Caitlin Hiller was lying in the grass of a public park, chatting with her friend, when a one-and-a-half-ton police car drove over them.
Pressed into the blood-stained grass, Hiller, 16, regained consciousness soon after but could not move. The Durham Region officer, Martin Franssen, stood over her, shaken, asking if the kids were okay.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you,” Franssen said to the two teens lying behind his rear bumper.
She was not okay. A busted shoulder, her pelvis broken in four places. She would need a walker and a sling while recovering from the fractures. Her friend Derrick Buckley’s right collarbone was broken.
Had the car been driven by a civilian, he or she would likely have been arrested, charged and prosecuted. But in Durham Region, an officer can drive in a poorly lit park, run over teens and get away with it.
Today’s story is one in a series about police conduct in Ontario.
A Star probe of two decades of cases examined by the province’s Special Investigations Unit found that police officers are treated far differently than civilians when accused of shooting, beating, running over and killing people. On Friday, the Star reported on the case of a grandmother run down and killed by a police cruiser; Saturday we reported on the shooting of a 23-year-old homeless man who shook a plastic chair at a police constable.
In the Hiller case, the Star investigation raised serious questions.
Were Const. Franssen’s headlights on that night in the summer of 2005? He said yes. Hiller said no. One of Franssen’s colleagues on the force said Durham cruisers sometimes creep around parks with lights off.
It is unclear why the officer chose not to patrol the park on foot and instead drove his car into a park where kids were known to likely be gathered.
Franssen was cleared by the SIU. He declined comment for this story.
Immediately after the incident, the Durham Police force sent Hiller a candy basket with a card wishing her a speedy recovery. Franssen did not sign it.
“It makes me think he doesn’t even care,” Hiller told the Star. “I could never imagine doing something like that and never being in contact with that person.”
Five years after the incident, Hiller lives in midtown Toronto. Now 22, she is a Ryerson student and part-time behavioural therapist who works with an autistic boy on weekends.
Sitting in a Church St. coffee shop, Hiller cautiously remembered what she could of the incident. Re-living it made her feel anxious.
It was after midnight on June 23, 2005, when a group of kids gathered in and around Duffins Bay Public School, celebrating the end of the school year and disturbing the quiet Ajax neighbourhood near the shore of Lake Ontario.
Hiller said she was not drinking that night and a Durham officer who arrived minutes after the incident said he smelled no alcohol on her breath.
At about 1:20 am., Durham police officers in marked cruisers went to the area, responding to complaints from residents about unruly kids in the park.
The SIU said the officer drove over a “grassy knoll” and ran over the two teens who were lying on the down slope of the hill. The Star found the knoll is a slight change in elevation.
Hiller says they were talking, “looking at the stars.” The area was poorly lit, shaded from the moonlight by several tall trees.
Franssen pulled his marked, four-door Chevrolet Impala onto the grass.
“We were both lying beside each other,” Hiller said, when the cruiser ran them over.
“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Nothing really hurt. And then the cop asked if we needed an ambulance. I tried to lift my head a millimetre and I couldn’t move.”
Hiller said she was groggy from painkillers when the SIU came to interview her less than 24 hours after an incident that would cause months of physical rehabilitation and permanent damage.
The transcript shows Hiller struggled to clearly answer the SIU investigators’ questions.
“When I didn’t know the answers, they would just keep asking until I would just say it,” she recalls. “I read the statement (I gave them) later and I didn’t remember any of it.”
She still struggles with memory loss. “I have to pretty much write everything down. Someone will tell me I work at such-and-such a time tomorrow, and 10 minutes later I forget.”
In justifying its decision not to charge Franssen, the SIU said “this incident was truly an accident.” The Star found civilians are often charged with driving offences when the police believe the accident that caused an injury or death was caused by reckless driving.
The SIU director at the time, James Cornish, noted in his decision that the park was dark and should have been vacant.
In an interview with the Star, Durham Police Insp. Bruce Townley defended his officer, saying Franssen was “doing his job” that night, “and then some.”
Hiller is incredulous at the SIU’s decision.
“It doesn’t even make sense. There’s more of a chance a person would be there than a car. They knew there were people there, so why would they drive through a field? The hill is barely a hill. If you’re in a pitch-black field and there’s car lights, you’re going to see them. Why didn’t we see them?”
Cornish, now a senior prosecutor with the Ministry of the Attorney General, declined to comment.
The Hillers sued Franssen and the police force, seeking $1 million in damages. Durham Police counter-sued Hiller, claiming she “knew or ought to have known” her friend Buckley was “in danger of being struck by the police vehicle and failed to warn” him. Last winter, the force settled out of court, paying the Hiller family an undisclosed sum.
“The doctor said if the car had been going any slower, it would have killed us,” Hiller says. “I had to do a neuro-psych test, which showed I had brain damage. After the test, (the police) offered more money. I felt like they didn’t want to go to court because they knew they’d lose.”
Franssen did not face any Police Service Act charges, which would have resulted in an internal disciplinary hearing and the possibility of a suspension if found guilty. Franssen went unpunished. He still works as a police officer for Durham Region.
“What was (Franssen) doing? I feel like nothing happened to him. I feel like I should know more about this guy. I mean, he almost killed me and I don’t even (really) know who he is,” Hiller says.