Guilty plea in minivan crash that killed St. Paul girl

A man has pleaded guilty to criminal charges after his minivan plowed through the wall of a rural Alberta school and killed an 11-year-old girl.
Megan Wolitski died in in November 2012, one day after a minivan crashed into her Grade 6 classroom, injuring her and seven classmates. (Les Miskolzie)

A man has pleaded guilty to criminal charges after his minivan plowed through the wall of a rural Alberta school and killed an 11-year-old girl.

Richard Edward Benson pleaded guilty earlier this month in St.Paul court to one count of criminal negligence causing death and two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. 

The 47-year-old, who remains in custody, has not yet been sentenced and is to appear again in court on Nov. 14.

Benson's family said earlier that he had a history of seizures and was likely having an attack when he was behind the wheel on Oct. 25, 2012.

Witnesses said the van was heading down a back alley before it smashed through a fence and then a window, diving into a lower-level classroom just after the Grade 6 French class had started for the day. 

The van sent students and desks flying as it spun around and pinned three girls underneath it. 

The girls were airlifted 200 kilometres west to a hospital in Edmonton where one of them, Megan Wolitski, died the next day. 

Police at the time said Benson was combative with officers during his arrest at the school, but was later co-operative and remorseful. 

Benson was originally charged with dangerous driving but the charges were later upgraded to criminal negligence.

He was scheduled to go to trial in November.

His defence lawyer, Brian Beresh, said after a failed bail hearing last year that he didn't think the upgraded charges were justified.

A tough year

The guilty pleas came during the first week of school and on the same day Premier Alison Redford was in town to open the new Racette building. The school where the crash happened was only being used by Racette students temporarily while the original Racette Junior High was undergoing $8 million in renovations.

Redford told reporters that the school and the community have faced a tough year. 

"It was very clear to me, that when that terrible incident happened that people across Alberta wanted to be able to provide some kind of support," she said.

"So in some ways, perhaps me being here is a chance for me to say to everyone here that Albertans have been thinking about what's been going on and certainly everything that's happened has been in our thoughts and prayers."

Glen Brodziak, superintendent of St. Paul Education, said Tuesday that news of the guilty pleas has slowly trickled through town and there are mixed reactions.

He said staff and students may be in a new building, but they'll never forget the crash.

"We remember the loss and remember the tragedy," he said. "We try and move forward however we can and at whatever pace we can."


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