Ottawa

Charges in fatal crash threaten to tear hockey-loving Ontario town apart

The court case of a former bar server charged after four teen hockey players were involved in a deadly single-vehicle crash two years ago is dividing the traditionally tight-knit community of Renfrew, Ont., with locals taking sides in the potentially "precedent-setting" case.

Renfrew, Ont., divided over the pending trial of a server charged in the drunk-driving deaths of 2 teens

People in the Ontario community have maintained a memorial at the side of Calabogie Road, scene of the 2017 crash that left two teenage hockey players dead and two injured. (Laura Osman/CBC)

The court case of a former bar server charged after four teen hockey players were involved in a deadly single-vehicle crash two years ago is dividing the traditionally tight-knit community of Renfrew, Ont., with locals taking sides in the potentially "precedent-setting" case.

Ann Senack, 62, of Greater Madawaska Township was charged in March with two counts of criminal negligence causing death and two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. She was a server at Shooters Bar and Grill in Calabogie, Ont., at the time of the October 2017 crash near Burnstown that killed Brandon Hanniman and Alex Paquette.

Hanniman and Paquette, both 18, played for the Renfrew Timberwolves along with two other teens who were injured in the accident.

Ontario Provincial Police said all four had been drinking, and shortly afterwards, Shooters Bar and Grill had its liquor licence revoked.

Alex Paquette, left, died in hospital following a car crash near Burnstown, Ont., in October 2017. The driver, Brandon Hanniman, right, was pronounced dead at the scene. (Renfrew Timberwolves/Supplied)

From devastation to tension

At Renfrew's bars, sports fields and hockey arenas, everyone seems to have an opinion about what happened that night — though in such a small town, few wish to share them openly.

Most also have some connection to the families of the boys or the server.

Some people on the street who did not want to share their names told CBC they questioned how underage boys could have had access to alcohol at the bar and then be allowed to drive home. Others said the teenagers were solely responsible for their actions.

I think that a lot of people are in a fog because they don't know which side to be on.- Brent Sylvester, Renfrew Timberwolves

Initially, everyone was devastated when the teens, on their way back to Renfrew from Calabogie, were killed in the apparent drunk driving crash on Calabogie Road just after midnight.

Only one of the four boys was wearing a seat-belt, according to police. Ben Scheuneman was seriously injured and Jake McGrimmon, whose father owned the Timberwolves at the time, was wearing a seatbelt and didn't suffer any long-term injuries.

After the deaths of Hanniman and Paquette, the town rallied around the boys and their families. 

None of the families of the boys involved wished to be interviewed, but in a statement to CBC, Paquette's mother Joanne described how she missed her son, who was always giving and made her laugh. 

"He was also by far the one person you could count on to have your back," she wrote. "Alex always looked out for the little guy."

Brent Sylvester, general manager of the Renfrew Timberwolves, said the team was just beginning to feel ready to move on from the tragedy when the charges were laid against Senack. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Old wounds reopened 

Renfrew has been described as the birthplace of the NHL.

Now, all Timberwolves home games in the hockey-loving town are played with pictures of the retired jerseys of Hanniman and Paquette hanging above as a memorial.

The players still write the jersey numbers of the boys — both popular members of the team and well loved by friends at school — on their sticks as a tribute.

Timberwolves general manager Brent Sylvester, who signed Paquette to the team, said the Timberwolves were just starting to recover from their grief and put the tragic loss behind them when charges were laid against Senack.

"It's just a terrible situation to be in again, after a period of time, after healing had started. And now it's raw again," Sylvester said.

"I think that a lot of people are in a fog because they don't know which side to be on."

Hanniman and Paquette have not been forgotten, but bringing back the bad memories of their deaths has been hard on the players, Sylvester said.

Adding to the strain, he added, is the fact some of Senack's supporters have blamed the boys themselves, charging they alone should carry the responsibility for their actions.

"Unfortunately, everybody is going to get dragged through the mud," he said. "And that's the sad part."

The Timberwolves take a knee to honour Paquette and Hanniman. Their jerseys were retired at a special pre-game ceremony on Nov. 10, 2017. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Community raises $50K for Senack's defence 

Many people in Renfrew and Calabogie are quick to come to Senack's defence. They describe her as an institution at Shooters, the main bar in the small ski community. (So far, police have not confirmed she worked there.)

Shooters shut down after the crash and was replaced by a new restaurant under different ownership.

Most people thought that would be the last they heard about the tragedy, until OPP laid charges against Senack.

Immediately, neighbours came to her aid, raising more than $50,000 to fund her legal defence.

When two teenage hockey players died in a car crash, Renfrew was united in grief. Now it's divided since a server at a local bar has been charged in connection with their deaths. 7:33

"Here in Calabogie, we are behind Ann 100 per cent," said Kevin Lentz, Senack's neighbour.

He said Senack is being treated as a scapegoat and it has been difficult for the community to watch.

"It's such a good community, and it's just a sad situation," he said, getting emotional as he described the impact of the charges.

"It's just horrible to see poor Ann have to go through it."

Kevin Lentz, Senack's neighbour in Calabogie, says she has been made a scapegoat in this tragic situation. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Case could set precedent

Civil lawsuits against bars are common in cases involving drunk driving, but criminal charges are rare, said James Foord, a criminal defence lawyer and past-president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa.

Convictions are even rarer: Foord said he isn't aware of any in Ontario.

"It would be precedent-setting in my view," he said. "It's rare because serving someone is lawful. Drinking is lawful."

It's also difficult to prove criminal negligence, Foord said. The facts will need to show that Senack knew the boys were underage, had no other way home and encouraged them to keep drinking anyway.

James Foord, a criminal defence lawyer and past-president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, says civil lawsuits against bars are common in cases involving drunk driving, but criminal charges are rare. (Laura Osman/CBC)

The facts of this case haven't been borne out in court yet, though it hasn't stopped people in the Renfrew area from speculating. 

One thing most people in the divided town seem to agree about, however, is that no one will win at the end of this case.

"It doesn't bring anybody back," said Sylvester. 

Senack's lawyer is expected to appear in court later this week. No court date has yet been set for the trial.