CALGARY — A man whose toddler son was killed when a cement truck smashed into the back of a car says an eight-year sentence for the driver means that in some small way his boy’s voice has been heard.
Daniel Tschetter, 51, was behind the wheel Dec. 7, 2007, when Zachary Morrison died along with two other children and two adults. A judge sent Tschetter to prison Wednesday for manslaughter and obstruction of justice. Reductions given by the judge mean Tschetter will serve no more than just over 5 1/2 years.
Outside court, Lee Morrison said no sentence could ease the pain he feels every day since 16-month-old Zachary’s death, but it does send a message that criminal driving won’t be tolerated.
“We’ve made some steps forward,” he said as he clutched a picture of his smiling, blond boy that was hanging around his neck. “I think there’s a long way to go yet so people just don’t do these things.”
Judge Bruce Fraser said Tschetter’s driving was “extremely dangerous becoming absolutely reckless and negligent.” He said the driver deserved a sentence in the high range for manslaughter.
“The gravity of the driving, the tragic results and the moral culpability and blameworthiness of the offender puts this in the realm of a worst-case scenario,” the judge said.
Tschetter had been speeding along a Calgary highway for 20 kilometres. Witnesses testified his massive truck swerved, abruptly switched lanes and sometimes passed vehicles on the shoulder before it slammed nearly at full speed into a car stopped at a red light
After demolishing the car, Tschetter climbed a ladder to toss a vodka bottle into the back of his truck, witnesses said.
Zachary; his mother Melaina Hovdebo, 33; Chris Gautreau, 41; and Gautreau’s two daughters, Alexia, 9, and Kiarra, 6, were all killed.
All five were crushed, their “lives snuffed out in millisecond, probably literally without knowing what hit them, by the wanton and reckless disregard for their lives by this offender,” said Fraser.
He reduced the sentence by more than one-quarter because Tschetter had originally tried to plead guilty to criminal negligence causing death, which the judge said was essentially the same as manslaughter. He also credited him with 5 1/2 months for pre-trial custody.
But he banned Tschetter from ever driving a commercial vehicle again. He will also be barred from driving a personal vehicle for five years after he is released from prison.
The fact Tschetter was driving a truck that weighed 10 times more than the vehicle he hit also called out for a strict sentence, said Fraser. Other commercial drivers must realize that “if they do not drive such vehicles with that high standard of care and instead drive recklessly as this offender did with tragic consequences, they will go to the penitentiary.”
Crown prosecutor Jonathan Hak had argued Tschetter should be sentenced to between 10 and 15 years. But defence lawyer Balfour Der suggested a suspended sentence would be enough punishment because the driver had no criminal record and felt horrible about what he did.
Fraser said he looked at similar cases in which the accused received between two and eight years.
The courtroom was filled with friends and family of the victims and their killer. Tschetter seemed emotional while talking with his family before court began, but remained silent as he learned his fate. His wife and children huddled together, weeping and hugging each other for support.
Fraser acknowledged the extremely emotional victim impact statements that were read in court in August after Tschetter was convicted.
Morrison described an empty life without his son and told the court he visited his boy’s grave every day. The pain, hurt and sadness often bring him to his knees, he said.
Previna Jiawan-Gautreau, Gautreau’s wife and mother of the dead girls, said her life had been smashed. She cried as she said she would never feel their soft touches, warm hugs or gentle kisses again.
“No one has to tell me how devastating this tragic event is when loss of life is caused, not only to two adults but to three small children …. none of whom had even begun to experience life,” Fraser said.
Tschetter also got a chance to speak in August. He clutched a one-page statement and looking directly at family members as he haltingly apologized and said he was consumed with pain and remorse beyond words.
Outside court, Jiawan-Gautreau said she felt numb after hearing the sentence.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change the fact that he took away five lives.”
Morrison said he understands the reasons behind the sentence, but it’s “horrible” that Tschetter will be out of prison within years.
“I still go to the cemetery with this pain,” he said. “He’ll go home … or whatever he’s going to do, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”