by Paige Parsons
An admitted drunk driver who fled the scene after a crash that killed a young father and seriously injured three other people listened in an Edmonton courtroom Thursday as his victims and their families tearfully described how their lives have been shattered.
In November, Michael Beverly Gress, 37, of St. Albert pleaded guilty to manslaughter, three counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm and hit and run in relation to the high speed March 12 crash near the intersection of 167 Avenue and 59A Street.
For about three hours, an overflowing courtroom with dozens of people packed into benches and leaning against walls listened to painful accounts of physical and emotional distress caused to victims of the crash.
Russell Guy House, 29, was a father of two boys, now aged 11 and three years old. He worked as a welder and loved to play sports. He was proud of his First Nations culture and was a grass dancer.
His wife, Waniya Cardinal, wrote a letter to House that was read in court by a relative.
"I pictured growing old with you," she wrote. "I am so afraid to live."
She also wrote about being unable to bring herself to tell her 3 yr old son that his father is dead.
There was also anger. House's sister began to sob at one point, and cursed at Gress before being led from the room in tears.
His grandmother, Theresa Bird, likened Gress's refusal to listen to the multiple people who tried to stop him from driving drunk to having the "equivalent of a pig's brain."
Multiple attempts were made to stop Gress before the crash. According to an agreed statement of facts, he was cut off at two different pubs, he sent away a cab that had been ordered for him by a bar owner, his Dodge Charger nearly hit one of two bar patrons that tried to prevent him from driving away at the first pub he attended, and he was reported to 911 as a suspected drunk driver three times between midnight and the crash.
At about 1:30 a.m., a witness came across the deadly three car collision and stopped to help. Police determined Gress had rear ended a Chevrolet Cavalier, pushing it into oncoming traffic, where it was struck by a Mitsubishi Lancer.
An uninjured Gress fled the scene on foot and took a cab to his home.
Analysis of the crash found the Charger was travelling at 147 km/h in a 60 km/h zone just seconds before impact.
Among the three other victims was House's brother in law, Evan Cardinal, who had to be extracted from the driver's side of the Cavalier and was taken to hospital with life threatening injuries, including upper body fractures and a collapsed lung.
In his victim impact statement, Cardinal wrote that more than anything, he feels guilty that he survived when House died.
Lancer driver Kyle Yuhar suffered a fractured ankle and passenger Taylor Uganecz suffered a broken collarbone, a spine injury, as well as deep bruising. The teenage friends were in Grade 12 at the time.
In a victim impact statement read to the court, Uganecz spoke about the toll the crash took, not just on her body, but on her family as well. She wants to become a nurse but is unsure if she'll ever be able to do that because sitting and concentrating for more than a few hours is too difficult, and she is unable to lift much weight. She also fears the damage will prevent her from having a safe pregnancy.
Speaking outside the courthouse during an adjournment, she said it was "emotional" to see Gress in person for the first time.
"I just wondered why he would throw his life away by drinking and driving, and hurting the four people that he did and all their families," she said.
Yuhar wasn't able to attend the sentencing hearing, but his mother Tammie Yuhar read impact statements for herself and her son. She spoke about the pain of seeing her child - a AAA hockey player who liked to spend time with his friends - have his dreams crushed. He's pursuing training as an electrician, but his mother says his physical limitations may prevent him from having a career in the field.
"I will probably never know a life without pain again," Yuhar wrote.
Crown prosecutor Kim Goddard argued for a sentence of eight to 10 years, to be followed by a 10 year driving prohibition.
Defence lawyer Lindsay Hoban argued her client should receive seven to eight years, followed by a driving prohibition of up to five years.
Gress stood and tearfully read a letter of apology to his victims.
"You have every right to hate me and blame me," Gress said. "The shame I feel is impossible to explain."
Gress has been in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre for nine months. He has an 11 yr old daughter, and a number of family members attended court Thursday to support him.
Provincial court Judge Laura Stevens reserved her decision until Feb. 14.