WARNING: This story contains graphic details.
On Friday, a 21-year-old man admitted in court on Friday to causing a collision last year, which left a woman dead in north Edmonton. Eric Lestar pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death in the crash that killed 50-year-old Joann Christou.
She was a wife, mother of four and grandmother of three when she died.
The Edmonton courtroom was packed Friday with supporters for both Lestar and Christou.
“She was such an amazing woman,” Christou’s daughter Sarina Gosse said outside court Friday. “We had a fairly difficult childhood. She raised me and my two brothers alone before she met Brian (Christou’s husband).”
“She was just the strongest person I have ever known and it’s really hard having her gone… Every day is a struggle.”
On Oct. 24, 2016, Christou’s blue Nissan Xterra SUV was heading north on 97 Street near 160 Avenue, when it was struck from behind by a white Infiniti G37 car being driven by Lestar.
The Crown said before the crash, Lestar had been at a pub a few blocks south of the collision scene, where he had been served three pints of beer. He drank two and a half of them before leaving, according to an agreed statement of facts.
The Crown said the beer contributed to some, but not all of the alcohol in Lestar’s system. The statement of facts said the bar — Jox’s Taphouse and Grill — was not able to provide police with any business records or surveillance video showing how much he drank there.
After leaving the bar, Lestar drove north on 97 Street, cutting off vehicles in the afternoon rush hour traffic as he merged from the left to the right side of the three-lane road.
He had just passed the 160 Avenue intersection when his speeding car came up behind Christou’s SUV. He attempted to swerve around her, but other vehicles were in the way. At that point the two vehicles collided.
The speed limit on the section of road where the crash happened is 70 km/h. The Crown said witnesses estimate Lestar’s vehicle was driving between 100km/h and 120 km/h.
The Crown said Lestar never slowed down before the collision, as there were no skid or tire marks on the pavement and witnesses never saw his brake lights turn on.
After colliding, the Nissan caught fire and both vehicles veered into the ditch, where Christou became trapped as the vehicle caught on fire.
People who knew the victim were comforted in court as Christou’s final moments were described. Several witnesses said the injured woman was on fire and screaming for help as the flames spread through the vehicle.
Several bystanders and an Edmonton police officer who came upon the scene attempted to save her. They tried to use fire extinguishers, but the flames were too fierce. One person even tried to use a knife to cut the vehicle open, but it was too late.
“Bystanders and police could not pull her out because she was pinned by the crashed vehicle and the flames were rapidly spreading,” the agreed statement of facts reads.
Christou was pronounced dead at the scene. The medical examiner determined Christou suffered a serious neck injury in the crash and her death was attributed to multiple injuries, not the fire.
It’s believed the significant second and third-degree burns found on her body happened after she died, which the medical examiner believes happened shortly after the fire broke out.
Paramedics arrive on scene to find Lestar sprawled across the front seats of his car, with his feet on the driver side and his head on the passenger.
The Crown said paramedics and police could smell alcohol on Lestar’s breath from several feet away and noticed he had bloodshot eyes. They described him as being in good spirits and laughing as he was being treated.
Lestar was taken to Royal Alexandra Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. He had fractured ribs, a broken left foot, a bruised lung, and some cuts on his wrist and head.
While in hospital, Lestar initially agreed to give a blood sample, but then refused the police order when the physician showed up. Samples had been taken while he was being treated though, and police obtained a warrant to seize those.
Lestar’s blood alcohol level between 179 to 211 mg of alcohol/100 mL of blood. The Crown says his ability to operate motor vehicle was impaired by alcohol and was cause of collision that killed Christou.
“Yes sir,” Lestar said when asked if all the facts read are true.
Family describes devastating loss in court
Ten victim impact statements were expected to be read before sentencing got underway. Lestar’s face was red and he cried as Christou’s husband spoke.
“There’s no one for me to bring a cup of morning tea… I feel very lonely without her, a void has been created and I don’t know how to fill it,” Brian Christou said in his statement.
He said Christou was his best friend and the pair had a peaceful life. October 24 seemed like any other day, he said. He saw Christou’s vehicle wasn’t there when he got home, but didn’t think too much of it. Then police arrived to tell him of wife’s passing.
“My head spun. I thought I was going to throw up.”
Brian said he now feels uneasy while driving and is fearful for his family and friends when they are on the road.
“Your actions caused my life to fall apart at a rapid rate,” Christou’s son Ian said to Lestar.
Ian said after his mom’s death he became depressed for several months, attempted suicide. He said he now has severe anxiety and a mood disorder.
“You took my rock from me, you took my confidante, my advisor, you took the one person who loved me no matter what,” Ian said in his victim impact statement.
“I will never forgive you. No amount of punishment will be what you deserve.”
Joann’s daughter Sarina said her wedding was three days after her mom’s funeral. “It’s a day I’ll never forget for all the wrong reasons.”
“My person is gone…the only person who ever understood me,” Sarina said.
Oct. 24, 2016 was the day Joann Christou ran out to get groceries to complete dinner and never returned, her stepdaughter Staci said. Staci said Christou made her dad very happy.
“My whole world just shattered into a million pieces,” she said when describing the moment she learned of her stepmom’s death.
Christou’s sister Diana Stephens said, “You will never know what this has done to our family.”
“I can only hope Eric is remorseful for his actions,” she said.
Best friend Theresa says there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t miss Christou. “Joann died violently, needlessly, without a word of peace.”
The Crown is asking for a five-year prison sentence with a five-year driving prohibition. Defence is seeking a three-year prison sentence.
Defence lawyer James Raworth said that was based on what other sentences in the province have been for similar offences and offenders. He said the two factors at play are the degree of the offence and the blame-worthiness of the offender.
“Considering his youthfulness, his genuine remorse, his personal circumstances, his post-offence conduct — but also considering the fact that he drove at a recklessly high speed and he had a very high alcohol level — three years is where, in Alberta, the sentence should be.”
“Mr. Lestar has been very, very inconsolable about this for quite some time and very willing to take this course of action to atone for his action,” Raworth said.
For the victim’s family, no amount of time behind bars will seem like enough.
“There’s no sentencing that will ever be enough for me or my family but our trust is in the judge to make a fair decision,” Gosse said.
Until Friday in court, she had never seen Lestar before.
“It was pretty emotional,” Gosse said. “It was definitely a really emotional day for all of us.
Lestar didn’t speak much throughout the day’s proceedings but did make a brief statement in court saying he’s sorry to the family. While a few of Christou’s loved ones said they’d never be able to forgive Lestar, Gosse feels a bit differently.
“I’m not going to go through my life hating someone for something that they did; that’s something for the justice system to decide.”
The judge reserved a decision for Dec. 11.
— With files from Global’s Emily Mertz