'I could kill someone': Teen sentenced for 'brutal' attack at Elk Island Youth Ranch

A 16-year old ward of the province with a violent criminal record has been sentenced to 16 months in custody for the aggravated assault of a group home worker. His victim suffered brain damage and broken facial bones after the teen stomped on her head.

Teen attacker sentenced for aggravated assault on group home worker

One of the housing units at Elk Island Youth Ranch. A staff member was brutally assaulted at the facility on February 4, 2017. (Elk Island Youth Ranch website )

A 16-year-old ward of the province will spend three more months behind bars for the aggravated assault of a group home worker.

The teen has been in custody for the past 13 months. After he is released he will be closely supervised at a group home in Calgary for another eight months, before being placed on probation for an additional year.

The teen's identity is protected by a publication ban under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. He is referred to in court documents as BJN.

On Feb. 4, 2017, BJN was in a treatment program at the Elk Island Youth Ranch. He and another boy (ATJ) decided they wanted to steal a vehicle and go into the city. Youth worker Heather Vanderzee had the keys to the office where the vehicle keys were stored.

At the trial, the other teen testified BJN asked Vanderzee for a hug. When she complied, he put her into a chokehold and told ATJ to go grab the keys.

By the time ATJ returned, he testified Vanderzee was on the ground and BJN was "stomping Heather's face."

The two teens fled in a stolen truck. Vanderzee, 63, was found injured and bleeding by another group home employee.

The two teens drove the stolen truck to Edmonton and slept in it overnight. The next day, they were caught loitering at an LRT station, and BJN talked to an Edmonton Transit peace officer, who later testified in court.

"The blood was gushing out of her," BJN told the officer. "Heather got in our way ... She's probably dead ... I could kill someone in a minute. We giggled when we saw the blood."

Both teens were originally charged with robbery and attempted murder.

In January, ATJ pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to 303 days.

The judge found BJN did not form the intent to kill Vanderzee and convicted him on a charge of aggravated assault.

Prosecutor Marissa Tordoff called the aggravated assault and Vanderzee's injuries "horrific."

She read a victim impact statement on behalf of Vanderzee, who now has trouble speaking.

"I'm in constant pain," Vanderzee wrote. "I will never be able to work again. My confidence has been taken away from me."

Vanderzee is permanently brain damaged and is being treated for depression and anxiety. After the attack, she had to undergo reconstructive facial surgery and now has 92 titanium screws installed in her face. All of her teeth were broken. She sustained broken facial bones and had eye surgery to install a plastic eye socket.

"I worry that they might come after me again," Vanderzee said in her victim impact statement.

'Sheer brutality of the crime'

In his ruling in youth court in Edmonton, Judge Geoffrey Ho agreed with the sentencing recommendations made by both the Crown and defence.

"The young person has a history of violence in group home settings against staff members," Ho said. "He's manipulative and deceitful."

"The attack was a violent offence. It was a brutal, unprovoked attack by the young person on a vulnerable victim ... initiated by the young person asking for a hug and callously exploiting the complainant's trust and compassion."

BJN has a lengthy criminal record that includes convictions for eight violent offences, including attacks on other staff members at the Elk Island Youth Ranch. He was on probation when he assaulted Vanderzee.

The judge said he considered imposing a longer sentence in custody, but noted BJN's significant mental challenges.

According to a neuro-psychological assessment, the teen functions at a Grade 2 level, with a very low IQ. He has a number of psychological disorders and very poor impulse control.

"He will need lifelong supports," Dr. Don Massey wrote in the report presented to the court. "This child will easily be manipulated by others and by the society around him. Protecting him from himself and from others would be essential in terms of prevention.

"BJN is not capable of making his own decisions in any capacity, or understanding the complex issues of independent living. Based on his history, it is quite likely that [he] will be returning to the justice system."

Before he passed sentence, Ho asked BJN if he had anything to say.

Standing in leg shackles, the 16-year old asked the judge: "Am I allowed to be out today?"


About the Author

Janice Johnston

Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston