Hamilton Township Man Sentenced to Six Years in Prison for “Avoidable Tragedy”

In Crime, Editor Choice, Local, Police Blotter

(various photos of Neil Henley supplied by family)


A Hamilton Township man was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to his role in a collision that killed 19-year-old Neil Henley and seriously injured several others.

Hunter Smith was 18-years-old at the time of the collision on August 6, 2021 in Otonabee-South Monaghan Township.

On October 20, 2022, Smith plead guilty to:

· while operating a conveyance caused the death of Neil Henley

· while operating a conveyance caused bodily hart to Jack Carlson

· while operating a conveyance caused bodily harm

· failed to stop for police

and while operating a conveyance caused bodily harm to Matthew Couch.

In her victim impact statement read in front of a packed courtroom in Peterborough, Henley’s mother Christina Croke-Henley described how she lost her only child that night.

“It has been 543 days since our sweet boy was taken. 543 days since our lives had any purpose.

Calling Neil, her “rainbow baby,” she described her son as a “gift, a blessing in our home, a bright light full of fun, love and laughter.”

Since the tragedy Neil’s parents have lost their, “past, present and future.”

(All the victim impact statement received are below the story in their full context)

During submissions, Crown Attorney David Parke brought up several cases that involved drinking and driving causing death for his submissions.

“Every single offender in a drinking and driving case is remorseful.”

“No one takes to the road after drinking with the thought that someone maybe killed. The sentences should be such, as to make it very much less attractive for the drinker to get behind the wheel,” Parke said in his submissions reading from previous cases.

“It’s trite to say, every drinking driver is a potential killer.”

“Law enforcement can only catch a fraction of the drivers.”

Parke said the aggravating factors were obvious.

“We’ve lost a very young man, many others injured To say this literally ripped apart a group of friends is exactly what has happened.”

In an agreed statement of fact read on October 20, 2022, court heard Smith was driving Henley’s vehicle with a group of friends from the Cobourg/Port Hope area southbound at approximately 162 kph (in a 80 kph zone) on County Road 28 at the intersection of Ward Street in Fraserville.

Some of the friends were at the casino in Peterborough and were returning home.

A Peterborough Police Officer was conducting speed enforcement at County Road 28 at Kawartha Downs when the vehicle Smith was driving went by.

The officer pulled out, activated his emergency lighting and began to pursue Smith, but Smith sped up and was pulling away from the officer.

Smith attempted to pass a vehicle that had slowed to make a left hand turn. As the vehicle turned left, Smith’s vehicle struck it’s front passenger side.

Smith’s vehicle came to rest 64-metres south of the collision in the east ditch.

Smith was driving, Henley was in the passenger seat, Jack Carlson, Matthew Couch and a female were in the rear seats.

Henley (age 19) was killed as a result of the collision. The female was taken to Sick Kids in Toronto and treated for fractured ribs, collapsed left lung, fractures to her spine and pelvis and facial lacerations. She was intubated for a number of days due to fluid in her lungs.

Carlson stopped breathing at the scene and was revived after a police officer and witness performed CPR.

He was taken to Sunnybrook Hospital in a coma in critical condition. Carlson’s injuries included fractures ribs, a broken clavicle, lacerations to his kidney and liver, trauma to his aorta, both hips dislocated, a broken femur and multiple facial lacerations.

Couch was taken to Peterborough hospital. His injuries included a separated right shoulder and a concussion.

Smith was taken to Peterborough Hospital where his injuries including a broken left leg, requiring multiple surgeries and a laceration to his right and left arm.

On Tuesday, January 31, 2023, Courtroom number three in Peterborough was packed with family and friends of the victim and some family members of Smith.

There were eight victim impact statements submitted to the court and one video impact statement.

All the victim impact statement received are in their entirety below the story.

Smith’s aunt, Rebecca Rennicks and grandmother Belinda Smith also gave statements to the court.

Rennicks said her nephew was a kind and gentle friend to both her children.

Speaking to him just after he left the hospital she said, “he has taken responsibility for his actions and has expressed genuine remorse. This tragedy has had a horrific impact on all of the youth in that accident and their families – including Hunter.”

“I believe Hunter has a true understanding of the damage his choices caused.”

“I urge the court to consider that this terrible incident was a result of poor choices made by a group of young people, all of whom were under the influence of substances and caught up in the adrenaline rush of risky behaviour and group dynamics.”

