Mary Williams

DEADLY CHOICES: Woman compelled to action after son’s death

Losing a son to a drunk driver propelled a Red Deer mother to create MADD’s first chapter west of Ontario in 1993.

Losing a son to a drunk driver propelled a Red Deer mother to create MADD’s first chapter west of Ontario in 1993.

Mary Williams never thought she would end up becoming a victims’ advocate on behalf of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but her new purpose would come after a summer night on July 3, 1986.

Mary and her husband Raymond were expecting that Andy, the youngest of their four sons, would come home promptly from a bike ride as he had done so many times before. But when dusk fell, Mary knew something was wrong.

The parents searched a big hill that their son liked to cycle on in Dundas, Ont. When they returned home, they saw the police car. The officers were already inside, knocking on the couple’s door. Raymond told his wife to remain in the car while he went upstairs.

Two officers then came down and asked her to go with them. No one said a word. When she entered the apartment, her husband stood there looking awful. In her own written words, Williams described what happened next.

“Then one officer said, ‘We shall need you to come down and identify the body.’ I was consumed with rage and said, ‘What body? What are you talking about?’ ”

A drunk driver, who was almost three times more than the legal limit, had struck Andy at the top of the hill a few hours earlier, at about 8 p.m.

The couple faced the grim reality of identifying their 16-year-old’s body in the hospital morgue. The shock would later turn to rage at the court’s leniency in dealing with their son’s killer. The Crown allowed the 33-year-old driver to only plead guilty to impaired driving. The .08 charge and the impaired driving causing death charge were withdrawn. The part-time Crown prosecutor had called their son’s death an “unfortunate fatality.”

The driver received 30 months in jail, but it’s likely he only served nine months, said Williams, now 76. It wasn’t the first impaired driving conviction for the driver.

Williams has heard other stories of impaired drivers who kill and yet received short jail sentences. It’s a painful reality for many families.

“I think mine was the worst case scenario,” she said. “You tell me — how could (the driver) get away with just the one charge?”

The couple moved to Red Deer, along with another son, in 1990. Williams would go on to join the RCMP Victim Services Unit and with the encouragement and help from the RCMP and fellow victim services advisors, Williams created the first MADD chapter for Red Deer and district.

The Red Deer district MADD’s inaugural meeting was on Sept. 22, 1993, and, shortly after, members jumped right into Project Red Ribbon — a public awareness campaign focused on the Christmas holiday season.

“There was no paperwork to go with the ribbons, so we designed special little information tags to attach to each ribbon, and the ribbons came in a great big spools, about 24 inches in diameter,” said Williams, whose husband died in 2009. “Raymond spent hours and hours cutting those ribbons for us, talk about unsung heroes!”

Williams started with no financial help. There were no grants to apply for like today. She sought dollars for the first road banner and she designed the chapter’s first pamphlets.

Today, Williams is still a member of MADD, but is no longer actively involved. Her passion for starting the group is well recognized by those who slug it out for MADD today.

“It wasn’t something I wanted to do at all,” said Williams. “It was something I felt I had to do.”

Aleta Neville, president of the Red Deer area chapter, and husband Rick said that many people wouldn’t know that Red Deer had the first MADD chapter in Western Canada and that it was due to Williams’ efforts.

The Nevilles joined MADD after losing their middle child to a drunk driver on March 17, 2006.

Brent Neville, a 21-year-old Red Deer College student, was a passenger in a vehicle driven by friend Robert Alan Cook, who was impaired. The vehicle struck a pole in Calgary and Brent was killed at 2:50 a.m.

Red Deer Mounties Scott Barber and George Stephenson, Brent’s godfather, knocked on the door at 10:30 a.m.

Cook was sentenced to 27 months in jail, with a five-year driving prohibition, after pleading guilty to impaired driving causing death. The young man served one-third of his sentence, said the Nevilles.

They created a website in memory of Brent and they thought it would be a great idea to link it with the national MADD website. They attended an annual MADD vigil conference in Vancouver and shortly after, they joined the Red Deer and District chapter. Aleta has been president for the past two-and-a-half years.

Rick does all the death notification training in Western Canada for MADD. He teaches fire, police, military and victim services personnel what to say to someone who has lost a loved one.

The former Mountie said that such training is fairly scant in a lot of emergency services training. He’s a security advisor with energy giant Encana Corp., which sponsors the training.

“We desperately need volunteers,” said Aleta, who serves as the victim services volunteer. “Most have been veterans for 10-plus years.”

More volunteers are critical as the chapter conducts fundraising events. The money which stays in the region. Volunteers don’t have to be victims of drunk driving.

“The victims have big passion, but the non-victims often show more energy and they can bring a lot of ideas,” said Aleta. The Nevilles say that Alberta’s tougher impaired driving legislation, introduced last summer, will help. This includes introducing penalties for drivers who have blood alcohol levels of .05 to .08. Police now have the ability to issue an immediate three-day licence suspension and three-day vehicle seizure.

With a blood alcohol concentration of .05, an individual has 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood.

“We’ve been hearing from the public how it will change people’s attitudes about drinking and driving,” said Rick.

They were pleased to hear recent statistics from the B.C. government, which said that the tougher drunk driving laws brought in there two years ago helped reduced the number of impaired driving deaths by 46 per cent.

“My biggest fear on the horizon is the use of drugs and driving,” said Rick. “There’s a push for decriminalizing marijuana in B.C. If they start doing that, people will be able to smoke dope and drive, with minimal consequences.”

Meanwhile, Edmonton lawyer Fred Kozak, representing four clients, filed the first constitutional challenge to Alberta’s new impaired driving legislation. An immediate suspension unfairly punishes a person before there’s any determination they’ve done anything wrong, Kozak said.

In some cases, it forces innocent people to plead guilty, he said.

“I view drinking and driving as a serious social issue and I think that it warrants serious penalties for those who are convicted of an offence, but tough measures should be fair,” Kozak said.

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