A Spruce Grove, Alta., man will be sentenced in mid-September for causing the “senseless” death of a gas station owner.
Mitchell Sydlowski pleaded guilty on Friday morning to manslaughter and failing to remain at the scene of a fatal accident. He appeared before Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Bill Hopkins remotely from the Edmonton Remand Centre.
Sydlowski was originally charged with second-degree murder.
The Crown and defence suggested a sentence in the range of six to eight years.
On Oct. 6, 2017, Ki Yun Jo died after he attempted to stop Sydlowski from stealing $198 worth of gas from the Fas Gas station in Thorsby, Alta., 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.
“This case involves a shocking loss of life for a family over $200 worth of fuel,” Crown prosecutor Vince Pingitore said. “The crime is incomprehensible, senseless and was entirely avoidable.”
According to an agreed statement of facts, Sydlowski stole a cube van from a Spruce Grove flooring business early in the afternoon on the day of Jo’s death.
At 3:30 p.m., he pulled the stolen van into the Thorsby Fas Gas to fill up. Jo was working inside the convenience store at the time. When he realized the driver was going to pull away without paying, Jo ran outside to confront him.
“As the accused drove away with the van, the victim grabbed ahold of the passenger side mirror,” the court document states. “The accused then departed the Fas Gas with the victim clinging onto the passenger side mirror.”
Sydlowski drove two blocks, swerving from right to left. He was aware the 54-year-old convenience store owner was hanging onto the exterior side mirror.
“As a result of this reckless swerving, the victim was dislodged just before a set of train tracks where he fell on the road and was run over by the rear tires of the van,” the agreed statement of facts notes.
Sydlowski kept driving. A number of horrified witnesses, including a retired paramedic, a registered nurse and a firefighter tried to perform first aid but Jo was pronounced dead at the scene.
‘Ruined me, my life, my family, everything’
Jo’s family watched the remote hearing. His daughter wrote a victim impact statement that was read by the Crown.
Ka Yun Jo said her family’s lives were changed forever on the day her father died.
“I couldn’t stop myself visualizing the details of his accident in my head, that my dad’s face and body were crushed by [the] truck wheel that ran over him and make him bleeding and dead,” she wrote.
She said it became even more difficult when, for financial reasons, she began working at the gas station with her mother and brother before they’d had a chance to properly grieve. Her mother became sick and her brother was depressed.
“Every day we had to pass by the road he was lying dead and that was so painful,” she wrote. “So we had decided to sell the business.”
The family ultimately moved away from Thorsby and the painful memories. Ka Yun Jo supported her mother and brother because they were unable to work.
She said she was furious the first time she saw Sydlowski in court.
“He killed my father and ruined me, my life, my family and everything, yet he was still alive standing on the ground with his head up,” she wrote. “His selfish, unconscientious judgment and ignorance … can never be forgiven.”
When he was given a chance to address the court Friday, Sydlowski pulled a letter out of the pocket of his remand centre coveralls.
“Today I am accepting responsibility for the death of Mr. Jo,” Sydlowski read. “I’m so sorry for the pain I caused your family. I did not intend for any of this to happen. From the bottom of my heart, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Sydlowski’s lawyer called Jo’s death senseless.
“Lives have been shattered,” Kent Teskey said. “I hope the guilty plea provides some comfort for the family. They don’t have to prepare and steel themselves for a trial.”
Teskey told the court his 29-year-old client has struggled with substance abuse that peaked in 2016 when a close friend died.
“He is intelligent, he is motivated and if he can remain abstinent, his potential for moving beyond criminal behaviour is high,” Teskey said.
But the prosecutor pointed to Sydlowski’s lengthy criminal record, which includes a pair of other driving-related offences and three violent crimes.
“He lived an anti-social life and is very dangerous,” Pingitore told the judge. “He is likely to reoffend when he is ultimately released from custody.”
The Crown called the crime a near-murder manslaughter and urged the judge to go to the highest range of the proposed sentence with eight years, while the defence suggested six years would be more appropriate.
Mandatory prepay for fuel in Alberta
Eight months after Jo’s death, the Alberta government brought in legislation that requires drivers to prepay before filling up at gas stations.
“This legislation change will not bring back Mr. Jo but he will not have died in vain,” the prosecutor told the judge.
Jo’s daughter echoed that hope in her victim impact statement.
“It will save many retail workers who are in danger like my father was,” she wrote.
Hopkins has reserved his sentencing decision until Sept. 18.