Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Family of Man Charged in Alberta School Crash Believe Driver Was Having Seizure

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Family of Man Charged in Alberta School Crash Believe Driver Was Having Seizure

Article excerpt

Family believes school crash was accident


ST. PAUL, Alta. - Relatives of a man charged with smashing his minivan into a rural Alberta school, killing a girl sitting in French class, say he suffered from seizures and was likely having an attack at the time of the crash.

Walter Benson thinks many people in the town of St. Paul are unjustly vilifying his brother Richard Benson as they try to make sense of what happened Thursday. Family members who have spoken with him in jail say he dropped his kids off at school that morning and blacked out right before his van left an alley, drove through a fence and into a classroom.

"The last thing he remembers is checking the mail and driving down the back alley," said Walter Benson, recalling a conversation Richard had with another relative after his arrest. "He was crying when he was talking to her, saying that he would never do anything like that on purpose."

Three Grade 6 girls were pinned by the van after it smashed into the basement of Racette Junior High School shortly after the morning bell Thursday. They were airlifted 200 kilometres west to an Edmonton hospital with critical injuries.

Mounties announced Friday afternoon that one of them had died. Media reports have identified the girl as 11-year-old Megan Wolitski.

RCMP have charged Richard Benson with dangerous driving, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance. They say the 46-year-old was combative with officers during his arrest at the school, but was later co-operative and remorseful. Investigators are waiting for blood tests to determine if he will be charged with impaired driving.

He is to make his first court appearance Monday in St. Paul.

"Everybody's labelled him as a drunk driver already without even giving him a fair chance," Walter Benson said. "He hardly drinks at all and I know he's smart enough not to drink and drive.

"I know he loves kids too much to do anything like that on purpose."

Benson has been in trouble behind the wheel before. Court records show he was charged last year with dangerous driving near Edmonton and is to stand trial next April. As well, he has a criminal record that includes two convictions for disqualified driving in 1994.

Relatives say Richard Benson is a single father of nine who lives on the outskirts of St. Paul. Only two of his children still live at home.

Walter Benson and another brother, Ralph Benson, say Richard was the victim of a severe beating more than a decade ago in Mayerthorpe, Alta. The attack put him in a coma and left him with a metal plate in his head.

One side of his face is droopy and he looks like a "rough character" but is really a "big pussy cat," said Walter Benson.

They said their brother Richard hasn't been able to work since the beating and was surviving on government assistance for the severely disabled. …

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