The Kitchener woman who pleaded guilty to charges related to 2019’s gas explosion in London, Ont., has been sentenced to three years in prison, followed by a three-year driving suspension.
The Ontario court of justice met virtually on Thursday to hear judge George Orsini hand down his decision for 24-year-old Daniella Leis.
It comes after Leis pleaded guilty in October 2020 to four counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm.
In delivering his decision, Orsini referenced the circumstances of Leis’ actions and drew on an agreed statement of facts read at an earlier court date.
The explosion in London’s Old East Village happened on Aug. 14, 2019.
Leis had driven from Kitchener to London 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.
In the crash, the car, a grey Ford Fusion registered to Leis’ father, struck a gas line, triggering a blast that completely levelled 450 Woodman Ave. Neighbouring homes were so badly damaged they had to be later demolished.
Falling debris led to fires in several homes nearby and the entire neighbourhood had to be evacuated with gas and hydro shut off to the area.
Two police officers and two firefighters suffered numerous injuries as a result, with one firefighter forced to spend more than a week in hospital before being discharged.
Orsini noted that these injuries had life-altering impacts on the first responders.
The judge also made reference to a victim impact statement sent on behalf of the Woodman Avenue community, noting that the explosion had affected 30 homes in the neighbourhood.
“The financial impact of Ms. Leis’ actions have been enormous, with a total damage estimate approaching $15 million,” Orsini told the court.
“This, of course, pales into comparison with the lasting emotional and psychological harm that resulted, particularly those who lost or were otherwise displaced from their homes for an extended period of time.”
The community impact statement also noted a “diminished sense of safety and security in the neighbourhood.”
“The openings left by the vacant lots and downed fences leaves the potential for thefts and break-ins,” Orsini told the court as he quoted the statement.
“Some suffer from grief and a loss of sentimental items and family pets, others are dealing with the stress and anxiety caused by insurance companies and contractors as they attempt to get their lives back on track.”
Orsini provided six mitigating factors to the court in delivering his decision for Leis’ sentencing.
They included Leis’ guilty plea, which Orsini saw as a “genuine” sign of remorse, along with her lack of a prior criminal record and the fact that she is a youthful first offender.
Orsini noted that “in spite of a difficult upbringing, she has made considerable efforts at maintaining employment and furthering her own education. This speaks to her character and determination, factors which will no doubt assist her in her future.”
The judge added that Leis sought “active steps to address her addiction to alcohol,” despite restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Her life and current circumstances reflect the intergenerational trauma resulting from Canada’s residential school system,” Orsini said in a mitigating factor that related to Leis’ Indigenous heritage.
“The impact can be traced from her maternal great-grandparents, who were residential school survivors, to her grandfather and mother.”
Orsini noted that the impact of the residential school system has been well-documented and has led to increased rates of substance abuse, mental health problems, criminal activity, mortality and suicide, poverty, family breakdown and community disintegration.
“As indicated in the Royal Commission on Indigenous People, the abuse and neglect suffered by residential school survivors left its mark on their lives and the lives of their descendants, whose families have been characterized by further abuse and neglect,” Orsini told the court.
“I accept that these factors contributed to Ms. Leis’ reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism. To this extent, while they do not justify or excuse her behaviour, they do at least go some way in explaining her appearance before this court.”
Four aggravating factors also played a role in the sentence, according to Orsini.
They included that fact that Leis had caused bodily harm to more than one person, along with her blood-alcohol concentration of more than 120 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood at the time of the offence, both of which are aggravating factors under the criminal code.
Orsini also noted Leis’ driving behaviour prior to the crash, which he described as “objectively quite dangerous.”
“She was operating her vehicle in the wrong direction on a one-way street for almost three kilometres, while other vehicles tried in vain to get her attention. She was driving at an excessive speed immediately prior to the collision itself,” Orsini said.
The final aggravating factor included the significant impact the incident had on victims.
Before announcing his decision, Orsini also noted that the circumstances of Leis’ imprisonment are made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus will impact on the ability of others to gain access to the custodial setting,” Orsini said.
“This in turn may impact family visits as well as counselling that may be available to her. It will also likely add to the social isolation she will experience within a custodial institution.”
Orsini told the court he hopes the sentencing will send a message that impaired driving causing serious harm can lead to significant punishment in Canadian courts.
“Ms. Leis is fortunate that no one was killed as a result of her conduct. Both she and the community owe a debt of gratitude to those who selflessly put themselves at risk in order to protect the lives of others,” Orsini said.
The sentence falls in line with assistant Crown attorney Jason Miller’s request of a three-year prison sentence followed by a three-year driving suspension. Defence lawyer Richard Braiden agreed a three-year driving suspension was appropriate, but sought a lesser sentence of no more than two years.
Orsini noted that he will deny a request for a DNA order for Leis. The judge also ruled to waive a victim fine surcharge for Leis, noting the decision was made in light of her financial circumstances.
Braiden confirmed to Global News that Leis went into custody immediately following Orsini’s decision, as she was present in the courtroom at that time.
Thursday’s sentencing comes about a year and a half after the tragic night that left a mark on the historic London neighbourhood.
The case was largely delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that accompanied it.
Late last month, the London Police Service held a virtual awards ceremony to recognize the heroic efforts of those who helped out in the blast.
Recipients included police officers, police staff and members of the public.
Meanwhile, five Londoners whose homes were damaged in the blast have launched a lawsuit seeking a collective $2.5 million. The list of plaintiffs does not include 450 Woodman Ave.’s Karen Fisher.
In a statement of claim obtained by Global News, the Londoners allege the crash itself and “the resulting injuries and losses suffered by the Plaintiffs arose solely as a result of the negligence of the Defendants.”
The defendants are listed as Daniella Leis; her father Shawn Leis; Budweiser Gardens; the City of London; Spectra, which provides venue management for Budweiser Gardens; Ovations Ontario Food Services Inc.; an unidentified security company; and two unidentified Budweiser Gardens employees.
The allegations have not been tested in court.
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