Mistakenly drank vodka after deadly Calgary crash, driver testifies

A cement truck driver charged with killing five people in a Calgary rear-end collision testified that he's a long-time recovering alcoholic who's had a 'couple of slips here and there.'

Court hears that accused was frustrated, distracted on day of collision

Daniel Tschetter, who is on trial for manslaughter, leaves the Calgary courthouse on March 9. ((CBC))

A concrete truck driver charged with killing five people in a Calgary rear-end collision testified that he's a longtime recovering alcoholic who's had a "couple of slips here and there."

Daniel Tschetter, 51, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of manslaughter, five counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of obstruction in the deadly crash in December 2007.

Testifying in his own defence on Monday morning, Tschetter said he has been sober for 18 years in his battle against alcoholism aside from "a couple of slips here and there."

The driver said he was in a rush to return to the cement plant in Springbank to wash out his truck after delivering a load of cement to a job site near Nanton on Dec. 7, 2007.

The Crown presented witnesses last week who testified that they saw Tschetter's truck speeding and driving erratically before the crash that killed Chris Gautreau, 41, his daughters, Alexia, 9, and Kiarra, 6, Gautreau's fiancée, Melaina Hovdebo, 33, and her son, Zachary, 16 months.

Frustrated driver was distracted by gauges

Tschetter said he was weaving in and out of traffic that evening because he was checking the air pressure gauges on the dashboard of his truck, and was frustrated because his water lines were freezing up.

He told the court he was also thinking about his wallet, which was either lost or stolen a few days earlier.

'I was feeling frustrated. I can't recall seeing those lights.'— Daniel Tschetter

"[I] had a little turmoil in me," he recalled on the stand.

Approaching 194th Avenue on Macleod Trial, Tschetter said he didn't notice the flashing yellow lights above the road, or the red light.

"I spent too much time with the gauges. I was feeling frustrated. I can't recall seeing those lights," he testified, admitting he was travelling at 105 km/h, even though the posted speed limit was 80 km/h.

Tschetter said he didn't see the vehicle stopped at the red light in front of him "until the last second." There was a loud bang, and then he smelled debris, plastic and anti-freeze, said the driver.

The court has heard that the car was lodged under the truck and was dragged about 275 metres.

"I was in shock. I was in disbelief. I was actually sick to my stomach, couldn't see what I hit," Tschetter testified, his voice shaking as he wiped tears from his face.

'Everything was a great big blur'

He recalled wanting a drink of water, so he reached under his seat and took a drink from a bottle, before realizing it was vodka, Tschetter said.

"I absolutely freaked, paranoid, I was getting into a frenzy," said the driver, who was raised on a Hutterite colony near Fort Macleod and now lives in Cochrane.

The deadly crash left the vehicle lodged under the cement truck in December 2007. ((CBC))

He then got out of the truck and saw the vehicle on the side of his bumper.

"There were people all over," Tschetter remembered. "I didn't know how many people were in the car…. Everything was a great big blur."

Tschetter said he returned to his truck, climbed to the top and threw the bottle of vodka into the drum, because he didn't know what to do if people saw him with the container.

"What do I say, what do I do?" he testified.

Under questioning by his lawyer, Balfour Der, Tschetter explained the vodka bottle was in the truck so he could offer drinks to staff at concrete suppliers to get to the front of long lineups.

During cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Jonathan Hak highlighted that Tschetter had 10 traffic tickets between 1989 and 2003 for speeding, failure to stop at a stop sign, failure to stop at a crosswalk, failure to drive in centre of lane and failure to obey a traffic control device. He also pointed out Tschetter had been fired as a cement truck driver because of his record.

To Hak's final question — "A good driver wouldn't kill five people would he?" — Tschetter replied: "No, he wouldn't."

'It was actually satisfying to see him stumble. ... I think he was feeling sorry for himself more than for what had happened with the victims.'— Tim Gautreau, victims' relative

The accused's lawyer said outside the courtroom it was important for his client to take the stand.

"The most important thing about this was that people wanted to paint him as a monster," Der told reporters. "They wanted to paint him as an impaired driver, a drunk driver who had wiped out a family. And I think today all of that was put to rest."

Relatives of the victims said they did not feel empathy for the accused.

"It was actually satisfying to see him stumble, and the lack of emotion when he did choke up, there really weren't any tears. I think he was feeling sorry for himself more than for what had happened with the victims," said Tim Gautreau, Chris Gautreau's older brother.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday morning.

With files from Bryan Labby