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Driver gives emotional testimony in fatal Burnaby crash, family 'reeling' from details
Warning: Graphic content.
VANCOUVER - One of the two drivers charged in a fatal incident involving a teenage exchange student spoke in his own defence Thursday, sobbing as he described checking to see if the girl was still alive.
Paul Oliver Wong took the stand on the fourth day of trial at Vancouver provincial court, telling those inside he hadn't seen anyone in the intersection that day in January 2018.
He said he'd checked both sides of the road for pedestrians, and didn't see Brazilian exchange student Fernanda Girotto until the last second. Then he "swerved and braked."
Wong, who was 46 at the time, said he couldn't find her at first, but then noticed a second car stopped nearby. He said he found the 14-year-old underneath that vehicle as he was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, who asked him to check on her.
"I checked to see if there was a pulse and when I touched her hand…" Wong said, breaking down into tears before composing himself.
He continued: "She let out a gurgle and I let the 911 operator know, and he gave me further instructions."
As his lawyer, David Fai, questioned him, Wong described dark and rainy conditions and seeing the top of a figure in front of his pickup truck wearing a dark hoodie pulled up over their head. He also emphasized, "It's a poorly lit street, poorly lit crosswalk."
But Crown counsel Geordie Proulx questioned Wong on a series of details, including how hard it was raining, whether he'd actually checked the crosswalk, and whether he'd actually seen the second vehicle hit Girotto and drag her away.
Crown: You weren't paying attention.
Wong: I disagree with that.
Kai Man Cheu, the driver of the second vehicle who was 58 at the time of the crash, was excused from attending the trial after his lawyer told the judge he couldn't spend the four scheduled days away from work.
Cheu and Wong are both charged with driving without due care and attention and other Motor Vehicle Act violations in connection with Girotto's death on Jan. 17, 2018.
Girotto was walking through a marked crosswalk on Cariboo Road at the time. It is alleged she was hit by a first vehicle, then struck again by a second as she lay injured in the crosswalk.
She died at the scene after being dragged more than 40 metres. She was on her way to catch the bus, and planned to go snow tubing.
The Crown presented evidence Thursday that Girotto had been wearing dark mostly dark clothing on that rainy morning nearly two years ago.
Family 'devastated,' considering legal options
Yun Li-Reilly, a litigator with Farris LLP, told CTV News Girotto's family in Brazil is "devastated" as details emerge from the trial.
"We're trying to involve them in the process as much as we can, but they are having a very hard time," said Li-Reilly. "They have not recovered. They are reeling from the subject matter of this trial and they are having a hard time because of the information that's been coming out during this trial."
On Monday, the first witness called to the stand was a veteran paramedic who described trying to extricate the teen, who was wedged so far under the second car's bumper that only a hand and the girl's face were visible.
As for whether the family is considering a lawsuit against the drivers or the city, Li-Reilly said: "We're not going to be discussing that with you at this time but the family will be considering its options."
City engineer defends crosswalk
While he was a witness for the Crown, an engineer for the City of Burnaby spent as much time answering pointed question from defence council as he did for the prosecution.
Douglas Louie, who had been the city's assistant director of engineering for the past 11 years, told the court that his staff had done an analysis of the crosswalk in 2017 and concluded that it didn't have enough pedestrian or vehicle traffic to justify upgrades with more lighting, pedestrian-controlled amber crossing lights or other action. He said ICBC data only showed three reported crashes in that area from 2012 to 2016.
But his testimony and reports to council immediately came under fire from Fai, who asked why they'd only gathered usage from a single day and whether they did an analysis after the toll was removed from the Port Mann Bridge after September of that year.
Louie acknowledged that traffic increased, but that they did no further analysis, and despite repeated complaints and concerns voiced by nearby residents, the city only added pedestrian-controlled amber lights after Girotto's death – and another pedestrian and cyclist were hit in that immediate area within four days of the fatality.
Fai emphasized that a full traffic light was installed within a year and Laura Ramsden, Cheu's lawyer, pointed out that Louie's own studies found that many vehicles in that area were going faster than 60 km/h in that area (where the speed limit is 50 km/h), despite the installation of speed reader boards in the area.
Cpl. David Noon, a member of the Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service (ICARS), was called as the first witness of the day.
Noon had documented the scene, attended the autopsy and drove through the area the morning after the crash with a camera mounted to his cruiser in an attempt to capture what the conditions and visibility may have been like at the time.
Proulx drew attention to pink sections and pink gloves of Girotta's clothing in Noon's photos, but acknowledged much of it was dark.
Fai cross-examined Noon, asking whether there were any reflective elements to Girotta's clothing, and Noon testified there were none. Fai also asked whether Mounties had done any examination or forensic work on her smartphone to determine whether she'd been using it at the time, but Noon testified he didn't know.
Fai pointed out Noon's video documented the driving conditions on a wet roadway but questioned its usefulness considering it was shot without the kind of heavy rain witnesses described. Noon acknowledged rain and glare from the headlights of oncoming vehicles would've affected overall visibility.
Crown entered two more exhibits on inspections of both vehicles, which found nothing mechanically wrong with either the Dodge Dakota or the Toyota Corolla that would’ve contributed to the accident.
Cpl. Rick Neger, a Mountie with experience in ICARS and RCMP Traffic Services but who didn't work on the case, was called as an expert witness to testify on the crash module data recorded by the one of the vehicles involved in the crash. He told the court the second vehicle, a Corolla, had been going 48 km/h in the moments before the collision and that the brakes had been applied after.
He also said the disruption the vehicle recorded was consistent with hitting a pedestrian, a pothole or a curb.
First 911 call
Court also heard the first 911 call from the scene, which was placed by Wong.
He can be heard telling the operator he hit a pedestrian.
Operator: "Are you with the patient now?"
Wong: "No, I can't find them."
The audio is garbled at that point in the recording, but it sounds like someone in the background says, "She's under my car."
Wong: "She's pinned under the car."
Operator: "Are there any obvious injuries?"
Wong: "She's bleeding from the head."
On Monday, the court also heard audio recordings from the two accused as they were interviewed by a Burnaby RCMP officer less than 90 minutes after the accident. Wong testified he expected to be recalled and questioned by investigators at the detachment, but that the interview that day was the only one.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Jan. 7, when Judge David St. Pierre will decide whether to render a verdict that day or reserve it for another time.
Correction: Though Girotto has previously been identified as a 15-year-old, prosecutors have confirmed she was just 14 when she died.