GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – Zach Judd often thinks about suicide since a car crash in northern Alberta killed his four high school buddies and fellow football teammates.
The fact that he was the only teen in the mangled car to survive makes him angry and depressed.
“I feel I should be dead instead of my friends,” the 17-year-old told a courtroom Tuesday.
“I lost four friends in an accident that never should have happened. I will never be the same.”
Relatives of the four dead teens also stood up in court to talk about their grief and address the driver of a pickup truck who caused the crash.
Brenden Holubowich, 23, pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
His truck collided with a car carrying the five members of the Warriors football team from Grande Prairie Composite High School on October 22, 2011.
Court heard Holubowich had earlier been drinking with co-workers at a Grande Prairie bowling alley and was driving at speeds as high as 151 km/h on Highway 668 on the way home to the nearby town of Wembley.
The football players had just left a party outside the city. But within minutes their car and three others pulled off the highway and into the driveway of a nearby business. One by one, they all quickly made U-turns on the highway to go in the other direction.
Their car, the last to make the U-turn, was struck as it straddled the centre line.
Walter Borden-Wilkins and Tanner Hildebrand, both 15, and Matthew Deller and Vince Stover, both 16, were killed. Judd was pulled from the wreckage.
Holubowich never stopped to see if the boys were OK or call 911. He ran on foot to his workplace, an oilfield transportation company, where RCMP found him an hour later.
The Crown and defence have agreed the man should receive a prison term of three years and a driving prohibition for another three years. But Court of Queen’s Bench Justice William Tilleman said he needed time to think about whether it’s an appropriate punishment.
The families of the football players, many were wearing orange Warriors sweatshirts with the boys’ team numbers on them, all said that three years is too little. The judge said he will decide on the sentence Wednesday.
He then went on to talk about his disappointment that people still haven’t learned about the dangers of drinking and driving.
“Every death from drunk driving is preventable,” said the judge. “Don’t pick up the keys.”
The teenagers were the responsible ones that night. Autopsy results show the boy driving the car, Matthew, had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Holubowich — a tall, strapping, heavy-duty mechanic apprentice —tried not to cry as he uttered his guilty pleas in a hushed voice. He later read aloud a prepared statement to the families and friends of the boys who filled the courtroom.
“I do not expect you to forgive me but I do hope you accept my apology as genuine,” he said. “I would give anything to change the outcome of that night. I am truly very sorry.”
Defence lawyer Chris Millsap said his client takes full responsibility for causing the crash, despite rumours after the accident that he blamed the teen who was driving the car for making the U-turn.
He described his client as a humble young man, full of regret, who will never forget what he did.
“This is a kind, very young man, who — for a split second — made a horrible decision.”
Leon Deller, Matthew’s father, told Holubowich in his victim impact statement that he’s working on forgiveness but it may never come.
“I don’t hate you as a person,” he said. “I grew up believing in God. So my belief is the sentence here is not the one that matters.
“God will be the only true judge to judge you.”
Judd later said outside court that he doesn’t believe Holubowich is sorry. And he hopes the judge decides to ditch the three-year recommendation and hand him more time behind bars.
“It depends on how much you value a life. He killed four kids.”
Judd spent 11 days in a coma suffering from a severe brain injury. He said he doesn’t remember the crash at all but has been told bits and pieces.
His older brother, Louis, came across the crash scene and found him in the wreckage: “My brother sat beside me, holding my hand while I was drowning in my own blood.”
He said his recovery has been frustratingly slow. He had to learn to walk and talk again. And he has permanently lost hearing in one ear and it affects his balance.
He hasn’t been able to get his driver’s licence back and may never play football or other sports again.
He has a different life and a different personality, he said.
“Just the whole anger thing plays a big role … I get annoyed really easy, have no patience for anyone. People make me mad and I’m just ready to go, up to the point where I don’t really care about myself.
“The way I see it is I don’t really matter if I die. If I die, that’s fair.”
The initial shock of the crash turned the entire community upside down and had football players across the country mourning four boys they never knew.
People packed an arena for a memorial service. Many high school teams across Canada honoured the players with moments of silence at their games. The Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders of the CFL put the Warriors logo on their helmets for the last couple of games of the regular season.
The Warriors toughed it out and finished their season. They went on to win their league championship before losing in the quarter-finals at provincials. Their final run made national sports headlines.
Coach Rick Gilson, the same man who helped RCMP deliver news of the crash to the boys’ families, was later named NFL Canada’s youth coach of the year for being a rock and role model after the crash.
A new wing at the school, called a health and wellness centre, has opened since the accident. The $600,000 addition houses a full-time social worker, three guidance counsellors, career counsellors, RCMP liaison officers and a health nurse.
But there are no memorials or tributes dedicated to the dead boys at the school. Grief experts told school officials it was best for students not to be reminded of the deaths and to try to move on.