TORONTO — A grieving mother who lost her three children and her father in a horrific crash north of Toronto is harnessing a wave of public support and outrage to push for tougher penalties against drunk drivers.
Jennifer Neville-Lake says returning to the site of the crash on Thanksgiving weekend inspired her to launch what she called her “final bit of advocacy” for her children.
Nine-year-old Daniel, Harrison, 5, and two-year-old Milly Neville-Lake were killed along with Gary Neville, 65, after the van they were in was T-boned by an SUV in Vaughan, Ont., on Sept. 27. The children’s grandmother and great-grandmother were also seriously injured in the crash.
Marco Muzzo, 29, has been charged with a dozen counts of impaired driving and six more charges of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle related to the incident.
He remains in police custody pending a bail hearing next Monday and his high-profile defence lawyer has said it’s premature to indicate how Muzzo will plead.
The maximum sentence for impaired driving causing death is life in prison and Neville-Lake says it’s crucial for politicians and the courts to know the public supports that ruling.
Last week, a young man in Saskatchewan was sentenced to four years in prison for a drunk-driving crash that resulted in the deaths of two women and left a newborn with a brain injury.
In Ontario, a 22-year-old man was sentenced to five years in prison last week after being convicted of driving drunk the wrong way down a highway and killing two people — a 49-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter — in a 2012 crash.
“If enough people ask for the harshest sentence, it will be considered,” Neville-Lake said Tuesday, while cautioning against vigilante justice.
Thanksgiving was “a pretty difficult weekend for us,” Neville-Lake said.
Remembering all the things they would have been grateful for — including the progress made by young Harrison, who had special needs — was too painful, so Neville-Lake said she chose to focus on the positive.
“I’m just grateful that I got to see my children, that I got to be their mother,” she said.
The family had planned to spend the holiday looking at the autumn leaves, but instead returned to the place where the tragedy occurred.
Neville-Lake and her husband Edward Lake stopped by the site twice, in part to look for anything belonging to their children that may have been left behind, she said.
“When the stuff was returned to us from the police, we didn’t get anything of our oldest son’s back, Daniel, and we got one of our daughter’s shoes back,” she said.
“My husband and I were kind of holding on to a pipe dream that we’d magically find it and it would make us feel better — you know, a whole sign from the kids that they’re around,” she said.
The couple also wanted to confront their grief head-on, she said.
“That’s the spot where my kids were (vital signs absent) for quite a while, that’s the spot where my dad died,” she said. “I don’t want to be afraid of it.”
It was there that a woman approached the couple and asked how to help, and Neville-Lake began her campaign, asking the woman and others to publicly voice their support for a maximum sentence.
The Muzzo family has issued a statement expressing their condolences but Neville-Lake said no one has contacted them directly.
And though she’s not sure she’ll attend Muzzo’s court hearings, Neville-Lake said she wants to see him in person one day.
“I do want to look upon the man that is the reason I don’t have my children to cuddle with,” she said.
Neville-Lake said her mother is staying with them after being released from hospital but needs care around the clock, so other relatives have come to lend a hand.
Her grandmother remains in hospital and Neville-Lake said she’s not sure the grievously injured woman, who is in her 90s, has been told of the tragedy.