Smith’s grandmother Belinda Smith stated Hunter has been mother has been living with her and her husband almost all of Hunters life.

“Hunter’s friends have always been very important to him and have been in his main priority in life. He has been absolutely devastated by this accident and the role he played in it. The guilt and remorse he feels is crippling. He has never denied responsibility for his actions.”

“In closing – I love my grandson deeply. He cares deeply for his friends, his family and his pets. He and all the youths in this accident made poor choices that night. Likely due to their ages and their use of substances which resulted in horrific consequences. Hunter will have to learn to live with these consequences for the rest of his life and this will not be an easy road for him.”

Smith could not bring himself to read the apology he wrote, but at the end of the hearing when Justice Breen asked if he had anything to say, Smith adjusted the microphone and said, “I can’t go back and change what happened. I really wish I could. I wish the night of the accident never happened. I wish that I had just stayed home. I wish that I had pulled over when the police first came up on us. I just wish a lot of things were different that night. I didn’t have my driver’s license – we all knew that. I shouldn’t have been driving – we all knew that, but I still chose to drive. I just wish it could go back to what it was – but it can’t. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”

In his remarks Justice Breen, said when the court is presented with a joint submission, the court is constrained to get effect to that plea, “unless it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

“In the circumstances of this case, while I may not necessarily agree what’s been proposed, I cannot say it is so incompatible with the state of the law that it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

“So I am effectively constrained to give effect to the sentence.”

Justice Breen spoke about his 30-years being in the justice system and working with homicide cases.

“An observation that I found through the course of my work was that these cases where there has been a loss of life are just devastating to the families and it’s a peculiar feature of them that in some respects the existence of the prosecution keeps the person who has lost their life alive.”

“It’s ultimately very disappointing at the end of a criminal case like this where the lawyers move on to other matters, and the families are left with this void – this loss that can never be restored.”
Justice Breen said the sentence is, “to hopefully deter this kind of incident from happening ever again. It undoubtedly will – but we try.”

“I feel a sense of powerlessness because you can’t make things whole. The pain in this case is readily apparent from the victim impact statements.”

“Mr. Smith through his foolishness and poor judgement has devastated the lives of everyone here. And it can’t be put back together. That’s the tragedy of it and that’s the helplessness of everyone involved in the process.”

Describing the incident, Justice Breen said there is a temptation to say the people involved wanted to have fun and go to the casino and they needed a driver.

“The judgement was Mr. Smith was in the best position to drive. And they all set off on their course of action for that evening. So to some extent this was a joint enterprise. Those in the vehicle surely were aware Mr. Smith had been drinking with them, had been consuming drugs with them. They may well have known that he was a suspended driver. However when Mr. Smith drove at a very high speed and then when police sought to stop him and he engaged them in a pursuit that was his choice.”

“So the suggestion to shift responsibility to others in the vehicle I cannot accept, nor should you.”

“Ultimately, Mr. Smith bares complete responsibility. It was not an accident. It was completely avoidable. It’s a tragedy.”

In a joint submission Justice Breen accepted the six-year sentence followed by a 10-year driving prohibition and a DNA order.

Justice Breen said he hopes Smith takes advantage of any programming that is available in prison, “to try to come out of this a better person.”

Smith was taken away from the court in handcuffs.



Victim Impact Statements

Christina Croke-Henley (Neil Henley’s mother)
It has been 543 days since our sweet boy was taken. 543 days since our lives had any purpose. Neil was a gift, a blessing in our home, a bright light full of fun, love and laughter. Nothing in our live has been the same since.

Even the best most beautiful days are somewhat dull, there is no true joy. We are always sad and angry, very angry. We lost our past, present and future.

It has been a struggle to write this, find the right words. I always thought about his wedding day and the funny stories I would share. I never imagined having to write how it eels to loose him. How does a parent write a victim statement about the unbelievable tragedy, the avoidable tragedy, that took their only child?

We are the parents of the lost, we are the parents of the man that trusted another and lost his life in the process.

Yes, Neil may have gotten into the vehicle, but he did so without ever realizing Hunter would choose to make the choices he did.

Blaming Neil for being in the vehicle is no different than blaming the rape victim for going into the room with their rapist.

Neil did not run from the cops, he did not ignore the screams in his car. He did not drive with such speed and reckless disregard for his passengers.

