Parents of Nova Scotian woman killed by drunk driver campaign to prevent man from buying alcohol

Nancy King
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'This is an obligation we have to the public'

Patricia and Gary Smits. 

SYDNEY — Parents still grieving their daughter’s death in a drunk-driving crash a decade ago want Nova Scotia retailers and regulators to ensure that the man whose actions killed her can’t buy alcohol when he is released from prison. 

“What this is, is, we’re putting them on notice,” said Gerry Smits. “You can’t do one without the other … it covers the bars and it covers the licensed premises.”

In May 2004, 19-year-old Angela Smits of Sydney, and her boyfriend, Michael MacLean, 20, of Albert Bridge, were pronounced dead at the scene on Highway 104 near River Bourgeois, following a head-on crash. In 2007, after pleading guilty to two charges of impaired driving causing death, Michael Gerard Cooper of Cleveland was sentenced to seven years in prison.

On Jan. 22, Cooper is due to be released from prison after serving his full sentence. It’s a relatively rare incident, where the National Parole Board denied him statutory release after he served two-thirds of his time.

In addition, according to New Brunswick provincial court documents, because it is feared Cooper will commit a serious personal injury offence, for two years after his release he is subject to a strict 22-condition recognizance that prohibits him from consuming alcohol.

“You never see that after somebody’s done a full sentence,” Patricia Smits said.

“There’s a reason why everybody is fearing for the public when this guy gets out,” Gerry added.

Watch a video of the Smits here.

Sheldon Nathanson, lawyer for the Smits, has written to the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp., which has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the province, and licensing bodies the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board and the Alcohol and Gaming Division of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. On behalf of the family, he has asked the three bodies to take precautions to prevent Cooper from being able to purchase alcohol at retail or licensed establishments in Nova Scotia. At minimum, he has called for the distribution of Cooper’s name and photo to each retail outlet and licensee in the province.

In 2011, Cooper admitted to the parole board he would likely continue to consume alcohol whether or not his release conditions included abstaining, although he didn't feel he has a substance abuse problem, and would drive a motor vehicle if given the opportunity despite a court-imposed order as part of his sentence banning him from driving for 99 years. He said he would continue to drink and drive.

The Smits say they are motivated by a genuine concern to try to help keep another family from suffering the pain that they continue to experience over the loss of their daughter, a second-year nursing student, and her longtime boyfriend.

“The only way that we can stop him from doing what he plans to do is if we can get the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission and the Nova Scotia Liquor Licensing Board to help us,” Gerry said.

“There’s no other way. We can’t follow him around to make sure that he doesn’t have access to it. The only people that can do that is them.”

Gerry said they want all employees involved in the sale of alcohol in the province — particularly in Inverness County, where they expect Cooper will live — to be shown his photo and be told not to serve him.

Nathanson’s letters include background on the case, facts from the parole board decisions, and attachments of the victim impact statements filed with the courts by Gerry and Patricia.

The letters state that, by receiving notice of the danger posed by Cooper, the corporation and agencies shall be held legally responsible by the victims’ families should Cooper again cause injury or death by drinking and driving after buying alcohol somewhere in Nova Scotia over which they have authority.

“If he goes out and he kills someone else, well, where did he get the alcohol to do it in the first place?” Gerry said. “He’s not permitted to have any access to alcohol, period.”

Even if the Smits’s request is granted, Gerry said he understands that Cooper could potentially still find access to alcohol by other sources. These measures could help reduce that possibility, however.

And while people may suggest that after 10 years they should attempt to let go and move on with their lives, Gerry insisted this effort is not about them.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is an obligation we have to the public,” he said.

“It’s been a great loss, a loss that we have to try to, in our hearts, prevent another innocent family from going through,” Patricia added. “We learn to deal with it on a daily basis, but it never goes away.”

The accident left Cooper with a brain injury, which the board said affects his ability to retain and process information, but he was found fit to stand trial.

"The fact that you verbalize your intention to drink and drive again upon release to the community is an indication that you are indirectly planning to commit an offence causing death or serious harm to another person,” the parole board wrote.

