Part one of a series on how the tragic death of four-year-old Alexa Middelaer changed the culture of drinking and driving in B.C. Read part two.
Three people a week.
Moms, dads, kids.
Killed by drunk drivers in B.C. in the mid-2000s, with no sign of it ever changing.
Retired RCMP Insp. Ted Emanuels says it matter of factly, sitting in the Langley office of the province’s traffic division.
Trying to prosecute those drivers under the province’s outdated criminal system was one of his biggest challenges, the biggest frustrations of his career at that time.
“It took a police officer 40 hours to get through one criminal impaired-driving charge,” Emanuels says. Without that, there was no way to get a driver off the road for any longer than a day.
And there were so, so many drunk drivers.
“It was a societal norm. It was so normal to drink and drive that even police officers drank and drove,” Emanuels says. “People thought, if you drank and drove and never killed anybody, where was the victim? If you got away with it, what was the harm?”
Then came the tragic death of a little girl.
|Laurel Middelaer holds a photo of her daughter Alexa.(Katya Slepian/Black Press)|
Laurel Middelaer takes a deep breath, 10 years later, as she begins to once again tell the story of how her daughter was killed.
“It really was a perfect day with Alexa,” Middelaer says.
The words tumble out of her mouth almost mechanically as Middelaer sits calmly on the patio of her South Surrey home.
It was May 17, 2008, the first day of the Victoria Day long weekend. It was a beautiful spring morning in Ladner. She and Alexa had gone swimming in the family’s pool.
The little girl had wanted to show off her favourite horse to her aunt Daphne, an equestrian herself, and her beloved grandparents, who had just arrived from Alberta.
“She loved this horse that was just about 200 metres away from where we lived. It was a very gentle horse and it would just let Alexa hang on its neck,” Middelaer says.
“[Alexa] said they should all go to the tack shop and get special horse cookies. Alexa had a little purple basket that she wanted to take and put the horse cookies in.”
So, Alexa, her grandparents and her aunt headed to the tack store, got some horse cookies and happily went off to spoil the horse.
Middelaer pauses, her voice fading as she recalls what happened next.
She was at home with her son, Christian, then seven, when she heard loud sirens and saw a helicopter overhead.
“I said, ‘Let’s get on our bikes and see what’s going on, because there’s something really, really horrific that’s happened.’”
|The scene of the Ladner crash that took Alexa Middelaer’s life in 2008. (Black Press Media files)|
The pair didn’t make it out the door before they got the call.
The police officer had barely told her there had been a terrible crash before she knew.
“It’s Alexa and I know she’s dead,” Middelaer told her husband, with the police officer still on the phone.
The family rushed to the scene, Middelaer’s instinct driving her to look for a girl with a head of wild white-blonde curls and that little purple basket.
She found her, a little body surrounded by first responders and a jumble of smashed-up fence, severely injured.
“I couldn’t hold her, but I could touch her ankle.”
Alexa was rushed away to BC Children’s Hospital in critical condition. She died shortly after.
Because the family had lived so close, they had arrived at the crash site before it could be cleaned up.
It was a hard one to see, but watching the first responders do everything in their power to keep Alexa alive has left no uncertainty, no “what ifs” for Middelaer to agonize over.
“I don’t like to relive the scene in my mind, but I don’t have any unanswered questions.”
As the days and hours went by, details emerged about what had happened.
Just as Alexa had been getting ready to feed her favourite horse, Carol Berner, then 58, had been having a few glasses of wine at her Ladner home.
As Alexa was petting the horse, Berner got into her car and started driving.
Her red car hit a speed bump before careening into the four-year-old girl and her family, just as Alexa was feeding the horse.
Two year later, Berner was convicted on two counts of dangerous driving causing death and bodily harm and two counts of impaired driving causing death and bodily harm. She served 18 months behind bars.
|Carole Berner served 18 months for the crash that killed four-year-old Alexa Middelaer. (Black Press Media files)|
The driver’s fate isn’t important to Middelaer.
The autumn after the crash, she met with Emanuels, who was at the time in charge of the police’s Lower Mainland traffic division, and other traffic police.
Emanuels asked the family if they would make their daughter the face of a new campaign to crack down on drunk drivers.
