Jamie Chanminaraj

Sentenced to a life of grief

Canada Day 2010 dawned beautifully for Tony Chanminaraj. He spent his 48th birthday at home in Red Deer with his wife and four kids ­— the 20-year-old daughter and two teenaged sons he had raised on his own, along with a new baby girl from his second marriage.

Canada Day 2010 dawned beautifully for Tony Chanminaraj. He spent his 48th birthday at home in Red Deer with his wife and four kids ­— the 20-year-old daughter and two teenaged sons he had raised on his own, along with a new baby girl from his second marriage.

Contented and pleasantly stuffed from the turkey and salad prepared for his birthday dinner, Tony was sleeping peacefully when his oldest daughter, Stephanie, 20, and her brother Jeffrey, 13, decided to head down to Bower Ponds for the Canada Day fireworks. He felt grateful that he and his children were reaping the rewards of his family’s decision, when he was in his mid-teens, to leave their home in Laos and start a new life in Canada.

Jamie, 18, would have preferred to stay home and play video games, but Stephanie talked him into coming along because she wanted someone to look after her and Jeffrey. Her boyfriend, Jordan Dykes, had gone to bed early because he had to be up for work the next day.

The tail lights of Stephanie’s Honda Civic disappeared into the dusk. Jeffrey sat in the front beside his sister. Jamie sat in the back.

Minutes later, their world shattered.

Stephanie had stopped her car at the bottom of the Taylor Drive hill and was waiting to turn left onto Kerry Wood Drive. She and her brothers would find a place to park and walk back to watch the fireworks.

She had just started her turn when a Dodge pickup truck sped across the bridge toward her and accelerated just before reaching the intersection. It slammed into the passenger side of her car and then spun out of control, coming to rest on the median northwest of the intersection, its broken front end staring back at the car it had just struck.

Throngs of people had been standing at the crosswalks, waiting for the lights to change so they could make their way to Bower Ponds.

As the first fireworks were starting to go off, the intersection of Kerry Wood and Taylor Drives burst into chaos. The small car sat in the middle of the intersection, its right side ripped open, one of the passengers hanging partway out of the broken back window.

An off-duty nurse who was walking to Bower Ponds with her child and husband ran to the car. Seeing no hope for the boy in the front passenger seat, she went around to the other side to tend to the driver while others rushed to the young man in the back.

In the distance, pickup truck driver Rodney Ross Arens, 32, stumbled as he got out of the driver’s-side door, lit a cigarette and walked around to the front, using the truck’s fender to support himself. A civilian who would later be called as a witness in his trial overhead him comment: “I guess I’m not driving this away.”

The first police arrived at the scene almost immediately, including two RCMP members who had been on their way to Bower Ponds to keep and eye on the Canada Day crowds.

Arens was placed back in his truck by one of the officers, who was concerned that he may have been injured in the crash. Another officer arrested him a few moments later on a single count of impaired driving.

The charges would later be upgraded to impaired driving causing death, dangerous driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm, dangerous driving causing bodily harm, breaching a court order prohibiting him from consuming alcohol and three counts of refusing to provide a breath sample to police investigating a fatal or injury collision.

In the Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench on June 19, 2014, just days before Tony’s 52nd birthday, Arens was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for all but the refusal charges, which were withdrawn during the trial. Justice Kirk Sisson included a 10-year driving prohibition in the sentence.

The victims

Jamie Chanminaraj was airlifted from Red Deer to Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where doctors performed a series of operations on his broken legs and mangled hand.

He was still in care and unable to join about 200 family members and school friends who gathered for his brother’s funeral in Red Deer on July 10, 2010.

Jeffrey Chanminaraj had been a student at Central Middle School. More artist than athlete, he loved to play video games and guitar. He had a cheerful smile and, to many who knew him, looked even younger than his 13 years.

“He did everything for you and asked nothing in return,” said fellow student Chance Moggy, one of the many friends and family members who placed mementos on an impromptu memorial created at the crash site.

Jeffrey’s cousin, Pongsavane Praseutsith, remembers being pleasantly surprised that Jeffrey had picked up the guitar and was dreaming of becoming a rock star. Older than Jeffrey and trained in law, Praseutsith shared his cousin’s love of music and was also a guitar player.

“A lot of the other kids liked the piano or did other things. I was really surprised he chose the guitar, without my influence, which was really cool,” Praseutsith said in an interview with the Red Deer Advocate a few days after Jeffrey’s death.

“He was very passive. You knew that, when he grew up, he wasn’t going to be like one of those outspoken, star quarterback, play-on-the-sports-team kind of (people). You kind of knew he would be a video gamer or a musician.”

Talking about Jeffrey is still difficult for members of his family, says Stephanie.

“We tend not to be very outspoken,” she said outside the courtroom during a break in Arens’ trial.

She, Tony and Jamie have learned to mask their pain, putting on brave faces while trying to stitch their lives back together around a loss of immeasurable proportions.

