Sentencing got underway on Thursday for the woman who has pleaded guilty to charges related to 2019’s gas explosion in London, Ont., but it will be a few more weeks before a decision is made regarding her sentence.
It was an emotional hearing as the Ontario Court of Justice met virtually to hear victim impact statements, submissions from lawyers and a tearful apology from Daniella Leis, 24, from Kitchener.
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The explosion in London’s Old East Village happened on Aug. 14, 2019.
According to an agreed statement of facts, Leis had driven from Kitchener to London in order to attend a concert at Budweiser Gardens. Later that night, she drove the wrong way down Queens Avenue before crashing into a home at 450 Woodman Ave.
The car she was driving, a grey Ford Fusion registered to her father, struck a gas line at the home, which then sparked an explosion in the historic neighbourhood.
The home at the centre of the blast was completely levelled, neighbouring homes were so badly damaged they had to be demolished and four first responders suffered numerous injuries as a result.
In October 2020, Leis pleaded guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm on charges related to the explosion.
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During Thursday’s virtual sentencing, the court heard from a number of victims of the explosion, including Emma Fisher, whose home was at the centre of the blast. She was 12 when it happened.
Fisher spoke of lingering trauma from the event, with “normal everyday experiences” such as “being in big open areas, being around loud noises or music and having a shaking feeling” in her body serving as anxiety-inducing triggers.
“I think part of the reason that I found myself becoming more and more anxious was due to, not only mine, but me and my mom’s healing process being super rocky,” Fisher said.
The girl spoke of the stressful experience of hastily getting ready to go back to school following the mid-August explosion. Fisher added that she had no time to process the traumatic experience after it happened.
“The first time I cried was about three days after the explosion and I didn’t cry again until March, it was almost like I had pushed it to the back of my head subconsciously to focus on anything other than discomfort,” Fisher said.
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Fisher’s mother Karen provided her statement in a letter to Leis.
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The mother described feeling “overwhelmed” and “emotionally depleted,” with close relationships suffering as a result. Karen spoke of the toll stress has taken on her, her inability to sleep through the night and a lost sense of security in the world.
“The day before the explosion we were at my brother’s cottage. That was the last time I saw my daughter playing without a care in the world. It’s as if she grew up in that moment,” Karen added.
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Along with the loss of treasured items in the blast, Karen also touched on a loss of privacy as a result of media coverage of the case, a sentiment that was shared by some of the other victims.
“I’ve received calls at work, emails at private accounts, reporters at my door and numerous messages,” Karen said.
The mother added that the loss of privacy created a potential risk for the clients of her former employment, a beloved job she then left, in part due to a feeling of vulnerability.
“Daniella, I hope you never have to experience such a tragic loss at the hands of another person. This could’ve been prevented so easily,” Karen said.
“My hope for you is that your own experience will lead you to being an advocate against drunk driving.”
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Toward the end of the hearing, Leis offered an apology to victims, marking the first time she had made a public statement related to the explosion.
“To everyone here today that was affected and wanted their proper closure from me, I’m sorry it’s taken so long,” the court heard from Leis.
“This is the only setting where it seems appropriate to do so. Not to reporters showing up to my dad’s house, not on any social media platform and not on the news. Here, to the people that I directly hurt.”
Leis offered her gratitude to first responders who arrived at the scene of the crash and thanked the person who pulled her from her car after she had passed out at the wheel.
“I can’t express how truly sorry I am for what I’ve done to you.”
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In submissions from the Crown and defence, both sides agreed that jail time was appropriate for Leis.
Assistant Crown attorney Jason Miller asked for a three-year sentence followed by a three-year driving suspension.
He cited mitigating factors such as Leis’ youth and the remorse shown in her guilty plea, but also spoke of the need to send a message regarding the consequences of impaired driving and the lasting effects on victims.
Defence lawyer Richard Braiden asked for a sentence range between “upper reformatory to absolute minimum penitentiary sentence,” a range of sentencing that would max out at two years. He noted that this would allow for a period of probation as well.
Braiden said the publicity of the case has led to public condemnation of Leis and added that the COVID-19 pandemic has made prison sentences harsher than before, with lockdown orders restricting public visits and other resources that were previously available.
Justice George Orsini concluded the hearing by ruling to have the sentencing adjourned to Feb. 11.
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