The young woman whose drunk driving crash set off the Woodman Avenue explosion made a statement at a sentencing hearing Thursday, apologizing for the pain she’s caused to people in London’s Old East Village and thanking first responders whose work saved lives that night.
Leis, 24, made an emotional three-minute address to the hearing — which was conducted via video conference — after hearing victim impact statements from residents who lost homes in the Aug. 14, 2019, blast and who continue to suffer trauma because from the events of that night.
“I can’t express how truly sorry I am for what I’ve done to you,” said Leis, at times crying. “It’s one thing to hear what my accident was like on the news, it’s another thing hearing it from your statements. It really gives me a perspective, just how reckless my actions were.”
She also thanked residents of Woodman Avenue who tried to free Leis from the car after she crashed into 450 Woodman Ave., severing a gas line.
“I’d also like to thank [the people who] managed to get me out of my car as I was passed out at the wheel,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here today had you not risked your lives to save mine.”
On the night of the blast Leis, who lives in Kitchener, was driving home after attending a concert in downtown London. Almost three times over the legal limit for blood-alcohol while driving, she drove the wrong way down Queens Avenue before crashing into 450 Woodman Ave.
The area was quickly evacuated, but the house exploded 15 minutes later, destroying a number of homes on the street, injuring four first responders and forcing the evacuation of more than 70 houses. The struck home was obliterated and a handful of others beside it had to be demolished.
Last October, Leis pleaded guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, those affected by the blast read victim impact statements.
Hailey Grey, whose house next to 450 Woodman Ave. was destroyed, was pregnant at the time of the explosion. She told the court she spent much of the months after the blast dealing with moving, replacing lost items, dealing with insurance companies and counting what was lost.
“I feel that my pregnancy was stolen from me,” she said.
Grey described having to quickly evacuate her house that night, not knowing at the time she was leaving her home for the last time. She described new pain that would surface multiple times, sometimes months later, when she would recall and realize which possessions, including family heirlooms, were lost in the blast.
“We will never forget the trauma and devastation this event has brought into our lives,” she said.
Laura Earl, who also lived on Woodman Avenue, described how her partner Chris Patterson tried to rescue Leis from the car, using a brick to smash open the windows after seeing her unconscious at the wheel and discovering the car doors locked.
“We were worried for her safety and her life,” said Earl. She recalled scrambling to hobble down the street with her foot in a cast from a previous injury as balls of fire fell all around her. She recalled hearing her neighbour’s reaction at seeing the house explode.
“It is a scream I will never forget,” said Earl.
Earl and others who provided impact statements described financial losses that won’t be fully covered by insurance, and the struggles of dealing with lingering physical and mental health effects caused by the blast. Everything from loss of sleep, to strains on their relationships, to trauma that returns the instant they hear a loud sound, or smell anything burning.
“Sometimes we still look for something we no longer own,” said Earl.
Karen Fisher and her daughter Emma, who was 12 on the day of the blast, lived at 450 Woodman Ave., and lost their dog in the explosion.
Karen also told the court she lost photos of loved ones and a pillow Emma’s father had made for his daughter before his death.
Karen told the court the experience of losing her house has left her “emotionally depleted.”
The Crown is seeking three years of jail time for Leis
Crown counsel Jason Miller said the consequences of Leis’s crime have to be weighed against other factors, including that she is a young person with no prior criminal record.
Miller said sending someone like Leis to prison is “a terrible thing,” but also said the sentence must reflect the devastation caused by Leis’s decision to drive home after consuming enough alcohol that would render many people unconscious.
“These offences require high condemnation from the court,” he said. “It’s important that people get the message that Canadian society is tired of these offences. They’ve had it.”
“This was a terrible mistake she made,” said Miller. “We give people second chances. She’ll get one but what she makes of this, is her own doing. These victims have lasting and permanent effects of her actions.”
Miller said those hurt in the blast, including two firefighters and two police officers, will suffer lifelong effects of their injuries and that the Old East Village community will be “forever scarred by this offence.”
Leis’s lawyer Richard Braiden agreed that jail time was appropriate but also said the sentence needed to take into account other factors, including her decision to plead guilty, which spared the victims and the court the trouble and new trauma of a trial.
Braiden also pointed out that Leis is receiving counselling to deal with her struggles with alcohol.
Justice George Orsini will consider the arguments and deliver a sentence on Feb. 11.