For the grieving families, it was the end of a long road: the word "guilty" rolling five times from the mouth of Brenden Holubowich – once for each charge, once for each boy.
The 23-year-old admitted guilt Tuesday in a crash that, 16 months earlier, claimed the lives of four high-school football players in Grande Prairie, Alta., and sent a fifth to hospital. The tragedy left the small city in mourning and thrust its Warriors football team into the spotlight. Messages of support rolled in from across Canada, and other teams wore black and orange – Warriors colours – in tribute.
But Tuesday's admission was bittersweet for the families. In exchange for a plea that avoided a trial, the Crown dropped 11 other charges, including those of impaired driving, and joined the defence in recommending a three-year prison term.
The victims' families were outraged, saying that would be far too lenient. It amounted to nine months per dead child, said Connie Hildebrand-Strong, mother of one of the boys. Or, she said, as long as she had carried her son before birth. "It's a disgrace," she said.
Justice W.A. Tilleman, however, did not rubber-stamp the three-year recommendation. Instead, during victim-impact statements, he wept. He later adjourned for a day, delaying final sentencing and lamenting, at length to a packed courtroom, about the perils of drunk driving. "I don't know how much longer we have to wear the pain and carry the enormous cost of this crime," he said.
The crash killed Matt Deller, 16, Vince Stover, 16, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, and Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15. A fifth young man, 15-year-old Zach Judd, was badly injured. Since the crash, the case has dragged and many of the families feel abandoned by Canada's justice system, saying the Crown didn't fight for their sons. The judge's comments on impaired driving gave hope to some.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Mr. Holubowich spent several hours at a bowling alley, eating and drinking, on Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. A witness said he didn't appear intoxicated.
Meanwhile, the five boys piled into the car of Mr. Deller, who had not been drinking. He pulled out, initially heading west before pulling a U-turn. That's when Mr. Holubowich's truck approached at 151 kilometres an hour, T-boning the car at 120 km/h. The speed limit is 80 km/h. Mr. Holubowich didn't check on the car or call 911. Instead, he fled to his nearby workplace and was arrested an hour later. The court did not hear his blood-alcohol level.
The four boys died. Mr. Judd spent months in hospital and will never fully recover. Many of the victims' relatives have suffered from insomnia, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some supporters of Mr. Holubowich blamed Mr. Deller, saying his U-turn caused the crash. Defence lawyer Chris Millsap stressed Tuesday that Mr. Holubowich "knows that Mr. Deller is not at fault and not to blame."
Mr. Millsap called it "a dangerous driving case that has alcohol implications," but Mr. Holubowich pleaded guilty to four counts of dangerous driving causing death and one of dangerous driving causing bodily harm – not to impaired driving.
The judge, nonetheless, didn't lose sight of alcohol as a factor. Pausing occasionally to compose himself, he called the case "a continuing sadness that's bigger than any one family. In this case, it reaches into an entire city," after earlier saying: "A glaring fact that stares me right in the face is that every death from drunk driving is 100 per cent preventable with a very simple act: Don't pick up the keys."
The families welcomed the comments. "The best thing is that the judge kept saying 'drinking and driving, drinking and driving.' He didn't say 'dangerous driving,' " Ms. Hildebrand-Strong said.
Both Crown prosecutor Jason Neustaeter and Mr. Millsap told Justice Tilleman they thought the three-year recommended sentence, followed by a three-year driving ban, was fair and comparable to previous, similar cases. Mr. Neustaeter later added the families "are not in support of the sentence I am recommending to you."
Mr. Millsap said any sentence "cannot repay those families," but that the fate of a sixth – that of Mr. Holubowich – hangs in the balance, arguing there are several mitigating factors, such as the fact he had no prior criminal record and has abided by his bail conditions.
Mr. Holubowich read a statement apologizing to the families. "I'll never forget how much my actions have hurt you," said the young man, his voice faltering, as a dozen family members watched on, many weeping. "I do not expect you to forgive me, but I do hope you accept my apology as genuine. And I do hope you know I never meant to hurt anybody, or cause this much pain."
He'd earlier sat silently as 10 victim impact statements were read aloud, including one by Mr. Judd.
Now 17, Mr. Judd has enduring brain damage and permanent ear damage. He can't drive or play sports. The crash, he said, changed his personality, cost him friends, left him battling depression and contemplating suicide. He remains angry, and hopes Mr. Holubowich spends years in prison.
"I did not deserve to have my life changed so drastically," he told the court, including Mr. Holubowich. "There is no sentence or punishment in this world that would serve justice for what you caused."
After finishing, Mr. Judd walked back to his seat, paused and returned to the lectern as the court remained silent. There, he slowly pulled a single tissue from its box and carried it back to his mother.