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Nick Berto tells his side of Pine Plaza story

Berto says he was worried an angry crowd outside The Harp might try to pull him out of his driver-side window. As he raced away, he didn't check to see if anyone was in his path
03-12-2016 Pinie Plaza  crash
Police used Berto's pickup and a mannequin to recreate the Pine Plaza crash that left Paul VanderGriendt a quadriplegic. Berto says he was focussing on his driver's side window and never saw VanderGriendt in front of his truck. Part of the 'Hillbilly Deluxe' lettering is visible at the top of this evidence photo

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article describes testimony given at a criminal trial, including language that may offend some readers. The security-camera evidence video posted at the bottom of this article is graphic and may also be disturbing to some.

Nick Berto spotted her shortly after he left the men's room at The Harp Bar and Grill the evening of Friday, Mar. 11, 2016.

Jessica Traynor was a complete stranger to him.

A crisply dressed airline pilot, she was seven years older than Berto, who'd just started working for a property restoration firm, cleaning up damaged premises.

As Berto walked over to her table, Hillbilly Deluxe was playing on The Harp's sound system.

The country single about small towns, illicit weekend drinking parties and "slick pick-em-up trucks" was more or less an anthem to Berto.

"Dwight Yoakam?" Assistant Crown Attorney Wesley Beatty asked Berto this week at the Sault Ste. Marie Court House.

"Brooks and Dunn!" Berto snappily corrected him.

Stone-cold country, by the grace of God

Just hours before its oversized knobby tires crushed Paul VanderGriendt, Berto's jacked-up 2500-series GMC Sierra sat in The Harp's parking lot, "Hillbilly Deluxe" writ large across the top of its front windshield.

Across the tailgate, Berto had placed the words "Stone Cold Country By The Grace Of God" lyrics from Brantley Gilbert's Country Must Be Country Wide.

The 18-year-old country connoisseur had bought the vehicle second-hand a year earlier, paying for it with his own earnings.

He was justly proud of it.


For reasons not disclosed to the nine-man, three-woman jury, Berto had been home-schooled, not by his parents but by a teacher sent to his home.

He secured his secondary school diploma.

"It was a better option for me at the time," he said.

The truck Berto bought had already been modified with a lift kit, but he wanted a better one "to suit my personal preferences for the vehicle."

"I'm a young guy," he testified. "I was excited about the truck."

Friends knocking on his apartment windows

Telling his side of the Pine Plaza story on Tuesday, Berto said he didn't set out to party that evening of Mar. 11, 2016.

He was scheduled to work an out-of-town job the next day and needed to be up at 5:30 a.m.

He'd turned in early at his Summit Ave. apartment when his phone started to ring. It was his friends. 

Berto tried to ignore them but soon three of them arrived at his place, knocking on his windows.

"They wanted me to go out," he testified.

Berto said he was concerned other tenants in the building might be disturbed by the noise his friends were making, so he agreed to accompany them.

Strip club

Sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m. the friends left for The Harp, where they shot some pool.

Then, they found their way to Studio 10.

Berto admitted to consuming one beer at The Harp and another at the strip club, even though he had a G2 driver's licence that required a zero per cent blood alcohol concentration.

The bar-hopping buddies ended up back at The Harp.

Hearing Hillbilly Deluxe playing there, Berto used his treasured pickup truck as a conversation-starter with Traynor.

She testified he told her about paying $10,000 for the lift kit and invited her outside to see it.

"I could have been flirting a bit. Nothing major," Berto told the court on Tuesday.

If Berto was trying to flirt, he didn't get far with Traynor.

She didn't accompany him to inspect his $10,000 lift kit.

'She'd never be with someone like you: You're a little punk'

As closing time approached, Berto stepped outside The Harp for a cigarette with Nicholas Gillanders, an Air Canada Jazz pilot and Traynor's ex-boyfriend.

Berto told the court that he confessed to Gillanders he thought Traynor was pretty and he'd like to date her sometime.

Gillanders, he said, responded: "She'd never be with someone like you: You're a little punk."

Berto didn't appreciate that. He admitted shoving Gillanders against the bar's front window.

"I was upset that he was saying that to me. I called him a fucking asshole."

Berto testified that Jessica Traynor then tried to intervene, but the situation continued to escalate.

Someone shoved him to the ground – Berto didn't see who it was – and said "get the fuck out of here."

"I was pulled down quite a few times that night," he said.

To get away from the kicking and shoving, Berto started walking to his truck.

Broken beer bottle brandished

He testified he then heard something shatter behind him.

He turned and saw it was a beer bottle.

"I felt threatened," Berto said. "They'd thrown a bottle at me."

So he picked up the broken bottle by the neck and brandished it as he walked toward the closing-time parking lot gathering.

"Get the fuck back," he told the group. It did.

He then got into his truck.

"I'm upset at this point, telling them to get the fuck out of the way."

Very stupid choice

Next, Berto made what he now describes as a "very stupid choice."

Video recovered from a security camera at Food Basics shows him briefly backing up, then driving toward the parking lot's Allard Street exit – leading him directly to the crowd that he says was threatening him.

Why did he do that?

"I made the decision to go to that exit," Berto testified. "I did come to a complete stop. If I intended to hit the group, I wouldn't have stopped."

The video then shows Berto's truck turning sharply to the right, accelerating across the parking lot toward the Pine/McNabb intersection.

'Citadel on wheels'

The crowd scatters to get out of the way of his sudden turn, with VanderGriendt's body ending up under the truck, left motionless on the gritty pavement as Berto fled the scene.

Assistant Crown Attorney Beatty called the big GMC pickup a "steel, plastic, rubber citadel on wheels."

Berto testified that he was focused on his driver's side window because his truck was being kicked and hit and he feared the angry crowd might try to pull him out.

He said he didn't check to see whether anyone was in front or to the right of him as he swerved right, and never saw VanderGriendt in front of his truck.

"I should have looked there....If I had seen someone there, I would not be sitting in this courtroom."

'What happened was an accident'

"I was worrying about who's on my driver's side left, worrying about not getting hurt, and getting out of there."

"I would not do this intentionally. What happened was an accident."

Berto told the court he didn't hear a body hitting the truck, and didn't see a head and shoulders disappearing under its front grill.

However, he did feel a bump as he drove over VanderGriendt.

Berto discounted conclusions being drawn from the security camera video.

"The video's not too accurate, in fairness to everyone here," he said.

Why he hid the truck

Berto didn't notify police after the crash.

Instead, he admits hiding his truck behind a barn-like building on property owned by his parents.

He spent hours sitting there, alone in the pickup.

"I didn't call 911 because I was in trouble. I needed time to figure out what I needed to do. They weren't going to see my side of the story."

"I've got a lot going through my mind. I needed my own time to try to think things out."

"There's a lot to process. I don't process things that easy."

Eventually, Berto called his mother.

His parents went with him to the police station as he turned himself in.


Berto's evidence differed from Nick Gillanders on some key points.

For example, he didn't remember telling Gillanders that he knew Traynor was "a good girl" because "I tested her out for you."

If someone said that to him, Berto said he'd consider it disrespectful.

Berto also denied an assertion that he'd tried to advise Gillanders how to conduct himself at the pool table.

And he disputed Gillanders' testimony that Berto had smashed the beer bottle himself.

VanderGriendt, now 27, now lives in Toronto, deprived of the use of his arms and legs, his flying career grounded.

Berto, now 20 years old, is charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm and failing to stop to offer assistance to VanderGriendt.

The trial is expected to continue into next week.

EDITOR'S NOTE: SooToday does not permit comments on court stories

David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans six decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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