As the people around her broke down in tears, some sobbing so loud that they had to run out of the auditorium-turned-makeshift-courtroom, April Baker largely maintained her composure.
Wearing a hoodie and t-shirt that once belonged to her oldest son, Raine Silas, Baker sat quietly through the first day of the sentencing hearing for the man who killed him almost two years ago, an eagle feather tightly clutched in one hand.
“It’s for strength,” she said in an interview Aug. 22, after court had ended for the day.
“I want to be strong enough to hold myself when I read out my victim impact statement and strong enough to see Tristan.”
“Tristan” is Tristan Joe, the Pelly Crossing man who, earlier this year, pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing Silas in November 2016 by hitting him in the head with a 2×4 piece of lumber during a fight.
The incident has divided the small community, Baker said, something that was visible in the seating choices of the roughly 50 people that showed up to watch the proceedings Wednesday: family and friends of Silas’s largely sat on the right side of the room, while Joe’s relatives, far fewer in number, sat on the left.
According to an agreed statement of facts, which Crown attorney Ludovic Gouaillier read aloud in court before Silas’s family and friends began reading their victim impact statements, Joe has no memory of the incident but accepts that his actions lead to Silas’s death.
Silas died a few hours after being hit by Joe. An aunt had taken him to a medical centre immediately after the hit, where he received stitches, and she dropped him off at his grandparents’ house, where relatives periodically checked on him as he slept.
A relative found him unresponsive the morning on Nov. 4, 2016. He was pronounced dead at 12:17 p.m.
Baker said she was at F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, waiting to pick up another one of her sons for lunch, when she got the news.
“I just screamed and I almost collapsed,” she recalled, adding that everything after that was “all blurry.”
That Silas was only 18 years old when he died, and that he died violently, made his death all the more difficult to comprehend, family member after family member told the court in their victim impact statements.
“Losing my brother has crippled my heart in so many ways,” Keisha Baker said through tears, describing Silas as not just her brother, but her best friend and protector too.
“The day I found out he died, a piece of myself died with him … Something will always be missing. When I have the happiest moment, I still feel sad because Raine isn’t there to see it.”
Over and over again, family and friends of Silas described him as a “protector,” a young man with an imposing stature who would not tolerate violence of any kind towards women and who would help out anyone he thought was in trouble. He was also a talented rapper and a member of both the Selkirk Spirit Dancers and Tagish Nation Dancers, a young man who loved snowboarding, snowmobiling, working on cars and being at fish camp.
He was known for his appetite, and for going house-to-house and peeking into fridges.
“It’s hard that my last memory of him is seeing the ambulance crew trying to revive him… The hardest thing is knowing that he’s not going to be there for Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays,” his stepmother, Gina Gil, told told the court. Gil said that they were close, and whenever Silas visited Pelly Crossing — he had grown up there, but moved to Whitehorse with his mother when he was four years old — he would always come by her house to visit her and her daughters and chat.
“My happy, sweet girls, they (aren’t) so happy anymore,” Gil said. “… I love you Raine. I just want to see justice for Raine.”
Twenty-two individual victim impact statements were submitted to the court in total. A “substantial” portion of Joe’s two-day sentencing hearing would be set aside so that the majority of them could be heard, Gouaillier told the court, something he described as an “unusual” situation.
Nine of them were read on the first day, along with a community impact statement.
“I’m really surprised that there was only 22 … victim impact statements,” April Baker told the News afterwards. “I thought there was going to be like a hundred or something… He has a very big family and he has lots, lots of friends, and they all messaged me on (Facebook) Messenger and telling me stories about Raine and how he impacted their life and how this incident impacted their life.”
April Baker said that at this point, she’s not in a position to forgive Joe for taking away her firstborn son and best friend. She hasn’t listened to an apology Joe recorded for Silas’s family, and she said she can hardly stand to be in the same room as him.
It’s especially hard, April Baker said, because Joe’s family was there too.
“My sister started crying behind me (in court) and I looked behind and I was wondering what she’s crying for, and she said, ‘It’s just really hard seeing Tristan’s family hug him up and talk to him and laughing. I wish I could give Raine a hug and laugh with him,’” she said. “He took that away from us… (Joe’s) lucky he gets to hug his family.”
But perhaps the hardest part, she said, was that everyone thought that Silas, after the hit, was going to be okay.
“He got a lot of scars and broken bones but he was always okay at the end,” she said. “And he was very wild, like, an extremist, like, dirt biking to fish camp and I would be like, ‘Oh my God!,’ following him with the car and he would just be taking jumps in the ditches and freaking me out. But every accident he got into, he was always okay… We honest to God thought he was going to be okay.”
Joe’s hearing continued Aug. 23, with 10 more victim impact statements read to the court and the Crown and defence presenting their sentencing submissions.
Gouaillier asked that Joe receive six to eight years in custody, while Joe’s defence attorney, Jennifer Cunningham, said three and a half years of custody followed by three years of probation was appropriate.
Judge Peter Chisholm reserved his decision.
Contact Jackie Hong at email@example.com