A young man charged in the wake of a fatal collision on Circle Drive was sentenced in Saskatoon Provincial Court on Monday.
Mario Isaac Ahenakew, 18, pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing the Sept. 7, 2016 death of Laverne Romanow, 70.
Court heard Ahenakew seemed to have his life in order after leaving the Terror Squad street gang and working to overcome an addiction to opiates.
He had worked as a speaker with Str8 Up, a local group dedicated to helping youth leave the gang life behind.
But Ahenakew relapsed when his family began having financial difficulties due to an injury sustained by his stepfather, according to facts summarized by Crown prosecutor Bill Burge.
Court hears facts from day of crash
Ahenakew was taking Xanax before the crash. Normally the drug is prescribed for people with anxiety, but it also acts as a “downer” in larger doses. Ahenakew later told police he was using it in an effort to wean himself off hydromorphone.
According to the facts read out by Burge, Ahenakew, then 17, appeared in youth court that morning. At that time he appeared visibly intoxicated, slurring his words and moving in an uncoordinated manner.
Following the crash, Ahenakew’s mother told media that she had begged the presiding judge to keep her son in custody. Burge told court on Monday that he went over the audio recording of that day’s proceedings and didn’t find any record of that interaction.
About an hour after he got out of court, a witness observed Ahenakew driving erratically on Preston Avenue. Ahenakew struck a tree, at which time the witness approached him to tell him to shift his vehicle into park. The witness then called Ahenakew’s plate number in to police after he reportedly pulled the vehicle up to the nearest curb, made a U-turn and sped off.
Shortly after that, Ahenakew was merging from 108th Street onto Circle Drive when he clipped the rear tire of a slow-moving piece of construction equipment – a small forklift commonly referred to as a zoom boom – that was driving ahead of him.
George Combe, Ahenakew’s defence lawyer, told court his client had asked him to provide further details of what happened.
Combe said Ahenakew admitted he was looking down to change the song playing on his phone when he hit the rear tire of the zoom boom. Combe explained that this caused the airbag in Ahenakew’s vehicle to go off, blinding him and causing him to lose control.
At that point, Ahenakew’s vehicle crossed the median dividing Circle Drive where it collided with Romanow’s classic VW Beetle and killed him.
According to Combe, Ahenakew’s memory of the incident ends at getting out of his vehicle after the crash and falling down as he tried to rush over to Romanow’s car to help whoever was inside.
Ahenakew was later found to have just under five times the prescribed limit of Xanax in his blood.
Lawyers present sentencing submission
Although Ahenakew was 17 at the time of Romanow’s death, he agreed to be sentenced as an adult, removing a prohibition on publishing his name under the Youth Criminal Justice Act
Given a chance to speak, Ahenakew told court he was fully aware that he can never take back the consequences of his actions. He said he felt doubly obligated to get his drug addiction under control while he’s incarcerated, both for himself and his family, and as a way of trying to make amends for Romanow’s death.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Combe said Ahenakew specifically asked him not to fight the Crown’s request to have him sentenced as an adult. He said Ahenakew did this because federal prison offers addiction treatment he wouldn’t be able to get if he remained in the youth system.
Combe noted that in his decades of experience, it was rare to see a youth court defendant take an adult sentence without a fight.
Father André Poiliévre, a priest well-known for his anti-gang work with Str8 Up, attended Ahenakew’s hearing. He said he was confident that with treatment for his addiction, Ahenakew was the type of person who could come out the other side of the justice system and make something of his life.
In Saskatchewan, the sentencing range for offences similar to Ahenakew’s is between two and five years. The judge agreed to a joint sentencing submission presented by the defence and the Crown.
Ahenakew was sentenced to three years for his most serious charge of dangerous driving causing death. With credit for time spent in custody before his guilty plea, he has just over two years left to serve. Upon his release, Ahenakew will be subject to a three-year driving ban. He was also fined a $500 victim impact surcharge.