Instead Neil begged Hunter to pull over, he consoled (the girl) and left bruises on Matt’s chest, where Neil pinned his best friend in the seat.

As we write this my heart bleeds. Why? Why did this happen to such a good person?

Neil was always a kind and loving child, daycare praised him regularly.

Teachers said he was a delight to be around.

Other parents would call and tell me what wonderful kid he was.

His bus driver once sent a note home, thanking us for raising such a great kid.

He was a blessing in our home, he was a bright light full of fun, love and laughter.

He was an animal lover, a good son, a good grandson, a good nephew, and a good friend to those he loved.

We all lost somebody special that night.

Everybody always mentioned his sense of humor Neil had a great sense of humor.

He enjoyed making people laugh.

I think he gets that from both of us.

We were always beyond proud .

There are so many stories.

I could go on for days.

He would stand up to bullies when he was just 11 years old he got into a disagreement with someone.

An adult he cared about deeply, over racist comments he didn’t agree with.

I was so proud when he stood up to them, it took a lot of courage.

I have been told quite a few stories about Neil.

I am unsurprised, but proud of the parents that said how much they trusted my boy with their girls.

Moms and dads alike! It makes you proud to know that we raise a boy that people thought was a genuine good and decent kid.

One lady said if her girl was missing, she’d call Neil and he’d find her and make her call.

Many things I wish he had of told us about.

Like buying groceries for his friend that was a young single Mom. I know we both would have loved to say how freaking kind that was, and how proud of the man he was becoming.

We are, were a tight family. We did a lot together, fishing, camping, and just hanging out. We laughed a lot, we had that special bond, some parents are just lucky to have. Holidays were the best. I loved Christmas, at any given moment I could tell you how many days until Christmas. We made it as special and fun as possible every year.

Now it is just pain and sorrow for us. This year we barely got each other a gift. It is so hard to pretend, to keep your head up.

Last mother’s Day and father’s day brought such devastation to us.

It was a just get through the day situations. Neil’s birthday last May was an awful day.

Our boy will forever be 19, how unfair is that?

He had a great relationship with us both. I can count in one hand how many arguments we had in 19 years. He talked to us, trusted us. Confided in us and came for advice. He felt comfortable being honest with us, with the important stuff.

During one of our many great conversations, he said to me he couldn’t wait to make his grandparents.

He kind of laughed and said “You’ll be in the house making them something and dad will be outside teaching them something.” I take great comfort in knowing he loved us and was happy as a child. We couldn’t wait to become parents. When looking to buy a house we were looking with grandbabies in mind. Was there a yard to play, room for a swing set? Is there a couple spare rooms, are we near busy roads? None of that matters now, Hunter has taken this dream from us.

Mike and I are devastated every day. We have been emotionally, physically and economically affected.

There is no desire for anything. I am so depressed and so very sad. I do not enjoy life, I cry often and I am so full of anger.

The worse is everyday being reminded what we have lost. Neil was our only child, my rainbow baby.

We have no grandbabies, no other siblings to help with this pain.

It is so hard to see everybody’s lives so full and happy when our family has gotten so small.

I walk around with a perpetual pain in my chest, and anxiety rippling through. I think way to often about suicide. However, Neil would be so upset with me, and I could never leave his Dad alone to deal.

There are triggers everywhere. The market, you catch glimpse of a tall young man and your heart does a flutter, Neil?

And the crashing pain and realization no it’s not.

Don’t cry, don’t cry as you swallow the painful lump in your throat.

At Walmart, during Christmas; Michael Buble, I’ll be home for Christmas was playing, suddenly I am crippled with heartbreaking pain, I can’t breathe, my ears are ringing and I am crying my eyes out. I found a quiet corner until I could get myself settled.

Thankfully I don’t do cars, but sadly Mike does. When he sees our boy’s make and model of Honda civic, it tears him up inside. Apparently there is plenty of them.

Our friends and family try and be supportive, but what do you say to two people that lost everything all at once.

Neil was our everything.

I know I have shut a lot out in the past year and a half. I just don’t have it in me. I don’t want to go to a function and see all the new babies. I am happy for them all, but I just can’t get around what

I have lost to enjoy it. I don’t have it in me to stay functional in large groups, we miss out on a lot. However we are not a lot of fun to be around neither. We are snappy, easily angered, moody, and emotional, who wants too be around that?

