A driver who hit and killed a Minnedosa man as he walked home from a rock festival has been sentenced to two years house arrest for failing to stop at the scene of an accident.
The driver, Christopher Paul Palaschuk, was initially charged with impaired driving causing death, but took a plea bargain that saw him admit to failing to stop at the scene of an accident instead.
His guilty plea to that charge means no evidence of drunk driving was presented in court or even mentioned, but that hasn’t changed the minds of Shawn Cooper’s family when it comes to what happened.
"There are only two people that know what actually happened to Shawn that dreadful morning. The drunk driver and the good Lord above — he knows," Cooper’s mother, Cheryl, told court as she read her victim impact statement.
Palaschuk, 41, entered his guilty plea in Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench on Monday, on what would have been the first day of his trial on charges that included impaired driving causing Shawn’s death and bodily harm to his sister, Jennifer. His charges also included dangerous driving causing death and bodily harm.
Those charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to failing to stop at an accident scene to provide help and identification. Crown attorney Ron Toews said that Shawn and Jennifer were at the Rockin’ the Fields of Minnedosa music festival in the early morning of Aug. 4, 2014. Cooper was attending college in Winnipeg, but with school out for the summer he was staying with his parents in his hometown of Minnedosa.
He and his sister were walking home from the festival, beside Highway 262 which joins the concert site to Minnedosa.
Toews described the road as two-lane paved road with gravel shoulders. It had no sidewalk, nor any substantial lighting.
Palaschuk was also at Rockin’ the Fields. The Calgarian was visiting his common-law partner, the mother of his child, who lived in Minnedosa.
At the festival, the couple got into a heated argument and Palaschuk wanted to leave. He took his partner’s minivan and started to drive to her home in town.
In her victim impact statement, Jennifer described how attending the music festival had become a summer highlight for the siblings. As they walked along the gravel beside the road, they were joking and enjoying each other’s company.
Toews said that, suddenly, Jennifer was hit by something believed to be Shawn’s body. His neck had been broken, and an autopsy later determined he would have died almost instantly from being hit by the van which didn’t stop.
Jennifer’s arm was badly injured, but despite that injury she was the one to dial 911 and was one of those who performed CPR on Shawn until paramedics arrived.
Their father, Dave, happened to be one of the first on scene. Jennifer and Shawn had called him for a ride, but had decided to start walking. He arrived to find his son and daughter in the ditch.
Dave and Shawn’s uncle (who also happened upon the scene) also performed CPR.
Cheryl Cooper described receiving a phone call from her husband while he was still at the scene.
"I will never forget Dave begging for Shawn to hang on," she said.
Palaschuk’s lawyer, Gerri Wiebe, said it was dark as her client drove down the highway. He says something hit his car but, believing someone had thrown something at it, he panicked and continued on his way.
In entering his plea to failing to stop, he admitted to hearing a voice as he drove on, and that he should have realized people were involved in the collision and investigated.
Toews said RCMP were stretched thin with the festival, but were able to link a complaint that Palaschuk had assaulted his common law with the crash (an assault charge was later dropped).
They found Palaschuk sleeping at his common law’s home in Minnedosa. Parked next to the home was the van with damage to its windshield and fender.
Toews pointed to difficulties in proving the Crown’s case. Without Palaschuk’s admission that he was the driver, they would have had a tough time proving even that.
Toews said that Palaschuk’s common law initially told police that Palaschuk had access to the van keys and was sitting in the vehicle shortly before the collision.
However, she also gave a later statement that "deviated" from the first, and her credibility would have been called into question at trial.
Toews also cited local court decisions in which drivers have been acquitted, or merely convicted of Highway Traffic Act offences, for fatal crashes that didn’t involve alcohol.
With Palaschuk not admitting to drinking and driving and with no witnesses to place him in the driver’s seat at the time of the collision, any evidence collected in regard to drinking (or any potential deficiencies in such evidence and its collection) wasn’t shared in court.
Victim impact statements written by Shawn’s mother, aunt and sister were read aloud.
They remembered Shawn as kind and gentle and described the family’s continuing struggle with their disbelief that he’s gone and sorrow at a life cut short.
They also described the support shown to the family by their community.
Visitors brought them food and flowers. They gave money to the family, wishing to make donations in Shawn’s memory but not sure who to give it to. The money would be used to set up a scholarship in Shawn’s name. Shawn was studying to be an aircraft mechanic and had worked at Ken Kade Aerial Spray. At his funeral, pilots from that company flew in Missing Man formation.
"Shawn would have thought it was just awesome," Cheryl said.
Cheryl described how, in August 2015, Rockin’ the Fields organizers placed a banner with Shawn’s picture on it at the gate asking visitors not to drink and drive.
Jennifer, whose arm injury still troubles her, also blamed drunk driving in her victim impact statement:
"I wish this intoxicated driver would completely feel the extent in which he has ruined mine and my family’s lives … he left us both on the side of the road without stopping or calling for help. That seems very guilty in my mind," she wrote.
"His irresponsible actions handed Shawn a death sentence, and my family a life sentence."
» Twitter: @IanHitchen