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Fiancé of fatal hit and run victim in disbelief over lack of charges

The fiancé of a Grande Prairie man killed in a hit and run in October says she’s still trying to process the news that no charges will be laid against the driver. Ciara VanHullebush was in the vehicle with 40-year-old Chris Browning during what she describes as a road rage incident on October 13, 2022.

VanHullebush says Browning had just returned to Grande Prairie from working a 10-day shift in Rainbow Lake, a small town west of High Level, and the two of them were headed to a Thanksgiving dinner with their one-year-old son and VanHullebush’s 12-year-old son. She says Browning was driving their vehicle and had signaled to switch lanes into a right turn lane for Resources Road but the driver behind them was going faster and edged them out, reportedly giving them the finger as he drove past them.

When he drove up beside the other driver on Resources Road, she says he rolled down his window and motioned for him to pull over, asking him what his problem was. Browning turned onto 76 Avenue and parked, something VanHullebush says she pleaded for him not to do. With a population of just over 600, she points to the quietness of Rainbow Lake as a possible factor as to why the exchange bothered her fiancé.

“That probably played into why that was hard for Chris to deal with right as he got back into town… Chris wasn’t a violent person; I’ve never even seen him get into a fight before. He just wanted to know what this guy’s problem was and Chris was so protective of his family that I think having his family in the car really upset him.”

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VanHullebush says he got out of the vehicle as the other driver was turning to meet them, then walked onto the road, putting his hands up as a motion to stop. She alleges the driver slowed down as he approached him and then hit the gas, pushing Browning onto the hood. She says he then drove about half of a block with Browning on the hood before turning the steering wheel and hitting the brakes, sending him flying onto the ground where he hit his head, before driving off.

“When I got to Chris he was doing this breathing that I can only describe as a death rattle; it was nothing I’d ever heard before… I applied pressure to his head where it was bleeding and just kept yelling at him to stay with us and all the things he had to live for.”

It was later learned that Browning suffered multiple skull fractures and critical brain damage. He was taken by paramedics to the local hospital and was later flown by STARS Air Ambulance to the University of Alberta Hospital, where he would die with VanHullebush by his side nearly a month later on November 10th.

The Grande Prairie RCMP put out a press release on October 14th, saying police were looking for witnesses to a hit and run. It was reported that the red SUV involved fled the scene but was later found, without mention of a suspect. It wasn’t until December 9th, after inquiries from MyGrandePrairieNow.com, that an update was issued saying the victim had succumbed to his injuries and that criminal charges will not be laid.

VanHullebush says that, after Browning’s passing, she was called by the RCMP and told no charges would be laid, and later met with the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service and police. She says the phrase “momentary lapse in judgment” was used, referring to the landmark Supreme Court of Canada judgment R. v. Beatty from 2008. In that case, the court found that the accused had a “momentary lapse of attention” and it did not meet the threshold of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle when their pickup truck crossed the centre line into the path of an oncoming vehicle, killing all three people inside.

“I kept saying, ‘how does this apply to what happened to Chris?'” says VanHullebush. “He was intentionally hit, he was driven down the road, the person fled the scene. He said that because the person that fled the scene came back within a reasonable amount of time that they couldn’t charge for fleeing the scene.”

When VanHullebush was leaving the scene of the incident, she says she noticed police speaking to the other driver who had returned but was surprised to see they weren’t immediately taking him into custody. She also says she has the whole event captured by a dashcam.

The RCMP consulted with the Crown before deciding not to lay charges. In an email to MyGrandePrairieNow.com, the Grande Prairie Crown Prosecutor’s Office notes that, while its advice is confidential, the Crown doesn’t conduct prosecutions unless the evidence establishes a reasonable likelihood of conviction and the matter is in the public interest, and the courts have an even higher standard to meet in that a case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before someone is convicted of a crime.

“These checks and balances mean that it is possible for one standard to be met, but for the case not to proceed at the next more onerous standard. At each stage of this process, decisions are made independently.”

Despite the explanations, VanHullebush says she’s still struggling to come to terms with there being no repercussions for the driver. She and loved ones are now encouraging people who share in their dismay to email, write, or call the local Crown office as well as the RCMP.

“This guy walked away from murdering my husband, because that’s what he did, with not even a ticket. I get a ticket if I go through a yellow light; he didn’t get anything… he’s now driving the same vehicle around town next to every other person in the city with zero consequences for what he’s taken from us.”

Aside from seeing public pressure on the justice system, VanHullebush says her only other hope is that the driver’s passenger will come forward to speak to their intention.

“If he knew that this was going to happen and didn’t say, so then that momentary lapse in judgment could then be disproved… I think that would be my plea, if I could plead anything, is for that passenger to come forth with that the driver did this intentionally.”

“It was hard enough going through all of these injuries with Chris,” she adds, “watching him fight for his life, watching my children’s lives fall apart with sadness and anger, but then to have to put my energy into why isn’t this person behind bars has been exceptionally hard.”

A funeral service was held for Browning on December 3rd with roughly 150 people in attendance. He is remembered as funny, generous, and a lover of photography, collecting guns, and Mustang cars, owning five from 1965 to 2013.

He and VanHullebush met when they were both in grade seven but the timing wasn’t right for them until three years ago. They were set to be married next year, and she says she’ll miss the time and attention he gave their family as a doting father, stepfather, and partner.

“He was the absolute best partner I could have; there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t tell me I was beautiful, that I was doing a good job as a mom.”

Browning was also the family’s sole provider and a civil lawsuit has been filed.

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