I am exhausted all the time. When I lie in bed at night, my imagination takes over and I relive the accident over and over, in 100 different ways. I hear my child scream, I hear the crinkle of the metal hitting the truck, I hear Neil’s bones crack, I hear the cry of Mama I expect he may have called out. I imagine how scared he must have been, it breaks my heart. I have nightmares and will wake up shook.

If I do feel momentarily happy, it’s like a slap. My poor husband does double duty keeping himself sane and keeping me from drowning in sorrow.

Neither of us have the drive to work, to get out of bed most days takes a lot of coaxing. I have not been working for a couple months. I am on leave because I cannot get through the day without crying or not making it in at all. I get just lost in my emotions, I cry and cannot stop.

My anxiety is on a whole new level. Some days I am not sure how we are going to pay the bills.

Sometimes I wonder why we have not been fired. We are lucky to both be employed by people with hearts, as we miss a lot of work.

Neither of us have the drive to continue.

If Neil’s father and I did not have each other, I suspect I would have given up already.

Neil was so young, he had dreams, goals. Hunter took a good person. Neil, our son is gone, our love, our dreams, our hope. He was a light in this world that should not have been snuffed out. He lived and died a hero. Calming (the girl) as she screamed in terror, bracing Matt, his best friend before impact. And I know without a doubt, he is happy Jack had an angel to help him.

I will end it here, with and added sentiment for my son.

Neil would want his friends to be happy, live great lives.

I just ask that you all say his name sometimes, and never forget him.

I am sure he here with us all. If people could do a kindness in his honor, I am sure he would see it as a great gesture.

Thank you everybody, and remember, there is no such thing as strangers

Kelly Carlson (Jack Carlson’s mother)
That call at 11:30 pm on August 6, 2021 from Sunnybrook hospital is one I will never ever forget, Only hours earlier I was messaging with Jack and joking with him…then all of a sudden my world exploded and I didn’t know if he would make it through the night. I was told he was in a very bad accident and being airlifted to them. They said he had multiple broken bones and I needed to get there right away.

From that moment…that very moment and going forward our lives changed completely.

My boyfriend and I spent the next 7 weeks in Toronto while Jacks little sister Abby at 14 and his older brother Max dealt with the thoughts of losing their brother.

Myself, night after night having nightmares of being late for work, but was in a field and not being able to find Jack.

We each had to take a leave of absence from work and I lost my job because of it.

Jack was on life support and I thought when we finally got in to see him that night that it might be the last time I saw him alive. Jack was in critical care for weeks. He had a severe traumatic brain injury.

We didn’t know if he would survive and if he did what state he would be in. He had to have surgery on his femur- had a titanium rod put in as well as reconstruction of his hips with plates and screws. Then in a coma state for weeks until they could do surgery on his face that required multiple plates and screws. I’ll never forget the doctor saying that his face was like a cushion for his brain…he hadn’t seen anything like it. He still to this day cannot feel half of his face. He still can not smell and has constant migraines.

He had lacerations to his liver, stomach, kidneys..,blunt force trauma to his aorta, a broken clavicle and punctures to his lungs. He was really lucky to even be alive.

I had just started back to work in January after COVID and had to take a leave of absence from work as soon as the accident happened. I lost my job as I could not go back within the required time.

I could not be anywhere but by my sons side.

We almost lost my house as nothing was covered through insurance as the “driver ” of the vehicle Jack was in, was charged with a criminal offence.

Week to week we were there every day by his side and when he finally stirred, he had no idea who I was. Do you have any idea how that feels to see your child look at you and have no idea who you are???

My thoughts were of his future…what kind of future he could have at this point. I have had severe anxiety and increased medication and still do not sleep through the night.

Well he persevered and fought like a warrior. A miracle no thanks to Hunter. Having to tell him about Neil as he didn’t remember anything was a horrible time in itself.

Then rehab downtown Toronto. Back and forth every single day. My oldest son is still suffering from the trauma-hardly ever leaves the house and has had absolutely refused to drive since. He is now on medication and has a claim for recovery from extreme anxiety as well.

Jack got to come home after rehab finally in late November and we are so grateful.

But the fight doesn’t stop here. he has constant rehab…physiotherapy, dietitian, occupational therapist, psw, epsw.; social worker, occupational therapist, on and on…while Hunter was out partying Jack was trying to get a form of his life back. That angers me. Dealing with the hurt, the anger, the anxiety has extremely changed my life and not for the better.