All but numb from pain, Middelaer resolved to make her daughter’s death count.
“We felt like if we could channel it into an area that could bring change, that it would be a viable thing to do.”
And so Alexa’s Team was born.
What started as a team of just 26 officers in the Lower Mainland, focusing specifically on getting impaired drivers off the road, has grown into a group of more than 2,400 from all corners of the province, from the RCMP and municipal detachments alike.
– An officer is brought onto the team after catching 12 impaired drivers in one year.
It’s represented a complete 180 in the day police treated impaired drivers.
“Policing is a balance of priorities and competing interests and, in the 2000s, we had all the gang killings in the Lower Mainland and the Surrey Six,” says Emanuels.
“You had 15 or 20 people being killed by gangs and there we were throwing all those resources at it.”
– But drunk driving, which at that time killed more than 150 people every year, got only the remnants of police attention.
Middelaer has been involved in Alexa’s Team since day one. Every year, she tells the story of Alexa’s death during an initiation ceremony for new members.
“It’s been hard. I relive the May long weekend every year,” she says.
Each officer gets an Alexa’s Team ball cap, a certificate and a handwritten note from Middelaer, explaining how much their service means to the family.
|Laurel Middelaer welcomes a police officer to Alexa’s Team. (Black Press Media files)|
Both Emanuels and Middelaer think that little bit of recognition – which cost the RCMP $20 per officer and an afternoon off work – has made all the difference.
“This team went back to their units and they put their ball caps up in their work stations, they put their certificates up on the wall. We’ve got members that carry that note with Alexa’s picture with them every day when they go to work,” says Emanuels.
“It compelled people because they want that little bit of recognition, they wanted to be part of that team.”
In the decade following Alexa’s death, the number of people killed by drunk drivers across B.C. has been cut in half.
Emanuels attributes that to Alexa’s Team, as well as the pressure Alexa’s death put on the province.
In 2010, B.C. brought in immediate roadside prohibitions. Any driver caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 per cent now faces an immediate, 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine, with a 0.05 per cent blood alcohol level netting a shorter driving ban and smaller fine.
Before 2010, police could only slap drunk drivers with 24-hour driving bans.
Repeat offenders now get an ignition interlock device, which tests a driver’s breath for alcohol every time they turn the key in the ignition, as well as a rehabilitation course.
Between 2010 and 2016, the last year for which figures are available, the province estimates that 351 lives have been saved by pulling impaired drivers off the road.
And, since 2010, officers have handed out more than 86,000 impaired driving sanctions.
But that doesn’t mean that the job is done. Many people out there are still driving drunk.
“With all the gains we’ve had, the education, the public awareness… they’re still picking up lots of impaired drivers,” Emanuels says.
But for the Middelaers, it’s time to take a step back as Alexa’s Team wraps up its 10th year.
“For us as a family, this marks a natural closing point,” Middelaer says.
The constant onslaught of attention has taken its toll.
|Laurel Middelaer, here with her husband Michael, struggles to hold back tears during an Alexa’s Team ceremony. (Black Press Media files)|
Middelaer, who was a principal at a South Surrey private school, was used to speaking publicly at her job, but speaking about her daughter’s death, and being judged for it, has been hard.
The Delta police spokesperson at the time of the crash pulled her aside and prepared her for the media onslaught, but nothing prepared her for the cutting remarks from the public.
Online comments – often anonymous – have suggested using the tragedy for self promotion, rather than an attempt to raise awareness for the greater issue.
“I didn’t account for the invasiveness and judgment that people have of us,” she said
It’s only gotten more difficult as the years have gone on. In the wake of the crash, the Middelaers focused on their son – who “lost his best friend” on his birthday weekend – making sure that he had all the help he needed.
They even sought outside help, in hopes he could share with others what he couldn’t tell his parents.
“We were too broken ourselves,” Middelaer recalls.
But every life saved helps Middelaer cope and makes the family feel like they’ve had an impact. The memory of that fiery little girl lives on through a team of police officers who embody her spirit.
“Alexa was a really feisty, strong, driven, spunky little girl, but she was really loving,” says Middelaer.
“I think the [team of] police officers, that’s a nice match for her. She had a beautiful innocence but also a real fire.”