Manitoba

Calgary meth user pleads guilty to impaired driving causing death of Manitoba teen

A Calgary meth user who was impaired and driving a stolen truck when he hit two teenagers in St. Andrews, Man., has pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death.

Ben Harris, 15, was riding his bike with a friend when stolen truck hit them

Ben Harris, 15, was riding his bike near his home when he was hit by a stolen truck and killed. (Submitted by Harris family)

A Calgary meth user who was impaired and driving a stolen truck when he hit two teenagers in St. Andrews, Man., has pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death and several other charges. 

Justin Joseph Little wore a grey hoodie in a Winnipeg courtroom as he pleaded guilty to several charges including impaired driving causing death, operating a motor vehicle causing harm, operating a stolen vehicle, and two counts of failing to stop where a person has been injured.

Little also pleaded guilty in provincial court to mischief under $5,000 for an unrelated break and enter in June 2018 in Stonewall, Man.

The Manitoba RCMP laid 14 charges against him last summer following the hit and run that killed Ben Harris, 15.

Harris was biking home with a friend near Highway 9 north of Winnipeg on the evening of Aug. 10, just two minutes away from his home, when he was hit and killed. Harris's friend, with whom he'd planned a sleepover, also was hit and thrown into the ditch but lived.

Brenda and John Harris hold a photo of their son Ben outside the Winnipeg Law Courts Wednesday morning. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Crown attorney Manoja Moorthy said Wednesday that a Selkirk RCMP constable found Little hiding in another stolen car, sweating, with bloodshot eyes and a pale face.

He had taken off after hitting the teens and ran barefoot to hide, triggering a brief hunt that involved multiple RCMP officers and a helicopter.

But a retired RCMP officer spotted a man with dark clothes on foot on Highway 9 and reported the sighting to the constable, who was originally investigating a report of an erratic driver that came into 911 at 11:40 p.m.

The Selkirk Mountie who discovered Little found needles on him and a blood test later confirmed amphetamines were in his system, court heard. He admitted to police the next day that he shot meth with needles on the day of the crash, Moorthy said.

Wrong message: dad

Harris was a talented guitar player, with many friends at Selkirk's high school. His family and friends, who held photos of the 15-year-old, packed a courtroom Wednesday morning and extra chairs had to be brought in.

His mom, Brenda, broke down and left the courtroom when Moorthy described the condition her boy was in after the crash.

"Harris had no sign of life and his body had several deep cuts, several large broken bones, and was twisted and mangled behind the pole," Moorthy told the court.

She said after Little was arrested, he asked the RCMP constable if he actually had killed the teen. The officer told him he had and Little responded by crying and saying he would never see his own six-year-old son again.

This photo of the crash scene was taken by a passerby. (Submitted by Brent Polson)

Ben's dad, John Harris, told reporters outside the courtroom he was disappointed several charges, including manslaughter and six breaches of bail conditions, were stayed.

"I'm concerned about the message this sends to Ben's high school-aged friends, the message it sends about impaired driving and the consequences and the implications and the penalties."

He said he has little faith in the justice system and took issue with an announcement last Thursday by Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen about tougher penalties for impaired drivers. He said a day after the announcement, the Crown informed him many of the charges against Little were being stayed.

"It just seems like they say one thing and they do something different, because we're not seeing that today."

John Harris said he wants his son to be remembered as a great young man.

"He had a natural talent for music, and especially the guitar," he said.

He's in touch with Ben's friend who was hit that night, and said the teen and his family are still struggling.

"They're traumatized. We're traumatized."

A memorial was set up last summer near the collision site. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The Harris family has requested a meeting with Cullen. John said he saw the minister at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving event on Aug. 25, where Cullen committed to setting up a meeting, which still has not happened. 

Cullen said in a statement Wednesday he would be happy to meet with the family once the legal proceedings have finished.

"First and foremost, we would like to express our sincere condolences to the family of Ben Harris; the loss of a child is something that no parent should have to experience, and my heart goes out to them," the minister said.

"Senior staff from Manitoba Justice have met with the Harris family, and the department's victims services branch offers support to family members who have lost a loved one through serious crimes."

Out on bail at time of crash

The Harris family has questioned why Little was out on bail at the time of the crash and has struggled to navigate the justice system.

Court heard Wednesday Little stole an Acura in July 2018. He smashed the window of another car, causing about $500 in damage, and took a garage opener out of it to gain access to the Acura, which was parked in a garage.

Winnipeg police arrested him on July 20 when officers spotted him leaning on the stolen car. He was arrested and then later released on bail.

He was the subject of two separate 2016 warrants at the time, from Calgary and Edmonton. It wasn't made clear in court why Little was released while he had two warrants out for his arrest.

Alberta court records obtained by CBC News last year said Little, then 29, had many run-ins with police in Calgary and its neighbouring communities. His Alberta crimes included convictions for drugs, violence and being in possession of two stolen vehicles.

Sentencing has been scheduled for February in Selkirk.

Ben Harris was biking home with a friend near Highway 9 north of Winnipeg on the evening of Aug. 10, just two minutes away from his home, when he was hit and killed. 2:16

About the Author

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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