Sentencing in Brockville manslaughter case moved to Ottawa

New items, including a bird house, have been added to a memorial to Damian Sobieraj near the place where he died at Hardy Park in Brockville on Sept. 13, 2018.

The sentencing hearing for a Brockville teenager who pushed Damian Sobieraj into the St. Lawrence River where he drowned has been moved to Ottawa.

The hearing will be held on Aug. 31, just two weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of Sobieraj’s death in the river off Hardy Park on Sept. 13, 2018 and more than six months after Justice Kim Moore of the Ontario Court of Justice found the Brockville girl, who was 14 at the time, guilty of manslaughter and three related charges.

The court has set aside two days for the hearing, but Crown prosecutor Alan Findlay expects that the submissions and brief evidence will take most of the morning, allowing Moore time to announce her sentence during the afternoon.

The sentencing, once expected in the spring, was delayed by COVID-19 rules that shut down most activities at the Brockville courthouse. Those same rules limit the number of people allowed in the Ottawa courtroom to five – relatives of Sobieraj and of the girl. Others will listen to the proceedings via a conference call.

Damian’s mother Iwona Sobieraj, his longtime friend Jennifer Pelletier and Pelletier’s mother Christine Pelletier will present victim-impact statements to the court.

The Crown and the defence will make their sentencing arguments afterward.

The court also will receive a psychological assessment of the girl that was ordered by Moore after she found her guilty of the four charges last February.

In addition to manslaughter, Moore also found the teen guilty of uttering threats, criminal negligence casing death and obstruction of police.

Moore said the girl was acting in “anger and frustration” when she “body-slammed” the 33-year-old Sobieraj into the river on the September evening after he was in an altercation with several of the girl’s friends.

Sobieraj was grappling with two boys who had been damaging trees in Hardy Park in an attempt to hold them for police when the girl came rushing out of the dark to push Sobieraj into the water. The slight, 156-pound, five-foot-nine-inch Sobieraj was outweighed by the larger teen.

The criminal-negligence-causing-death verdict resulted from the fact the teen made no effort to save the drowning man, who couldn’t swim, despite his screams for help, the judge ruled.

Although the girl had a cellphone, she made no calls to 911 or made any moves to save him, even though a life-saving station was close by, Moore said.

Instead, the girl and her dozen friends in the park ran. They were stopped by a Brockville police officer who was responding to the 911 calls that Sobieraj had made earlier. When directly asked whether anybody had gone into the water, the girl and her friends lied, saying they knew nothing. Those lies to police resulted in the obstruction charge.

Moore noted that Sobieraj would have been in the river for more than five minutes and it might have been too late to save him. But the kids’ lies meant it was much later before police began looking in the river.

The uttering-threats verdict stemmed from an incident earlier in the evening when the girl chased two youths out of the park, threatening to kill them.

In her February judgment, Moore recounted the evidence of the 21 witnesses who testified during the nine days of trial in November and December last year and reconstructed the events of that warm September evening in Hardy Park.

As they often did, a group of about a dozen teenagers, including the girl, drifted into the park in the early evening. They hung out around the gazebo, talking and playing on their phones. At one point, a girl showed up with a bag of booze, mainly coolers, which she passed around.

Most of the kids went for pizza at around 9:30 p.m. When they got back to the park at about 10 p.m., two of the youths began striking trees with sticks and shouting obscenities loud enough to worry passersby.

Sobieraj, who was walking his little pug Rosie and playing Pokemon Go, came upon the youths vandalizing the trees. He confronted the youths, shouting at them to stop. The boys, aged around 13, refused, swore back at Sobieraj and continued their vandalism.

The confrontation escalated when a large youth, 17, known for his violence, faced off against Sobieraj. He pushed the older man and perhaps punched him, the judge said. Sobieraj’s response was to call 911, telling police he was under attack.

Many of the teens scattered, not wanting to face police. Sobieraj told the 911 dispatcher that he was going to grab the two offenders, and he chased the young tree-hitters down toward the waterfront.

There he struggled with the boys, trying to hold them for police. He managed to grab one, and then the other, but they squirmed loose. Evidence suggested that he was hit several times by the boys who held on to their sticks, the judge said.

Moore emphasized that up to this point the girl had not been involved in the altercations with Sobieraj at the tree area or at the waterfront. Accounts vary on where she was in the park at the time, but she was not with the others.

With no warning, the girl rushed out of the dark and pushed Sobieraj into the river, said the judge, recounting the testimony of four witnesses.