It was an emotional day in Port Coquitlam Provincial Court Monday, as the woman who was charged following a wrong-way driving spree through Surrey and Coquitlam along Highway 1 in August 2017 stood to take responsibility for her actions.
Stacey Nahachewski pleaded guilty to dangerous driving in connection with an incident Judge Deirdre Pothecary described as “a nightmare” for all involved.
“You’re not the worst offender,” Pothecary told Nahachewski just prior to imposing sentence, “but for a summary-conviction offense, your facts are about the worst.”
Nahachewski – who was often tearful during Monday’s proceedings – was arrested Aug. 10, 2017, after police responded to multiple reports of a driver travelling west in the eastbound lanes of Highway 1.
The court heard that over the course of about 11 minutes, Nahachewski drove towards oncoming traffic for 13 kilometres, swerving in and out of the HOV lane and causing multiple drivers – including a couple travelling home to South Surrey via the Port Mann Bridge – to take aggressive evasive action to avoid a head-on collision.
One of those drivers struck a concrete median and another vehicle in the process; another vehicle, driven by South Surrey resident Peter Tilbury, came to rest facing westbound, a mere two inches from the concrete barrier.
“I drive this car for fun,” Tilbury told Pothecary of the 1956 MGA he and his wife, Anne, were in on the evening in question. “Since this incident, I’m fearful. I have moments of high concern and anxiety. I also lay awake at night thinking of what could have happened.”
Anne Tilbury became emotional sharing her victim-impact statement with the court.
“This driver could have killed us both and left my son and grandson without any parents or grandparents,” she said.
Monday had been scheduled as the first day of a four-day trial. However, Crown counsel Sonja Lindstrom told the court she and defence counsel Marilyn Sandford engaged in extensive consultation to come up with a joint submission for sentence. They proposed a six-month conditional sentence order, followed by 12 months’ probation, as well as a two-year driving prohibition.
Pothecary ultimately agreed the submission was “reasonable.”
Mitigating factors included that no one was killed – a fact Pothecary said was not typical in such situations.
“You’re not the first person to drive the wrong way on the freeway. Usually, the result is death.”
The court heard that while many drivers had to “take immediate action to avoid devastating” consequences, Nahachewski’s vehicle never actually collided with any others on the road. The terrifying incident came to an end after police executed a “controlled collision” to stop Nahachewski’s vehicle, as it posed “far less” risk to the public than allowing her to continue.
Nahachewski was “extremely frantic, flailing around, screaming” – but co-operative – when police took her into custody, Lindstrom said. In hospital, she was found to have a low level of cocaine in her system.
Sandford – who began and ended her submissions by extending apologies from an “extremely remorseful” Nahachewski for the “incredibly frightening event” – told the court that her client, now 48, began a downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse about three years prior to the incident.
Stressors – including at work, her common-law relationship and the death of her mother – “led her to go down a path that was new for her,” Sandford said.
While Nahachewski denied for some time that she had a problem, since shortly after the incident – after her family staged an intervention – she has undergone extensive treatment, including time at residential treatment facilities, working with a psychologist and attending regular drug and alcohol recovery meetings, Sandford said.
She said on the day of the erratic driving, Nahachewski had got behind the wheel to drive from her home, which was in Surrey at the time, to another Surrey home, but found herself instead at the Tsawassen ferry terminal – twice.
Confused and panic-stricken, “the next thing she knew, she was on the highway,” Sandford said.
When police and paramedics questioned her at the scene, Nahachewski thought she was still in Surrey and couldn’t spell her own name, Sandford said.
She’s been sober since Aug. 25, 2017, Sandford added.
Nahachewski declined when offered an opportunity to speak in court.
In giving her reasons for sentence, Pothecary told the now-Langley resident that “every part of your driving could’ve killed somebody.”
Pothecary said she accepted that “things were very, very far from being normal” for Nahachewski at the time – support letters indicated the behaviour was “wildly out of character” – and that she appreciated the efforts made so far towards rehabilitation.
Nahachewski became emotional when Pothecary, noting the mother of one had hidden her struggles from family and friends, told her to trust those who cared for her to help.
“Talk to them first, before the trouble starts. Trust them,” she said. “If and whenever things start going sideways in any way, this support network you’ve discovered you have – use it.”
Outside court, the Tilburys told Peace Arch News they were surprised by some of the details shared in the courtroom, in particular that Nahachewski had twice ended up at the ferry terminal that day.
“Everybody was just very lucky that day,” Peter Tilbury said. “Everybody was having to avoid her. It was complete chaos.”
The husband and wife said they both still struggle in particular with the drive over the Port Mann.
“We didn’t see her till the very last minute,” Peter Tilbury said. “It would’ve been fatal, absolutely fatal.”
According to court records, Nahachewski first appeared on charges of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, care or control vehicle or vessel while impaired and flight from peace officer on Jan. 31, 2018.
A stay of proceedings was issued on the two outstanding charges.