ST. PAUL, Alta. – The lawyer for a man accused of driving his minivan into an Alberta classroom, killing one girl and leaving two others in hospital, says his client is remorseful and the defence can’t understand why the charges were upgraded Monday.
Richard Edward Benson appeared in St. Paul provincial court looking dishevelled and unshaven, with a black patch over his left eye, as lawyers argued over whether he should be released on bail. Charges of dangerous driving were replaced with charges of criminal negligence causing death and bodily harm.
“I don’t think it’s justified,” said defence lawyer Brian Beresh outside court. “Generally criminal negligence is wanton and reckless disregard. So if someone tells you not to drive, then you decide to drive, that could be wanton and reckless.”
As sheriffs lead Benson from the court after the matter was adjourned Monday, he said: “I do apologize … I’m sorry.”
He has yet to enter a plea on the charges.
Details presented at the hearing are under a publication ban. Judge Kathleen Williams said she would have a bail decision ready for Thursday afternoon.
Benson was initially charged with three counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm and with resisting arrest and possession of marijuana. The day after the crash, one of the three students who were seriously injured in the crash died in hospital.
The 46-year-old now faces a charge of criminal negligence causing death and two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, along with the charges of resisting arrest and drug possession.
The van crashed through Racette Junior High School in St. Paul last Thursday. Witnesses said it was heading down a back alley before it smashed through a fence and then a window, falling into a lower classroom just after the Grade 6 French class had started for the day.
The van sent students and desks flying as it spun around, then pinned three girls underneath it. They were airlifted 200 kilometres west to an Edmonton hospital with serious injuries.
Plywood boards now cover the giant hole in the side of the school, where flags have been lowered to half-mast. Flowers, teddy bears and candles have all been left at the site.
Some of Benson’s family members have said in interviews that he was suffering seizures in recent months. The last one they knew of was on Sunday and they have said they believe he might have had another behind the wheel right before the crash.
They said he told them in jail that he had just dropped his two children off at school had then gone to pick up the mail. The last thing he remembers is driving down the alley before he blacked out.
Some of his supporters, including a brother and sister, sat in the courtroom gallery during the hearing and Benson gave them a quick smile.
On the other side of the courtroom sat about a dozen other people, many relatives of Megan Wolitski, the 11-year-old girl who died in hospital Friday.
A few others were parents like Dean Bardal, who had a child in the classroom who was injured. He said his 11-year-old received cuts and bruises when the van landed in the school. His wife, who is a teacher at the school, is nine months pregnant.
The crash has been traumatizing for everyone in the small town of 5,800, he said. He added that no one can understand why Benson was driving if he knew he had been having seizures.
“He should have known better,” Bardal said outside court. “I’m sorry. I have no remorse for him.
“He’s an individual who had control of a bomb. We’re just lucky it wasn’t any worse.”
Another parent who wouldn’t give his name talked about how he hasn’t let his father drive since the man suffered a stroke. “It’s just common sense.”
A spokeswoman with the provincial government said it’s up to an individual to declare any medical conditions that could affect their driving.
A doctor can report concerns about a patient driving, but is not required to do so. Anyone in the public can also report medical concerns anonymously to the government’s registrar.
Racette school has been closed since the crash. Classes for students are to resume Tuesday at St. Paul Regional High School.