Paul Allen, spokesman for the UARB, confirmed Jan. 13 the board had received Nathanson’s letter. Allen said he’s unaware of any other similar request coming before it since the board took over some duties around the regulation of alcohol in 2000. He added the board is not yet in a position to comment further.

“We just received it, we’re just starting to process it now,” he said.

Chrissie Matheson, spokeswoman for the provincial Department of Justice, confirmed in an email the Alcohol and Gaming Division has received the letter. She noted that in these cases there is a high-risk offender committee comprised of police, Department of Justice staff and others in the justice system. The committee reviews available information about an offender and recommends whether to notify the public. She said police have asked the committee to review the case.

"The committee has done that and will make recommendations with respect to public notification," Matheson wrote.

Cooper's criminal record dates back to 1975 and includes convictions for theft, possession of stolen property, drug possession and driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit, and previous liquor and Motor Vehicle Act infractions.

After reading a report of some of the comments made by the parole board about Cooper, Andy Murie, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, said this case stands out among those he’s seen in his 17 years with the organization because he has never seen a convicted drunk driver be so seemingly unrepentant.

“Usually when it comes to parole hearings and those type of things, (offenders) do take the PR steps to kind of say, ‘I’m not going to do this any more, I’ve learned my lesson,’” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody as defiant as this.”

If there were provisions in such cases to declare some drunk drivers long-term offenders, officials wouldn’t have to release them from jail, Murie said.

The steps the Smits are requesting are common in the gaming industry, he noted, where photos of problem gamblers are posted at some betting venues. He said he’s not aware of any similar case involving the sale of alcohol.

“I think the family is struggling, and I’m very sympathetic and supportive of what they’re trying to do,” Murie said.

Through Correctional Services Canada, Cooper denied an interview request from the Cape Breton Post.

 

Timeline

• May 14, 2004 — Michael Gerard Cooper arrived at a St. Peter's tavern at 3 p.m., where he spent the next seven hours, with witnesses reporting he consumed up to 16 beers. An hour after leaving, his truck crossed the centre line of Highway 104 near River Bourgeois.

Michael MacLean, 20, of Albert Bridge, and his 19-year-old girlfriend Angela Smits, of Sydney, were pronounced dead at the scene east of Exit 47, following a head-on crash. Cooper, the lone occupant of the other car, was transported to the Strait Richmond Hospital in Evanston and then airlifted to the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

• Dec. 15, 2005 — Cooper, 45, is charged with two counts of impaired driving causing death, two counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

• November 2005 — A preliminary hearing into the Cooper case begins to determine whether there is sufficient evidence on which a properly instructed jury could render a reasonable verdict.

• February 2006 — Cooper is committed to stand trial.

• Nov. 6, 2006 — On the day that Cooper was scheduled to stand trial, Cooper pleaded guilty to two charges of impaired driving causing death. He had originally elected a trial by judge and jury on six charges.

• Jan. 24, 2007 — Cooper received concurrent seven-year sentences in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

• May 2011 — The National Parole Board denied parole for a Cooper, after having served two-thirds of his sentence, finding that he is likely to commit an offence that could kill or seriously injure someone before his sentence expires.

• April 2012 — Cooper is again denied parole.

• Jan. 22, 2014 — Cooper is due to be released from prison after having served his full seven-year sentence.

Some of the 22 court-ordered conditions on Michael Gerard Cooper’s release from Dorchester Penitentiary:

• He is prohibited him from consuming alcohol or illicit drugs, or being anywhere that the sale of alcohol is the primary source of business.

• He is subject to a daily curfew of 9 p.m.-6 a.m.

• He must report a description and licence plate number to police of any vehicle that he will have access to.

• If he alters his appearance, he must report to police to have his photograph taken.

 

Organizations: National Parole Board, Alcohol and Gaming Division, Nova Scotia Liquor Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board Nova Scotia Liquor Commission Nova Scotia Liquor Licensing Board Department of Justice Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada Correctional Services Canada Cape Breton Post Strait Richmond Hospital Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre Nova Scotia Supreme Court

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, SYDNEY, River Bourgeois Cleveland New Brunswick Inverness County Evanston Halifax

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