‘These lives were precious’: Toronto van attacker sentenced to life in prison

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TORONTO - Grief, anger and a sense of profound loss filled a Toronto courtroom Monday as a mass murderer responsible for the deadliest attack in the city's history was sentenced to life behind bars.

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TORONTO – Grief, anger and a sense of profound loss filled a Toronto courtroom Monday as a mass murderer responsible for the deadliest attack in the city’s history was sentenced to life behind bars.

The sentence handed to Alek Minassian – which limited his parole ineligibility to 25 years due to a recent Supreme Court decision – marked an end to a lengthy legal process that began in April 2018 after he deliberately drove a rented van down a busy sidewalk, leaving 10 people dead. Another woman died more than three years later from injuries suffered that day.

“We all wanted him to not be eligible for parole for much, much longer but … I’m happy that we have him behind bars,” Omar Najjar, the son of one of those killed in the attack, said outside court after the sentence was handed down.

A woman stops to pay her respect at a makeshift memorial to one of the victims being remembered on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Victims and families of Toronto's deadly van attack are set to give statements in court today.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Monday was a day for victims and their families as court heard dozens of impact statements from those deeply affected by the attack. It was the first opportunity they had to face the killer in person after his judge-alone trial and verdict occurred over videoconference during the pandemic.

Carmela D’Amico, the mother of Anne Marie D’Amico who was killed in the attack, cried for a full minute before composing herself and unleashing a tirade against her daughter’s killer.

“You took my beautiful baby girl away from me” she said. “She was at the prime of her life, completely healthy and vibrant.”

Haneen Najjar, whose father died in the attack, said she worried something would happen to her parents in Jordan when she immigrated to Canada in 2017 with her brother.

“Little did I know that this fear will materialize here in Toronto, thousands of miles away from their home and in such a horrific and devastating way,” she said.

Munir Najjar, 85, died that day. He was in town with his wife to visit their children and grandchildren. His daughter said her 15-year-old son discovered his grandfather died after recognizing a lone shoe in the street near a covered body.

“Can anyone imagine the impact of such a disaster on a child?” she said through tears.

Fifteen others were injured in the rampage that sent shock waves across the country.

The judge sentenced the killer to 20 years for 15 counts of attempted murder related to those injuries, with that term to be served concurrently.

Justice Anne Molloy, who presided over the case, said while the recent Supreme Court ruling prevents consecutive sentencing for multiple murders, the victim impact statements delivered in the case earlier Monday were still important.

“Every single one of these lives were precious,” Molloy said, choking up, as she delivered her sentence.

“What you said counts, it matters, it matters to me and it will matter to other people who will have to make decisions in the future.”

A nine-year-old boy submitted a drawing, without words, as his victim impact statement. Diyon lost his mother, Renuka Amarasinghe, in the tragedy. The sketch, in coloured pencil on lined paper of the sun shining down on the boy and his mother, moved the court to tears.

“It’s lovely,” said Molloy, who wiped away a few tears as she looked at the image.

Eight women and two men died on April 23, 2018, when the killer, bent on infamy, angered by women who wouldn’t sleep with him and radicalized in the bowels of the internet, deliberately drove a rented van down a busy sidewalk.

Molloy found Minassian guilty last year of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

On Monday, Molloy sentenced the killer to life for the attempted murder of Amaresh Tesfamariam, who was paralyzed in the attack. She lived for more than three years in two hospitals, her heart stopping many times, but eventually died last October as a direct results of her injuries.

By that point, the judge had already convicted Minassian on the attempted murder count.

“In reality, this is a murder,” Molloy said. “You killed this woman the same way you killed the other 10 people and I am imposing a life sentence.”

Tesfamariam’s niece, Luwam Ogbaselassie, described her aunt’s life after the attack. She was paralyzed from the neck down, needed a ventilator to breathe and had to learn how to talk through it after every time her heart stopped beating.

“Amaresh’s murder was an excruciatingly painful and traumatizing death drawn out over 3.5 years,” Ogbaselassie said.

The killer remained quiet throughout his sentencing hearing, sitting in an ill-fitting grey suit and staring much of the time at the floor.

Robert Forsyth told the court about his aunt, Betty Forsyth, who he called a “walking library” of family information.

“Her presence and many untold stories are lost forever,” he said, his voice catching, as he stared at Minassian.

Robert Anderson described his own debilitating injuries. He spent four weeks in the ICU with a brain hemorrhage, a lacerated liver that needed surgery and a sliced spleen that needed to be removed.

“I carry on with my normal daily activities but no longer do my cycling due to dizziness,” he wrote. “My short-term memory continues to suffer from the head injuries.”

Jun Seok Park, who now lives with permanent brain damage, hearing loss and vision problems, can’t work because of her injuries.

“I have to worry about having a seizure and stroke every day until I die,” she wrote.

On top of that, she said her family has since disavowed her after coming from Korea to Canada to help her for 19 months.

“They broke relationship with me and don’t have contact with me anymore because they think I am the thing that ruined their life financially,” Park wrote.

Ra So recalled walking with her friend, So He Chung, to the library on the day of the attack instead of taking transit due to the unseasonably warm weather.

She and her friend were hit by the van. She looked around and saw bodies and blood everywhere but her friend, who was unconscious, was not bleeding.

Days later, So was brought into a room with a social worker, her parents and friends to tell her that Chung had died.

“I remember crying and screaming out my denial after her death,” she wrote.

Cathy Riddell, who recently graduated toa canefrom a walker after years of rehabilitation, stood by as her niece read her statement – she has lifelong vision issues that making reading difficult.

“A total stranger out for a walk on a beautiful day – how dare you,” her niece said, her voice rising with Riddell’s hand on her shoulder.

“Who gave you the right to randomly take lives or seriously injure others just because your life wasn’t working out for you the way you wanted?”

Betty Forsyth, Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Geraldine Brady, Chul Min Kang, Anne Marie D’Amico, Munir Najjar, Dorothy Sewell, Andrea Bradden, Renuka Amarasingha and Amaresh Tesfamariam died as a result of attack.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.

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