Was accused drinking with fellow cops before fatal crash?
HE actions of a Winnipeg police officer — and by extension that of his colleagues — are under a judicial microscope following a deadly hit-and-run that is believed to have been fuelled by alcohol.
Justin Holz, an eight-year constable, finished up his shift in the criminal investigations unit at downtown police headquarters around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Less than four hours later, Holz was accused of a criminal act that took the life of a 23-year-old 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,” Winnipeg Police Service 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.”
THolz, 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 Nov. 22. The WPS has suspended him with pay “for now,” but Smyth 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.
The Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba was notified and took control of the case. 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 fatal crash.
He said it’s not unusual for officers to go out with colleagues for drinks once their shifts are done — but finding out who else may have been with Holz and what they observed will be critical.
Known as “shifters,” there have been a handful of controversial cases in Winnipeg over the years where police were accused of turning a blind eye to the drinking habits of colleagues who later found themselves in trouble with the law. The most notorious occurred in 2005, when Crystal Taman was killed after her car was struck by a vehicle driven by off-duty cop Derek Harvey-Zenk. The mishandling of that case by East St. Paul police, laid bare in a scathing public inquiry, led to the creation of the IIU.
“I think that would be a prudent course of action,” Smyth said Wednesday of getting detailed statements from any potential witnesses. “I don’t know the details of this officer’s conduct after he got off-duty. People go out for drinks after work. That’s not an uncommon thing.
“I don’t know the details, but I’m sure that will come out as part of the investigation.”
Cody Severight, 23, was struck around 8 p.m. Tuesday, 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 said he witnessed the tragedy and told the Free Press it appeared the vehicle involved was speeding.
“I was coming down Jarvis (Avenue) and turning left on Main Street, heading south to the Sutherland Hotel, 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. 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.
Smyth said Holz did agree to a breathalyzer following his arrest, but Smyth couldn’t speak to the readings.
It’s worth noting Holz is not currently charged with driving with a blood-alcohol level above .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.”
Smyth said additional charges could be laid or upgraded as the IIU investigation continues. He 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 Winnipeg police officer driving his own vehicle on Portage Avenue near Langside Street struck a 46-year-old pedestrian at about 9:20 a.m. Tuesday.
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.
Severight’s brother, David Hunter, was angered the officer was released from custody.
“I think that’s bullshit,” Hunter said. “I’m really pissed off. He shouldn’t be out. Whether it’s his first charge or not. He killed someone.
“What if he had stayed and helped him (the victim) until the ambulance came?”
One witness said Severight “flew 15 feet” from the impact of the car, which never stopped. “He (the driver) took off,” Donnie Fizell added. “He fled. He nailed him (the victim) and just kept going.”
According to several of Severight’s friends, the young man, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, was a fixture of the New West Hotel, just across the street from the Sutherland.
“He was my sidekick,” said Diane Hatch, who said she’s known Severight for the past two years. “He was everyone’s sidekick. Everyone has their troubles, all of us. But he was a good kid. One of the best ones.
“He knew how to comfort people when they were down. He could make you smile.”
Severight was taken into Child and Family Services at age nine and had a “regular teenage life,” said his uncle, Paul Lebold. He was raised by foster mother Karen Beaudin until the age of 21.
Beaudin said Severight was a “bit of a joker” who was “very giving.”
Severight never graduated high school, but had attempted to get his adult education in subsequent years. In fact, Beaudin said Severight was at her home for Thanksgiving dinner Monday, talking about another attempt to get a high school diploma.
“He was trying,” Beaudin said. “He was making changes in his life. He was pretty happy. He had his issues, but he was trying to work through them.”
Severight was not a stranger to tragedy. His mother, Julia Hunter, died in 2012 at age 41. She was found dead in a stairwell. Although no charges were laid in connection with Hunter’s death, she is listed among Manitoba’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. So is her sister, Jennifer, who died in the early 1990s, after being found dead in a Winnipeg hotel room.
Gloria Lebold, the mother of Jennifer and Julia and grandmother of Cody, said the loss seems “never ending.”
“I don’t know how I’ve lived so far,” she said.
Leslie Spillett, executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, who performed the pipe ceremony, said Severight’s death “is just a tragedy — again — especially for this family that’s lost so many.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand the tragedies communities live with,” Spillett added. “I don’t even know if it’s understandable. It seems like families are forever grieving.”
Meanwhile, Beaudin said she was still in shock, given that Severight was only in her home eating turkey and talking optimistically about the future the day before the accident. “You get that I-can’t-believe-it feeling,” she said.
“It’s sad that it happened in that way,” Beaudin added. “With a police officer, with alcohol involved. I try not to get too angry and upset about things. You hear a lot of rumours. I just hope justice is done in the right way. Hopefully, the courts will do what’s right.”
Police investigate a fatal crash on Main Street at Sutherland Avenue Tuesday night. Cody Severight (below) was killed and Const. Justin Holz has been charged in his death.
Gloria Lebold is comforted at a vigil Wednesday afternoon for her grandson, Cody Severight, outside the Sutherland Hotel where a hit-and-run killed the 23-year-old man.
A shoe is seen amid police evidence markers at the scene of the fatal crash on Main Street Wednesday morning.
Police tape remains at the Main Street vigil.