After numerous times of wanting to end his own life as he felt it should have been him instead of Neil he came to realize he needs to live FOR Neil.

Jack planned on playing college baseball.. he was an awesome pitcher. He had his whole life ahead of him…and still does thanks to Joy and the officer, but playing baseball is no longer in his future. I should be an almost empty nester at this point.but instead I am constantly worried and looking after two adults that’s lives have been halted.

Jack has been through more than any person should be in a life time let alone at 19 years old. He has been a definite hero in my eyes and always will be.

At first I felt sorry for Hunter; as a Mom I felt for him as a young person..thought a bad mistake. But as I came to realize the prior things he had done and then hearing of his actions since the accident I came to realize that he has no remorse for what he did. This made my anxiety worse and the trauma all that more evident.

He doesn’t care about anyone else. All he had to do was stop and they were all begging him to do so. That’s what it comes down to. He might as well have had a gun to their heads. Hunter and Jack were best friends. If Hunter can’t show any remorse for ruining his best friends life and taking another’s life?77 What kind of person does that show him to be??

A selfish one. One that will continue to be a menace to society when he had every opportunity to do better if he chose too. but he decided to continue to act on his own accord without thoughts of anyone else.

It doesn’t end here.. Jack has hearing aids and was told by the time he is in his forty’s he could be completely deaf and the hearing aids won’t even work. Can you imagine? Knowing you are going to lose all hearing completely??

But even worse Jack has days he forgets he even wears hearing aids and will go most of the day not hearing until I remind him.

Will Hunter have to ever deal with that kind of struggle??? No. He thought he could beat it all and put everyone’s life in that car in the balance.

Jack has just applied to college and was soooo excited. Only to be told by Dr’s, social worker and occupational therapist that his brain wasn’t ready and he had to wait. another major disappointment due to Hunters actions.

My life has completely revolved around this accident and the trauma it has caused to all of us. I am responsible for not only Jack but his siblings who have been traumatized by the events of that night. A ripple effect to everyone that loves someone that was in that car.


Steve Carlson (Jack Carlson’s father)
I have primary progressive MS. The intense stress from this accident has made my emotions and eaxiety ten times worse. The anxiety of having months of not knowing – if he would make, how far his rehab could bring him back, how well he would deal with his changed life.

The accident caused an already strained relationship between my ex-wife, Jack’s mother and I to deteriorate even more. Fighting, blaming each other, feeling guilty.

The stress of the accident has impacted my MS. My medications have tripled since the accident. I lost 30 pounds in the first two months after the accident from stress. For three months I slept in my lazy boy because I was up and down so much all night. I didn’t sleep in my bed until he was released from hospital.

Plans to move to Nova Scotia were put on hold for a year which resulted in a huge loss as the housing market drastically changed in that year. This resulted in a loss of tens of thousands of dollars due to market fluctuation.

I made daily trips to Toronto to see Jack. Between parking, gas, GO train and meals resulting in thousands of dollars from someone on a fixed disability income.

I had Abby full-time so I bought uniforms for school, etc.


Jack Carlson
This has hurt me emotionally just as much as it hurt me physically, the things that have happened to me at the age of 19 I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

Most people enjoy going to bed at night, but he has made even going to bed so hard for me because I wake up every single night with nightmares, about the accident and me being in the hospital.

He has made every single thing I do now such a challenge, even sleeping.

The thought of this awful thing is constantly in my head and it makes dealing with everything so much harder with the constant feeling of being scared that something awful is going to happen to me again.

Ever since the accident I have lost the feeling of enjoyment with almost 100% of the things I do.

I used to love playing baseball, I used to love going fishing, I used to love spending time with friends, I used to love doing almost everything because that’s the kind of person I was.

Not anymore thanks to you.

My relationships with peers and friends have almost all fallen out and I am barely in touch with anybody anymore because I’m just not the same person I was and never will be thanks to you.

My anxiety and fear of being the passenger in someone’s car has gone up so much that I barely even leave my house anymore unless I’m driving, which is very rare.

This makes me feel so isolated and stuck, the decisions you’ve made have put me through the absolute worst physical pain possible.

19 years old and you had me dead in a ditch, not breathing.

I don’t remember two weeks before and I don’t remember anything until about my birthday in December.

From what I’ve heard, the officer doing the CPR on my chest thought I was gone for good.

