EDMONTON – More than two years after a deadly collision in Beaumont took the lives of three young men, the man charged in the case has pleaded not guilty to all nine charges.
Johnathan Pratt’s trial began Monday in Wetaskiwin. Pratt is charged with three counts each of manslaughter, driving over the legal limit causing death, and impaired driving causing death in the November 2011 collision that killed Bradley Arsenault, 18, Kole Novak, 18, and Thaddeus Lake, 22.
Close to two dozen family members and supporters were in court for the first day of the trial.
Sheri Arsenault, Bradley’s mother, said hearing the plea felt like being stabbed nine times.
“It hurt so much,” she added.
“That was painful just to see ‘not guilty, not guilty’ nine times.”
“It’s pretty hollow. Where’s the honesty in anything anymore?”
Zane Novak, Kole’s father, described the pleas as “morally sickening.”
“’Not guilty, not guilty’ nine times for three dead boys. Sickening.”
Pratt appeared in court on Monday. He was dressed in a grey suit with a striped tie. His hair was gelled back and he appeared calm and expressionless.
“Even though it’s not shown, and it’s not been discussed, I think that he really feels bad about it, obviously,” said Timothy Dunlap, the accused’s lawyer.
“To be involved in something like this must be a terrible thing.”
On Monday morning, the Crown and Defence went over issues relating to witnesses and disclosure.
Dunlap made an application to have the charges thrown out because some police audio recordings were destroyed two years following the collision. He says no one will ever know what kind of evidence may have been on those recordings.
Meanwhile, loved ones of the victims say they will continue to attend the trial.
“We’ll be there every day,” Bradley’s mother, Sheri Arsenault, said. “For me, my family, it’s all I can do for my son Brad, it’s all I can do for Kole and Thad, is to be there.”
“My daughter and I… it is our intention to attend the entire trial in Wetaskiwin,” says Kole’s father, Zane Novak, who now lives in Calgary.
On November 26, 2011, a pick-up slammed into a car carrying Bradley Arsenault and his friends Thaddeus Lake and Kole Novak. No one survived, except the driver of the pick-up.
The call came into Beaumont RCMP as a single vehicle rollover in the ditch. When the RCMP arrived they found a Dodge Ram pick-up. When emergency services arrived, they located a second vehicle, a Pontiac Grand Am, just west of the pick-up.
RCMP believe that both vehicles were travelling in the same direction at the time of the collision.
Families of victims recall getting the news
“We had gone out early that morning for breakfast and we didn’t know,” Sheri Arsenault recalls. “I’ll never forget those exact moments because people were trying to call me, they had already heard on the news… they could tell I didn’t know. And then the next thing I know the RCMP were at my door at about 10 in the morning.”
Novak also clearly remembers how he received the news that Saturday morning.
“The doorbell rang and the dogs started barking and I went and opened the door and there was a police officer with two women behind him.”
“And he just came in the house… and he goes, ‘There’s no easy way to tell you this, but your son Kole Novak is dead. He was involved in a car accident and we believe he was killed by a drunk driver.'”
Helping others in order to move forward
Since losing her son, Arsenault has made it her mission to push for stricter impaired driving laws across Canada. The Families for Justice organization she’s involved with has collected about 60,000 signatures on a petition calling for stricter regulations.
“We are so far from achieving the goals that we should be striving to reach in drunk driving and it’s because judges don’t hand out sentences,” says Novak.
“Easily those boys, between them, lost 195 cumulative years of their life. And yet we see sentences handed out for drunk driving that are two, three years.”
Arsenault knows changes to the law won’t bring her son back, but says she never wants another mother to have to go through what she’s been through.
“For me, the most powerful legacy that I can leave behind for Bradley would be to save lives, to spare everybody and anybody having to go through this completely senseless tragedy.
“I don’t do this for myself, because I’ve lost my son. I do this for everyone: yourself, your family, everybody else. It’s heartbreaking and it’s senseless.”
Novak says the past couple of years have been extremely difficult and frustrating for several reasons, and that he misses his son every single day.
“I feel massive disappointment and sadness,” he says. “I feel a lot of frustration. I feel frustration that it’s two-and-a half years later and we’re just now starting to go to the final trial. I feel frustrated that his life can be gone and that there is so little compensation, there is so little accountability held. It’s a travesty. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing and heartbreaking.
“In a lot of ways, I think it’s almost harder now, daily, because at the time it was adrenaline,” Novak explains. “Now it’s just reality. Now you know for certain, I know for certain, that I’m never going to see him again, he’s not coming back. There’s no adrenaline left, it’s just reality now. And I miss him every moment of every day.”
Novak says the trial is a milestone that everyone involved needs to get past, but says it will not bring him any closure.
“This has been hanging over us like an axe for two-and-a-half years,” he says. “As far as closure? No… I don’t think it’s any sense of closure, really.”
For Arsenault, Monday will be the 15th time she’s been to court regarding the case. But she says her and the other young men’s families have received an incredible amount of support, which makes getting up every day a little bit more comforting.
“Does it get easier every day? No. It’s the first on your mind, how much you miss your child. Bradley was my only son. You bleed from the inside out, it’s a hole that just can never repair. But I just keeping pushing forward day by day, the sun always comes up every morning.”
Pratt’s trial could last up to five weeks.
With files from Shannon Greer, Global News.