaag’s closest family and friends were read into court.
Brandee Keeler, Keeler’s mother, fought through tears as she spoke of the tremendous loss to her and her family, as well as terrible pain she continues to suffer.
“It hasn’t gotten better. It’s gotten worse. What’s left of my family is falling apart because I don’t know how to deal with this terrible loss,” she said.
Paulina Kerik, Vanderzwaag’s girlfriend of four years, spoke of the deep loss she felt on April 6, holding his hand when his life-support systems were turned off.
“Every part of me was torn out when he took his last breath. There are no words to describe the heartbreak of seeing someone you love so much in so much pain.
“She took everything from me that night. I still can’t catch my breath.”
Defence counsel Norman Clair said his client, who has a history of depression and alcohol abuse, feels tremendous guilt and remorse for causing the deadly crash.
Taken into custody at the collision scene, Beauclair was put on suicide watch at the Red Deer Remand Centre and was taken from there for two weeks of treatment at the Centennial Centre, a unit of the Alberta Hospital Ponoka.
Clair traced Beauclair’s problems back to a dog attack that severely disfigured her face when she was two years old. Beauclair went through a series of surgeries to correct the damage, suffering continual taunts from other children who called her “scarface.” Diagnosed with depression at 12, she started to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
Clair argued for a shorter sentence so Beauclair could look after her own children, who are seven and 14.
Outside the courtroom, Keeler’s aunt, Kathy Quaiscei of Calgary, said no sentence can be harsh enough to compensate for the loss of two young men and the profound impacts that loss has had on their families and their community.
“It’s bull—-. My brother and his wife, we’ll never be happy again. (Colton and Tyson) were just at a point where they could go and have a life. No amount of jail sentence, really, is going to bring that back.”
She said her nephew and the others who were partying with him had done everything right, ensuring that they would have a sober driver to take them home, yet they never made it.
Colton’s father, Darren Keeler, said Schollie’s sentence does not send a strong enough message about the consequences of impaired driving.
Citing Collard’s arguments for a five-year sentence, Keeler said courts in Alberta need to follow Ontario’s example and send a stronger message through harsher sentencing for impaired driving.
The problem seems particularly bad in Red Deer, where there have been a number of serious incidents involving drunk drivers speeding through the streets and taking innocent lives, said Keeler.
Collard’s sentencing arguments included the case of Sedalia resident Chad Mitchell Olsen, who was also sentenced by Schollie after pleading guilty to the Feb. 7, 2010, crash that killed Red Deer couple Brad and Krista Howe, who were the parents of five children.
Originally sentenced to two and a half years, Olsen’s sentence was raised to three and a half years after an appeal by the Crown.
Olsen had already been granted parole when the appeal was heard.
Schollie, in passing sentence on Beauclair, said the difficulties she suffered as a child and her efforts to self-medicate do not excuse her behaviour.
“There are other people that have had a difficult life. Alcohol is not a very good medicine, in my opinion,” he said.
He said sentencing in Alberta courts should not be bound by the harsher sentences described in the Ontario cases that Collard cited in his sentencing proposal.
Schollie went on to express frustration with the system in which a judge passes sentence and then sees the accused released by authorities outside the court’s reach.
He said it seems “hopeless, useless and ridiculous” to “hammer someone with a long sentence” only to see them walk out early.
Darren Keeler said he was advised that Beauclair will be eligible for parole in six to seven months.