October 23, 2017

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Chief pledges officer charged in fatal crash 'will be held accountable'

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg police have the Main Street northbound lanes closed at Higgins Avenue Wednesday morning after a pedestrian was hit by a car.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg police have the Main Street northbound lanes closed at Higgins Avenue Wednesday morning after a pedestrian was hit by a car.

The actions of a Winnipeg police officer – and by extension that of his colleagues – are under a judicial microscope following a deadly hit-and-run which is believed to have been fuelled by alcohol.

Justin Holz, an eight-year constable, finished up his shift in the criminal investigations unit at police headquarters downtown around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Less than four hours later, Holz was accused of a shocking criminal act that took the life of an innocent man and put his own future in jeopardy.

"I want to send my thoughts and condolences to the victim's family. This is an unexpected tragedy. This officer will be held accountable for his actions," police Chief Danny Smyth said Wednesday afternoon during a news conference. "I want to make it clear that Const. Holz is being investigated criminally for his conduct. He will be treated accordingly regardless of the fact that he's a member of the police service."

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The actions of a Winnipeg police officer – and by extension that of his colleagues – are under a judicial microscope following a deadly hit-and-run which is believed to have been fuelled by alcohol.

Justin Holz, an eight-year constable, finished up his shift in the criminal investigations unit at police headquarters downtown around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Less than four hours later, Holz was accused of a shocking criminal act that took the life of an innocent man and put his own future in jeopardy.

FACEBOOK</p><p>Cody Severight</p>

FACEBOOK

Cody Severight

"I want to send my thoughts and condolences to the victim's family. This is an unexpected tragedy. This officer will be held accountable for his actions," police Chief Danny Smyth said Wednesday afternoon during a news conference. "I want to make it clear that Const. Holz is being investigated criminally for his conduct. He will be treated accordingly regardless of the fact that he's a member of the police service."

Holz, 34, is charged with impaired driving causing death and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. He wasn't detained in custody, instead given a promise to appear in court on Nov. 22. Smyth has suspended him with pay "for now" but said that could change as an ongoing review of his conduct continues.

"I'm very disappointed. My heart goes out to the family. We're paid as police officers. I expect better decision making," said Smyth, adding he's open to sitting down with the victim's family in the future to speak more about what occurred.

The Independent Investigations Unit was notified and took control of the investigation. As this matter involves a fatality, the IIU has requested the Manitoba Police Commission appoint a civilian monitor, as required under legislation.

Smyth said one of the main issues the IIU will focus on is what happened in that brief window between the end of Holz's shift and the tragic crash. He said it's not unusual for officers to go out with colleagues for drinks once their shifts are done – and that finding out who else may have been with Holz and what they observed will be critical.

For example, were any other officers in a position to stop him from getting behind the wheel? Known as "shifters," there have been a handful of controversial cases in Winnipeg over the years where officers were accused of turning a blind eye to the drinking habits of colleagues who later found themselves in trouble with the law.

"I think that would be a prudent course of action," Smyth said Wednesday of getting full, detailed stories from all potential officers. "I don't know the details of this officer's conduct after he got off-duty. People go out for drinks after work. Thats not an uncommon thing. I don't know the details but I'm sure that will come out as part of the investigation."

GRAEME BRUCE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS /GOOGLE MAPS

The 23-year-old victim, Cody Severight, was struck around 8 p.m. while walking in the area of Main Street and Sutherland Avenue near the Sutherland Hotel. Paramedics worked on him at the scene and rushed him to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Donnie Fizell witnessed the tragedy and told the Free Press it appeared the vehicle was speeding.

<p>Donnie Fizell was a witness to the collision.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Donnie Fizell was a witness to the collision.

"I was coming down Jarvis (Avenue) and turning left on Main Street, heading south to the Sutherland Hotel (to buy beer), and I seen the car hit and he just flew," Fizell said, referring to the victim. "He flew right over the hood of the front of car and landed on his head. He must have gone up in the air a good 15 feet."

Fizell said the car "was going beyond the speed limit. He was out of control." Neither did the car stop or slow down after making impact with the young man, he said. Fizell said the victim had been crossing Main right in front of the Sutherland Hotel. "He was jaywalking, he was walking pretty fast," said Fizell. "Perhaps (the driver) didn't see him because he had dark clothes on."

Holz was arrested in the area of Main Street and Red River Boulevard around 8:30 p.m. A source told the Free Press he turned himself in with a phone call. He was in his own private vehicle, but Smyth didn't know the make or model.

Smyth said Holz did agree to a breathalyser test following his arrest, but Smyth couldn't speak to the readings. It's worth noting he's not currently charged with drive over .08, which typically occurs in cases where police get readings. The impaired charge that's been laid doesn't require a reading to be proven in court.

"There were breath tests administered. The charge that resulted was impaired driving cause death," said Smyth, adding the IIU "selects the charges."

GRAEME BRUCE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS /GOOGLE MAPS

Smyth said additional charges could be laid or upgraded as the IIU investigation continues. He also defended the police decision not to detain Holz in custody, saying "it's not unusual for someone charged with this kind of offence to be released with a promise to appear."

There are numerous examples where citizens charged in this type of case are held behind bars and either the Crown agrees to bail, or a contested hearing is held. However, those often involve people with previous criminal records. 

Meanwhile, the IIU is also investigating another incident in which another off-duty police officer driving his own vehicle struck a 46-year-old pedestrian at about 9:20 a.m. Tuesday on Portage Avenue near Langside Street.

The victim was taken to Health Sciences Centre with serious injuries and is listed in unstable condition. The IIU is mandated to investigate the collision due to the severity of the injuries. 

"Of course I'm concerned with both of them. But they're very different incidents. Traffic collisions happen every day. It doesn't appear anything untoward happened (in the first one)," Smyth said Wednesday.

The IIU is asking witnesses and other individuals who have information or video footage in either of the collisions to contact the agency toll-free at 1-844-667-6060.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Bill Redekop and Mike McIntyre.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 11:49 PM CDT: fixes typo in headline

11:51 PM: fixes photo caption

12:02 AM: Adds new photos

October 11, 2017 at 7:23 AM: Adds victim's name

9:18 AM: Updates with writethrough, adds photos

12:15 PM: Update

5:58 PM: Full write through

6:12 PM: adds police chief video from press conference

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