ST. PAUL, Alta. – Relatives of a man charged with smashing his minivan into a rural Alberta school, killing a girl sitting in French class, say he suffered from seizures and was likely having an attack at the time of the crash.
Walter Benson thinks many people in the town of St. Paul are unjustly vilifying his brother Richard Benson as they try to make sense of what happened Thursday. Family members who have spoken with him in jail say he dropped his kids off at school that morning and blacked out right before his van left an alley, drove through a fence and into a classroom.
“The last thing he remembers is checking the mail and driving down the back alley,” said Walter Benson, recalling a conversation Richard had with another relative after his arrest. “He was crying when he was talking to her, saying that he would never do anything like that on purpose.”
Three Grade 6 girls were pinned by the van after it smashed into the basement of Racette Junior High School shortly after the morning bell Thursday. They were airlifted 200 kilometres west to an Edmonton hospital with critical injuries. Mounties announced Friday afternoon that one of them had died.
RCMP have charged Richard Benson with dangerous driving, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance. They say the 46-year-old was combative with officers during his arrest at the school, but was later co-operative and remorseful. Investigators are waiting for blood tests to determine if he will be charged with impaired driving.
He is to make his first court appearance Monday in St. Paul.
“Everybody’s labelled him as a drunk driver already without even giving him a fair chance,” Walter Benson said. “He hardly drinks at all and I know he’s smart enough not to drink and drive.
“I know he loves kids too much to do anything like that on purpose.”
Benson has been in trouble behind the wheel before. Court records show he was charged last year with dangerous driving near Edmonton and is to stand trial next April. As well, he has a criminal record that includes two convictions for disqualified driving in 1994.
Relatives say Richard Benson is a single father of nine who lives on the outskirts of St. Paul. Only two of his children still live at home.
Walter Benson and another brother, Ralph Benson, say Richard was the victim of a severe beating more than a decade ago in Mayerthorpe, Alta. The attack put him in a coma and left him with a metal plate in his head.
One side of his face is droopy and he looks like a “rough character” but is really a “big pussy cat,” said Walter Benson.
They said their brother Richard hasn’t been able to work since the beating and was surviving on government assistance for the severely disabled.
They believe police found two marijuana joints in a baggie that he was carrying at the time of the crash. Although it wasn’t prescribed for medicinal use, they say he sometimes smoked the drug to alleviate pain or help him sleep.
Several months ago, he started having seizures and an ambulance was called to his home on several different occasions over that time, they said. In the spring, he spent two nights in hospital.
“They put him on some different kind of medication and sent him out the door,” said Walter Benson. “Never said nothing that he couldn’t drive or anything like that. Driving wasn’t even an issue.”
The last seizure the family knew of was on Sunday.
Ralph Benson said Richard worked hard to get his driver’s licence back and was proud that he was able to drive his children to school despite his medical problems. He said he was concerned that Richard was driving, but the man loved his independence and the family decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Mayor Glenn Andersen said people in the community are experiencing a range of emotions — confusion, frustration and anger.
“Usually a school is a safe haven for their children,” he said. “Usually when your children are in school you wouldn’t think of that. You think of them on the bus. You think of them after school. Stuff like that.
“We’re trying to grapple with that and come to an understanding of something that makes no sense whatsoever.”
The town’s fire chief, Trevor Kotowich, was one of the first people to answer an emergency call for a crash at the school. When he arrived, he saw a giant hole in the side of the building. He ran up and saw the minivan sitting inside.
“It looked like a bomb went off.”
He said the van dove down about one metre into the lower-level classroom then spun around, sending children and desks flying. He saw three girls pinned under the van, and knew two of them by name.
They were all unconscious, he said, as rescue crews worked to lift up the van with airbags, hydraulic tools and wood blocks. They had the children out within 15 minutes and they were carried out on boards through a broken window, Kotowich said.
“This vehicle came to rest on the desks in the classroom and there was great fear that the vehicle may have tipped, come off the desks and then land right straight on top of the students that were still underneath, or place more vehicle weight upon them,” said RCMP Chief Supt. Randy McGinnis.
He said officers have yet to determine how fast the minivan was going. McGinnis said that information will come from computer modules, if the van was equipped with them, or from analysis of the scene.
The school was closed Friday, but a vigil took place outside there Friday night.