'We said our goodbyes, we turned off the machines': Family of drunk driving victim describe grief

Taxi driver Amritpal Kharbanda, 46, and his passenger, Jillian Lavallee, 25, died in May 2015 after Ali Montoya, who was drunk, ran a red light slamming his Cadillac Escalade into the cab. Victim impact statements from family members were read in court on Wednesday.

Crown and defence are recommending a 4.5-year prison sentence

Both Amritpal Kharbanda, 46, and Jillian Lavallee, 25, were killed when a drunk driver crashed into the taxi the two were in on May 2, 2015. (Facebook)

In a packed but silent courtroom, 10-year-old Risham Karbanda walked to the witness box with her teenage sister beside her and spoke about the loss of her father to a drunk driver.

"I wish I could go back to the day it happened and stop my dad from leaving the house," said Risham.

Taxi driver Amritpal Kharbanda, 46, and his passenger, Jillian Lavallee, 25, died in May 2015 after Ali Montoya, who was drunk, ran a red light and slammed his Cadillac Escalade into the cab.

Montoya pleaded guilty earlier this year to two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. 

Ali Montoya leaves the Calgary Courts Centre on Wednesday. When he returns on Nov. 25, he will be taken into custody after the judge hands down his sentence. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

The 21-year-old was driving 123 km/h two-and-a-half seconds before running a red light on Macleod Trail and 12th Avenue S.E. The red light camera clocked him at 98 km/h right before he hit a small car, which then struck the taxi. Montoya's blood alcohol level at the time was between 0.1 and 0.13.

Kharbanda died at the scene and Lavallee died hours later in hospital.

Jillian's sister, Caitlin Lavallee, described getting the news while living in Vancouver that her sister had been in a horrible accident and she needed to get to Calgary as quickly as possible.

Caitlin Lavallee, left, Brenda Lavallee and Dan Lavallee. Caitlin described seeing her sister's 'swollen, lifeless body,' in hospital. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

At the hospital, Caitlin walked into her little sister's room to see her "swollen, lifeless body."

"We said our goodbyes, we turned off the machines and just like that it was over. She was gone and we had to walk away."

'Hugs, affection, morning kisses'

On Wednesday, Montoya's sentencing hearing began with statements read by his victims' family members.

"Sometimes I wish we were all in the same car with him so we did not have to live without him," said Kharbanda's widow, Harpreet.

Throughout the hearing, Montoya, 21, who is out on bail, sat in the prisoner's box with his head buried in his hands.
Harpreet said the family moved to Canada from India just six years before the fatal crash and had recently become Canadian citizens.

The Kharbandas were already struggling to settle in with so many friends and family left behind in India. Losing Amripal has "shattered" the family.

"All they are left with is pain on their innocent faces," said the mother of her daughters. "Smiles are gone ... I find myself helpless."

"We miss him every second, his hugs, affection, morning kisses."

'Our family has fallen apart into pieces'

Crown prosecutors Kevin Doyle and Scott Wilson and defence lawyers Alain Hepner and Kelsey Sitar are making a joint recommendation for a four-and-a-half year prison sentence.

"Our family has fallen apart into pieces," said Kharbanda's 16-year-old daughter, Jagnoor. "My sweet and handsome kind dad with a heart of gold is gone forever."

Kharbanda had a post-graduate degree in business but Jagnoor said he chose to work in Canada as a taxi driver so that he could help get his children to school when his wife worked off hours.

Jillian had just finished her university degree and was thinking about buying a condo.

She was a "miracle baby," said her father Dan, born after he and his wife adopted a daughter with the belief they were unable to have children of their own.

"I understand the concept of dying of a broken heart," said Jillian's mother Brenda Lavallee. "I try to find a snippet of joy in each day because that's what she would want."

Montoya apologizes 

At the end of the day, Montoya was allowed to read an apology letter he'd written to his victims' families.

"I know it is difficult for you to even look at me after the pain I caused you," he said. "I know it will be difficult for you to find forgiveness in your hearts."

"If I had the opportunity to take their place, believe me, I would."

Through tears, Montoya committed to using the lessons he's learned to do good in the community after he is released from prison.

He said he wants to use his experience to teach young people about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"I am sincerely sorry."

Outside the courtroom after the day's proceedings, Caitlin Lavallee said she accepts Montoya's apology.

"I commend him for standing there and standing up and admitting to his faults," said Caitlin.

"I'm too young to not forgive people and live my life in anger."

The judge will deliver his sentencing decision on Nov. 25.