Truck driver Normand Lavoie has been sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing the deaths of three high school boys from Carrot River, Sask., in a May 2015 highway construction zone crash.
The Winnipeg trucker, 41, told police that he didn't fall asleep at the wheel, but that he was in "la la land, basically — I'm there behind the wheel but I'm not."
'With it being Saskatchewan, it's flat and [you] kind of just go into autopilot.' - Normand Lavoie, truck driver
The sentence was delivered Monday in Court of Queen's Bench in Melfort, 280 kilometres north of Regina.
The deaths of three teenage boys — Carter Stevenson, 17, Kristian Skalicky, 15, and Justin Gaja, 14 — rocked their hometown and shocked the province at a time when there was much public attention about the dangers of speeding in construction zones.
A flagperson from B.C. who was injured in the construction zone crash is still unable to work and receives weekly counselling.
Lavoie will serve one year of concurrent time for injuring the flagperson. He will also be prohibited from driving for five years after his release.
The defence said the Crown's request for a six-year prison sentence was much too severe for Lavoie's "mistake."
A deadly crash
An agreed statement of facts presented at the sentencing hearing laid out the following facts of the case.
On May 3, 2015, the Winnipeg semi-trailer driver was hauling foam insulation panels on a highway south of Spalding, Sask., when he entered a construction zone driving about 100 km/h.
'Mr. Lavoie knows precisely how the families feel.' - Michael Nolin, defence lawyer
Lavoie later told police that he didn't recall entering the construction zone or seeing six construction zone signs, including an electronic billboard, advising him that workers were present and to slow down.
He was travelling 84 km/h when he crashed into and crushed a small white car that had been stopped by a flagperson. The three teenage boys inside the car travelling home from a football camp were killed on impact.
Their car hit a truck hauling a trailer, and that truck then hit and seriously injured flagperson Sam Fetherston.
Logbooks seized by the RCMP and analyzed by the Highway Traffic Board didn't reveal any issues with how many hours Lavoie had been driving, or the distance he had covered, that would indicate fatigue.
In his statement to police, Lavoie said, "With it being Saskatchewan, it's flat and [you] kind of just go into autopilot."
After the collision, he was diagnosed with a mild form of sleep apnea, a physical condition that can lead to daytime sleepiness, but the doctor couldn't determine if it contributed to the crash.
In May 2017, Lavoie pleaded guilty to three counts of dangerous driving causing death and one count of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
'A part of me died'
During the sentencing hearing, the victims' families presented emotional victim impact statements to the court.
Many of the statements talked about the immense loss they've experienced.
"The pain, the hurt and great sadness of losing Carter and how it affected me and so many relationships and my activities these last two years is huge," wrote Carter Stevenson's mother, Shelley Enns.
"The depth of heartache experienced puts you in a category not everyone, fortunately, understands."
And 15-year-old Kristian Skalicky's mother, Lisa, wrote about having to walk away from her home, as it was too difficult to continue living there.
"A part of me died," wrote Skalicky. "I felt I couldn't breathe …. I just remember thinking, 'how, how could this happen?'"
Flagperson Fetherston also wrote about being the last person to see the boys alive.
"Little things happen and I have to remove myself from the group at rehab in motion, because I have to go cry," he said. "Sometime nothing even happens, it's just my own thoughts triggering these panic attacks.
'Rarest of rare situations'
Crown prosecutor Tyla Olenchuk asked for a six-year prison sentence and a nine-year driving ban.
"Professional drivers — especially when they're operating a vehicle in that professional capacity — have a responsibility to others on the road. There are cases that talk about that trust that is put in them, given that they are required to go through extra licensing and training in order to be able to operate those vehicles," Olenchuk said.
'It kind of makes it hard for you to feel bad about what happened to yourself.' - Sam Fetherston, injured flagperson
Olenchuk wanted a stiffer sentence than was given to off-duty trucker Keith Dunford, who was sentenced to two years less a day for killing 18-year-old flagperson Ashley Richards in 2012 in southern Saskatchewan.
Lavoie's defence lawyer, Michael Nolin, said that sentence is much too severe.
"The Crown prosecutor has asked for something that is roughly three times the sentence that has ever been given in Saskatchewan [for that crime], and twice the highest sentence ever given out for crimes of this nature given out in Canada," Nolin said.
The defence asked for two years plus a day to be served in a federal penitentiary so Lavoie can be transferred back to Manitoba where he'd be closer to family.
Nolin believes his client fell asleep at the wheel but was too ashamed to tell police because of his family history. When he was 18, a semi truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel killed Lavoie's mother and grandmother and seriously injured his brother.
"One of the rarest of rare situations, and the first time in my career that I was able to go before the court and say, Mr. Lavoie knows precisely how the families feel," Nolin said.
The flagperson who was seriously injured in the crash spent a week in a medically induced coma.
More than two years later, Sam Fetherston is still unable to work, barely leaves his mother's house and has difficulty eating or socializing.
"It's never-ending," Fetherston said in a telephone interview from Comox Valley in B.C. "I'm not back to work yet. I'm still seeing a counsellor every week."
When he thinks about the three boys who were killed in the crash, and their grieving families, he feels survivor's guilt.
"It kind of makes it hard for you to feel bad about what happened to yourself," Fetherston said.
Fetherston emailed a victim impact statement to be presented during the sentencing hearing.
Justin Gaja's mother, Crystal, also shared a statement. She told the court that the only thing she looks forward to now is her dying breath.