Stephanie and her boyfriend have purchased a home in Penhold. She works full time in Red Deer, managing a retail clothing store.

Outwardly, Jamie also appears to be doing well. Crown prosecutor Wayne Silliker, during sentencing submissions after Arens was convicted, remarked that he was healing miraculously after such grievous injuries.

It’s really not such a miracle, says Jamie, who works for a building contractor in Red Deer and the surrounding area.

Alongside the pain in his heart, he deals with agonizing pain in his legs, which were pieced together on the operating table with plates of titanium to reinforce broken bones.

The killer

Named after his father Ross, Rodney Ross Arens spent his childhood in Rimbey and lived in a number of Central Alberta communities as an adult, including Red Deer, Rocky Mountain House and Sylvan Lake.

In numerous court appearances before his trial this spring, Arens said many people were dependent on him, including two young daughters and the people employed with his construction business.

“This has had an impact on me, too,” Arens said in addressing the court during his sentence hearing on June 19. His lawyer, Donna Derie-Gillespie, described for the court how Arens’ mother died six months after the crash, unable to bear the stress.

Sniffling and wiping tears from his eyes, Arens said during his sentence hearing that he was “sorry that I was involved in such a tragic event.”

People in the gallery, including two Red Deer mothers whose adult children were killed by drunk drivers, later said that the apology sounded hollow, while Justice Sisson minced no words in describing his findings of guilt and the reasoning he used to craft his sentence.

While there was no evidence of the exact level of alcohol in Arens’ bloodstream at the time of the crash, there was plenty of evidence to prove that he was significantly impaired and plenty more evidence to show that he had been driving in a manner that put the public in significant danger, said Sisson.

He described Arens’ driving, the resulting crash and his attitude in the months and years that followed as “a stunning act of wrongdoing.”

Sisson derided Arens for his “callous” attitude toward the crash and the impact it had on the victims and their family, stressing the man’s numerous attempts to avoid prosecution rather than accept responsibility.

Among the worst of those efforts was his attempt after he was released from custody to convince a friend to lie about where he had been and the amount of alcohol he had consumed in the hours before the crash, said Sisson.

Under the Criminal Code, impaired driving causing death carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The reality, however, is that judges must look at a variety of factors, including the sentences that have been given for similar crimes and under similar circumstances.

In January 2013, Lacombe resident April Gail Beauclair, 29, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for killing two young men and maiming another in a collision on Hwy 11A, between Red Deer and Sylvan Lake.

In April 2011, Sedalia resident Chad Olsen, 24 at the time, was sentenced to three years in prison, minus nine months for time served, for the drunk driving crash that killed the parents of five Red Deer children in February 2010. The Alberta Court of Appeal later extended the sentence to two and a half years.

The fallout

Among the people gathered for Arens’ sentencing was Red Deer mother Aleta Neville, whose son Brent was killed in Calgary when the car his drunk best friend was driving went out of control.

President of the Red Deer and district branch of MADD Canada, she sat beside Sandra Green, whose daughter and son-in-law, Krista and Brad Howe, were the victims in Olsen’s drunk driving crash.

Since Olsen’s release from prison, Green has been making school presentations with him, hoping to prevent as many young people as possible from repeating his tragic mistake.

Green said many people ask how she can stomach working with him. She feels it’s her mission, so other mothers and grandmothers don’t have to experience the unending grief that is a permanent part of her life.

No sentence for drunk driving can adequately punish someone who has taken the life of another, said Neville. However, she believes harsher sentences would make a significant difference in the number of people who still think it’s OK to drink and drive.

Sentences have become stiffer in recent years, but judges are still not using the penalties available to them to the full extent. Neville said she knows of only one person ever sentenced to life after an impaired driving collision, and the offence was second-degree murder, aggravated assault and other offences rather than impaired driving causing death.

Calgary resident Jeffrey Kevin Leinen was convicted of the offences in December 2011 for killing Nicholas Baier, 18, and seriously injuring Dan Skocdopole, 19. Kicked out of a bar in Olds, he had deliberately rammed his pickup truck into a crowd of college students gathered outside on the evening of Oct. 29, 2010. His original conviction has been upheld after being overturned on an appeal, with an automatic sentence of life in prison with no parole for 14 years.

Tony Chanminaraj, his children and his brother, Van, feel that they have been sentenced to a life of grief by the man who killed Jeffrey.

Stephanie, who once loved fireworks, now closes herself away on Canada Day and has never since attended a fireworks display for any reason.

Tony and his second wife, Thang, now have two little girls, Angie and Nikki, ages four and two.

Angie was just a baby when Jeffrey died, but she sees his picture on the wall in their house and says his name.

Thang is expecting a third baby in August. Ultrasound has confirmed that she will have a boy.

Tony is looking forward to spending many years with his new son. But there is one father-son tradition that they will never share.

He is no longer able to celebrate his own birthday.


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