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Survivor of Alberta crash wants jail for drunk driver

Vehicles lie damaged after a crash near Red Deer and Innisfail on March 4, 2012, that killed four workers from the Philippines.


Josephine Tamondong just wanted to cross the border into the United States.

After 31/2 years working as a maid at the Coast Edmonton Plaza hotel, dutifully sending money home to family in the Philippines, she had earned her permanent-resident status and needed to make it official by leaving the country and getting her papers stamped.

So she set off last March with four friends and co-workers on one of the busiest stretches of road in Alberta and headed toward Montana.

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"They wanted to celebrate with me," recalled the tiny, soft-spoken woman, her dark eyes glossy with tears. "It was supposed to be a happy moment."

A driver heading the wrong way on a divided stretch of Highway 2 near Innisfail, north of Calgary, had already forced at least two dozen vehicles to swerve out of the way when he crashed head on into the rental SUV carrying Ms. Tamondong and her friends.

Ms. Tamondong, sitting in the back without a seatbelt, was flung into the front.

She remembers being carried out of the wreckage and being told after surgery that her four friends were dead. Anthony Castillon, 35, Eden Biazon, 39, Joey Mangonon, 35, and Josefina Velarde, 52, were also temporary foreign workers from the Philippines.

After six weeks in hospital to mend her broken bones, and several more weeks in rehabilitation, Ms. Tamondong recently put her black uniform on again and returned to lighter duties in the hotel's laundry room. On Friday, the 29-year-old will be in a Red Deer courtroom to face the driver of the other vehicle for the first time.

"My friends deserve to have justice and they need justice," said Ms. Tamondong. "I hope they can get that."

Tyler James Stevens, 30, pleaded guilty in September to four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. Several other charges, including impaired driving, were withdrawn.

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An agreed statement of facts submitted to the court said Mr. Stevens refused a breathalyzer test after the crash. But a blood test revealed he had an alcohol level of more than three times the legal driving limit.

He has admitted to combining alcohol with prescribed medication the night of the crash and blacking out.

Mr. Stevens, a divorced father of two children, is part-owner of an international oil field service company and travelled back and forth between Alberta and Australia. On March 4, he was at a family birthday party where he drank three doubles of Scotch whisky, then had about five more drinks at two different bars.

The last thing he remembers is leaving The Zoo bar in Innisfail, said the court document.

He was initially heading south on the busy highway when witnesses saw him stop, put his Range Rover into reverse and turn around. He went in the wrong direction, at times swerving wildly, but mostly driving on the shoulder of the road.

Two other motorists, one an off-duty police officer, flashed their high-beams to alert oncoming traffic of the danger ahead. Mr. Stevens had gone 24 kilometres the wrong way before he crashed into a smaller Dodge Journey carrying the Filipino workers.

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The front of the rental vehicle was destroyed, the engine pushed back into the passenger compartment.

Mr. Stevens, smelling of liquor, was found drifting in and out of consciousness in his vehicle with cuts on his knuckles. He was arrested and taken to hospital for observation.

"Did I really kill those kids?" Mr. Stevens later asked an officer.

The court document said Mr. Stevens had been taking an antibiotic to treat pain for a cyst in his back. His doctor had never told him not to take it with alcohol and there's no known research that has found the combination is a risk.

But Mr. Stevens "believed that he probably should not be combining alcohol with it because of a past occasion when he had a blackout after consuming alcohol while taking the medication."

Defence lawyer Ian Savage said his client has no explanation for what happened that night. "Unfortunately, Mr. Stevens does not have a memory of the critical moments when he was driving on the wrong side of the road."

Mr. Stevens is sorry and heartbroken over the crash, said Savage.

"It's a tragedy all the way around, particularly for the families of the victims, which Mr. Stevens has great empathy for. He hopes in the future to be able to reach out to the families and assist in whatever small way he can."

He said he and the Crown prosecutor will be making a joint recommendation to the judge for Mr. Stevens to serve federal prison time – more than two years – but he wouldn't reveal exactly how long.

Ms. Tamondong said she's not sure what sentence Mr. Stevens should serve, but wants him to spend some time behind bars.

"I hope he'll go to jail to pay for what he has done to my friends. They came here to work and just be happy. They didn't wish anything much, just to be with their families in the future.

"It will not happen any more."

Ms. Tamondong was to be the first of her friends to get her permanent-resident status. The others also hoped to bring their families to Edmonton.

Mr. Castillon was single; Ms. Biazon and Ms. Velarde were both married, each with one child. Mr. Mangonon was married with four children, the youngest a new baby boy he had never met.

A few weeks after Ms. Tamondong was released from hospital, hotel staff took her to a federal government office to complete the paperwork for her permanent-resident status. A week later, her husband, Joel Alcomendras, arrived in Edmonton. He now works as a machinist.

And some day, on her doctor's advice, Ms. Tamondong hopes to go to school so she can get a job that doesn't require physical labour and walking up and down stairs. She's still on morphine and other medication for pain in her knees and right arm.

In addition to breaks in her arm and both legs, the crash fractured her lower spine and several ribs and damaged her liver.

Ms. Tamondong said it will be difficult to look at Mr. Stevens, even more so to forgive him.

"It's hard, especially when you're thinking about the families back home.

"I know we have to forgive, but for now it's hard."

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