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Nick Berto ruined Paul VanderGriendt's life, court hears

Aviation instructor was expecting a promising career as an airline pilot. Instead, he spent 101 days in an intensive care unit, unable to speak or eat
03-12-2016 Pinie Plaza  crash
Police reconstruction of Pine Plaza crash that left Paul VanderGriendt unable to use his arms or legs
Sault Ste. Marie used to be a special place for Paul VanderGreindt.

That all changed in the early morning hours of March 12, 2016 when Nicholas Berto struck and ran over the Sault College flight instructor in the parking lot of a Pine Plaza bar - destroying, and almost ending his life. 

"Now it's just the place that my career and livelihood were taken away," VanderGreindt, who was rendered a paraplegic in the horrific crash, told a judge Wednesday at the young man's sentencing hearing.

"I'll never be able to provide for any future family. I will never have the flying career I worked so hard for," he said in a brief victim impact statement he delivered via a video hookup from the Old City Hall courts in Toronto.

Berto's attitude that night and because he chose not to plead guilty to charges stemming from his actions, "leads me to think he has no remorse or empathy for anyone," VanderGreindt said.

A jury convicted the now 20-year-old of dangerous driving causing bodily harm and failing to stop at an accident to offer assistance in May.

Superior Court Justice Annalisa Rasaiah heard from five members of VanderGreindt's, family, who detailed the horrendous injuries he received, the excruciating pain he suffered as he fought to stay alive and the heartache, frustration and emotional roller coaster they experienced.

His parents, Charlene and Frank, and brother Curtis wept as they outlined to those gathered in the small Sault courtroom the impact this has had on their closely-knit family.

A call at 4 a.m. from her son's phone was even more heart-wrenching and terrifying when she discovered it was from a friend of his, and "he was hanging on to his life by a thread," Charlene said.

They flew from their Waterloo home to the Sault, where police greeted them at the airport, and told them Paul was being transported to a Toronto hospital.

Fourteen hours after that awful phone call, his mother said they watched their son suffer and struggle in "excruciating pain all because of a senseless act."

He was lying motionless, tubes and wires coming out of his mouth and body, Frank said.

Paul's head was crushed under the truck, he had a broken neck, rib injuries, many fractures, and a torn lung.

His first surgery was on his lung, and then he had rods put in his neck.

"We spent days praying he would survive," his brother Curtis told Rasaiah. 

"There were weeks of risky surgery. So many times when we were terrified it was the end and something terrible would happen on the operating table."

Paul was forced to simply lie there, "a prisoner in his own body and we were helpless to do anything," Curtis said.

But "his torment didn't end there," he was paralyzed and "in excruciating pain."

Charlene said her son spent 101 difficult days in an intensive care unit, in constant pain, unable to speak or eat.

She sat beside him every day, "watching his torment, which was beyond description," as he underwent exhausting tests. "I loved and prayed for him."

The simplest things in life were robbed from him, and he had to learn to swallow and eat again, his mother said.

Following his ICU stay, Paul spent four months at Lyndhurst rehab centre in Toronto.

None of his family members had homes that are accessible to him, Rasaiah heard.

His parents spent 18 months searching for an accessible house, and found a place that has left them with a $400,000 debt for its purchase and renovations so that he can attend family functions.

His sister Lauren McDougall, at Paul's side when he gave his victim impact statement Wednesday, described him as the most inspiring person.

"I think it's nothing short of a miracle Paul survived," she told the court. 

He is moving forward despite being the victim of "horrific actions," that stole his life and career.

Paul is working so hard to have more independence, she said.

McDougall said she hoped her brother's "amazing attitude" to move forward will make Berto consider how he can learn from his mistakes and do the same.

She said that from what she observed in court, Berto didn't demonstrate remorse for the poor decisions he made that night.

"I hope he can take responsibility" and have a better life.

The "very promising career of an airline pilot came to an end" that night, Frank said.

His son had been scheduled to attend a job interview with Air Canada Jazz two days after the accident.

Flying was Paul's passion, and it was stolen from him, along with his dignity and independence, Curtis said.

"He can't hold my baby," he can't walk, he can't get out of bed, eat or drink on his own.

Curtis told Berto that Paul is the biggest victim, but he has also inflicted life-altering trauma on his entire family.

It also has made them stronger, he said.

"I hope you understand the long-lasting consequences of needing to prove you are a man," he said.

"I hope you choose to change, to show remorse and I hope you are truly sorry and take responsibility," he urged the young man.

Crown attorney Kelly Weeks read a statement from Paul's now fiancee, Aimee Capstick, who also is his primary caregiver.

She was with him the night he was run over, and "still wakes up in the middle of the night, reliving what happened."

Paul's life was turned upside down, he has extreme disability and "we will be impacted for life."

The court also heard about the impact on Paul's friends, colleagues and others at Sault College.

Louis St. Pierre, a professor in the aviation department, who had been his teacher and also worked with him, said witnesses at the scene to a degree all suffered traumatic stress disorder.

The aviation industry lost an excellent pilot and the college an instructor, he said.

A vibrant, strong person had been run down by a kid trying to prove himself in a big truck.

The hearing continues today with the lawyers making their sentencing submissions.

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About the Author: Linda Richardson

Linda Richardson is a freelance journalist who has been covering Sault Ste. Marie's courts and other local news for more than 35 years.
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