Cape Breton police charge 3 in Leitches Creek grad party death

The driver of the vehicle that struck and killed Joneil Hanna, 17, of North Sydney, is charged with attempted obstruction of justice, and the homeowners are charged under the Liquor Control Act with allowing drunkenness on their property.

Driver, homeowners charged after 17-year-old Joneil Hanna struck and killed on June 10

Joneil Hanna is shown with his baby daughter. (Gofundme)

Cape Breton regional police have charged 21-year-old Hayden Kenneth Laffin of Bras d'Or, N.S., with attempted obstruction of justice in the death of 17-year-old Joneil Hanna.

Laffin was driving the vehicle that struck and killed the North Sydney teen June 10 on Highway 223 near Leitches Creek after a graduation party.

Police also announced charges under the Liquor Control Act of allowing drunkenness on their property against the homeowners who hosted the grad party.

Kenneth Wilkie, 52, and Donna Wilkie, 49, are scheduled to appear in Sydney provincial court on Sept. 18. If the homeowners are convicted of the Liquor Control Act offence, the maximum punishment is a $2,000 fine and six months in jail.

Police said all of the charges were laid after accident reconstruction and vehicle analysis, as well as interviews with more than 30 people.

Police say driver was 'proven' not impaired

The incident sparked a social media storm in which people criticized the police investigation and lack of a breathalyzer test performed on the driver.

Police maintain they did not have any evidence to charge Laffin with impaired driving, and in a news release, police said Laffin "was proven not impaired."

The attempted obstruction charge stems from what police are calling "circumstances following the collision."

Chief Peter McIsaac of the Cape Breton Regional Police Service said he can't speak to the specifics of the case.

But he said police cannot lay impaired driving charges without solid evidence.

"When you have absolutely zero evidence, [for example] no smell of alcohol, no smell of drug, no muscle inco-ordination, no slurred speech, no staggering — absolutely zero evidence to support a charge — you absolutely have no grounds to put that person under arrest or to issue them a breathalyzer demand," he said.

'Obligation to the facts'

​McIsaac said online rumours and media coverage made the investigation difficult for investigators and for the people involved.

Police were obligated to chase down misinformation that in some cases was hurtful for people to hear.

"It's time consuming and it causes an extra burden on the officers, and then when you get people who are going through a very difficult time, for someone who's after losing a family member and this grief process, and then they have all this noise around them, and then people are creating all this other unnecessary noise," McIsaac said.

Police quickly became aware of the outcry on social media and were consciously trying to avoid creating another case like the one involving Clayton Miller, McIsaac said.

Miller died in 1990 after police raided a drinking party in New Waterford. Police have been cleared of any wrongdoing in Miller's death after several investigations, but people in the community continue to believe police were somehow responsible.

Statistics show Cape Breton has a large problem with underage drinking. When tragedies happen and police are involved, people get upset, McIsaac said.

Although police have been cleared of any wrongdoing in the 1990 death of Clayton Miller, there are those in the regional municipality who still consider police responsible. (CBC)

"Particularly when you get young people at an early age who are heavily drinking — binge drinking — and then you throw them into environments where there's all kinds of parties and then you put them in areas of secluded places, that's when you get the things like the Miller cases," he said.

"That's when you get tragedies involving young people. It's a disaster waiting to happen."
 
McIsaac said he requested the Serious Incident Response Team conduct a parallel investigation into the police handling of the Joneil Hanna case, but SIRT declined to do so because there was no alleged wrongdoing by an officer.

"I've been down this road before, and you mentioned the Miller case before and so many independent investigations here," he said. "I don't want this taking on a life like that again."

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 32 years. He has spent the last 14 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

- With files from Mainstreet Cape Breton