Chief admitted cop in fatal crash was drunk, witness tells Taman Inquiry

More witnesses to the car crash that killed Crystal Taman and its aftermath testified Wednesday and Thursday at the inquiry into the investigation of her death.
Cecil Sveinson testified that former East St. Paul police chief Harry Bakema told him that Derek Harveymordenzenk had been drunk at the time of the crash that killed Crystal Taman. ((CBC))
A cousin of a woman killed in a car crash caused by an off-duty policeman told a public inquiry on Thursday that the local police chief told him the day of the crash that the officer involved had been drunk.

The stunning testimony came from Cecil Sveinson, who said the encounter took place when he went to pray for his 40-year-old cousin, Crystal Ann Taman, at the scene of the crash that had taken her life.

Taman died early on the morning of Feb. 25, 2005, after her car was rear-ended at a traffic light by Derek Harveymordenzenk, then an off-duty Winnipeg police officer who had spent the night partying with colleagues.

Sveinson, who is also a Winnipeg police officer, testified Thursday that while waiting for investigators to finish their work on the crash site that same afternoon, he ended up sitting in a police car with then-police chief Harry Bakema.

Sveinson said was shocked to learn that an off-duty officer had been involved in the crash. He started to ask Bakema if the officer had been drunk, he said.

He testified that he didn't even get the words out when Bakema said, "Pissed? Oh yeah, we had to get him out of here right away."

Harveymordenzenk, also known as Derek Harvey-Zenk, was initially charged with refusing a breathalyzer, impaired driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death, but those charges were dropped without explanation when he pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death.

He received a conditional sentence of two years of house arrest, and has since turned in his badge.

Scene of accident was 'surreal': witness

A roadside memorial honours Crystal Taman, 40, who was killed in a 2005 crash with an off-duty police officer. ((CBC))
Earlier Thursday, the inquiry heard from Denise Bukowski, who was on her way to work at Concordia Hospital when she came upon the accident scene just after 7 a.m. CT.

She described the scene as "surreal," since nothing was moving, even though the traffic light was green.

Bukowski said she ran to the vehicle in front of hers and asked the driver, Kathy Beattie, if she was OK.

Beattie said she was, but she told Bukowski, "I haven't seen anyone move in that vehicle yet," and she pointed at Taman's yellow car, Bukowski said.

Bukowski said she felt compelled to go to Taman's car. She looked inside, but felt there was nothing she could do for the woman. She saw a man moving towards Taman's vehicle, later identified as Harveymordenzenk. She described his demeanor as calm, saying he had his hands in his pockets.

Harveymordenzenk didn't answer her when she asked him if he was OK, Bukowski testified. He showed no emotion, then walked away, she said.

'Just another deal'

A photograph of Crystal Taman filed as an exhibit at the inquiry.
Wednesday afternoon, the inquiry heard from Garth Shaw, who saw the accident itself.

Shaw was approaching the intersection of Highway 59 and the Perimeter Highway. Two cars ahead of him were stopped at a red light, so he was surprised when a truck blew past him.

"He's not going to stop, because there's not enough room for him to stop at that rate of speed," Shaw said he thought at the time.

Shaw saw the truck, driven by Harveymordenzenk, crash into Taman's vehicle.

He then saw Harveymordenzenk get out of his truck and walk over to Taman's car. He testified that Harveymordenzenk started at it for 15 to 30 seconds, then walked back to his truck and leaned against it.

Shaw says he looked like he was in a state of shock. There was no sense of urgency, he said, and he wasn't racing to see what had happened. Shaw then watched as former East St. Paul Police chief Harry Bakema talked to Harveymordenzenk at his truck, then escorted him away.

Later, Shaw testified that the prosecutor handling the case told him and other witnesses that their testimony wouldn't be needed in court.

Expected 'house arrest'

Marty Minuk, the prosecutor in the Taman case,  said Harveymordenzenk would likely receive "house arrest" instead of a trial, Shaw said. Minuk blamed a poor investigation, saying the plea bargain was the best outcome that could be expected. He said the prosecutor didn't appear to him to care much, that the impression he got was that it was "just another deal."

Commission counsel David Paciocco asked Shaw what he meant by that; Shaw, who works at a car dealership, said, "It kind of reminds me of the car business a little bit. Just another deal. Another one on the books."

The inquiry, led by former Ontario Superior Court justice Roger Salhany, first examined the treatment of the Taman family by the court system and victims' services. That portion of the inquiry wrapped up in June.

The inquiry is now looking at the conduct of police involved in the investigation into the crash that killed Taman. It will also examine the conduct of Harveymordenzenk and other Winnipeg police officers before the crash, and how lawyers arrived at the plea agreement that spared Harveymordenzenk time behind bars.

The inquiry is a fact-finding mission, but it also leaves room for inquiry lawyers to call for another police investigation.

Salhany is scheduled to deliver a final report to the province's attorney general by Sept. 30.