Then a miracle happened and a lady pulls over to help give me CPR, and if it wasn’t for this lady pulling over, I wouldn’t be here today.

I just want you to know that. I shouldn’t be here today.

19 years old and 3 months of my life are taken from me spent in a wheelchair.

To this day I struggle with pain all over my body that makes living my life and being happy 100 times harder.

I can’t tell you the last time I went a day without being in pain. I can’t tell you the last time I had a good sleep.

All because of you, you’ve made living my life next to impossible and I struggle and push through so much pain physically and emotionally every day just so I can live my life.

My ability to walk and be mobile on my own was completely taken away from me.

3 months of my life spent in a hospital bed, majority of the time I was only surviving off a breathing tube.

Imagine being 20 years old and being told you have to wear hearing aids the rest of your life and you wake up every morning and you can’t hear anything unless you put a pair of headphones (hearing aids) in.

Imagine not being able to go enjoy the things as simple as dinner with your family at a restaurant because you can’t hear anything.

Imagine not being able to go enjoy things like swimming, the beach, sports, hanging with friends, imagine not being able to do almost anything.

Due to the damage you’ve done to me, a year and a half later I still can’t smell, feel my face and that might never come back.

My confidence with everything has gone to 0 because I hate the person I see in the mirror now.

I have a massive scar down my hip and leg that I hate looking at because it makes me think of the accident every time I see it.

It’s so hard not to look at it because it goes down my entire thigh.

My face feels like I’ve been at the dentist and I can’t feel my lips.

You’ve made things as simple as eating food so hard for me.

My right femur was so badly broken that they had to put a titanium rod in my leg.

I had to learn to walk and stay balanced. They put metal plates in my hips and pelvis as well. At 21 instead of living on my own and being off at college, I am living at home and attending various types of therapy sessions 5 days a week.

My full time job has to be recovering from what you did to me.

At 19 years old you disabled me and made my life a nightmare ever since, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.

I’m so so lucky to still be alive since because of you my best friend isn’t and nothing can change that.

Still you’ve left me to face a lifetime of pain and suffering.

I feel so unsafe to even be in public now because you are always just out living life and partying like nothing happened.

I’m scared that myself or my family and friends will see you because I know how dangerous of a person you are.


Andrea Couch (mother of Matthew Couch)
Our lives have forever changed since the incident August 6, 2021, I can no longer go away without worrying about Matthew and I have a hard time sleeping if he is out late.

I ask him to text when he gets to where he is going, what he is doing and with whom and if he is safe.

Matthew will be 21 in January and this is unfair to him, to us.

It was approximately 11:30 when I received a call from Matthew stating “Mom, I’ve been in an accident. Its bad. I woke up in the ditch, my head and shoulder hurt but I think I am ok. They are taking me by ambulance to Peterborough Hospital.

My heart sank as I was 2.5 hours away at the cottage but I told him I was on my way and I would be there as soon as I could be.

I got in my car and started driving ALONE, driving down dark cottage roads with minimal cell service all while worried and panicked trying to get to my only child.

I left not knowing how truly bad it was or that there was a fatality.

A half hour into my drive I received a second call from Matthew, this one more chilling than the first. Neil was gone, Neil a child who was like my own.

Matthew’s best friend since the age of 5, since junior kindergarten.

He had just been with Matthew two months prior when Matthew found out his Aunt had died of a tragic overdose.

He let Matt stay with him for as long as he needed as he knew I was out of town when I found out the news. My heart broke as I thought of Christina and Mike, Neil’s parents losing their only child.

I almost vomited all over my car.

I knew I needed to get the Peterborough as quickly, but as safely as possible, It wasn’t until I arrived I was Informed how bad it truly was.

We learned Matthew had suffered from a separated shoulder and a concussion based on the results from a head to pelvis CT scan.

I asked the doctor if I could sit with Neil so he wasn’t alone as I knew Mike and Christina would be coming from Elliot Lake. I was told that Neil was never brought to the hospital. The OPP officer on scene at the hospital told me “We don’t think Jack is going to make it through the night”. My heart sunk again.

I was lucky enough that Matt was able to walk out of the hospital that night, but the child who walked out of the hospital was not the same kid. He was a shell of the person he was. He will never be the same without Nell. Once home I waited until Matt finally fell asleep and I broke down, I was in bed and I CRIED, I contacted a social worker I knew from work to find out any advice that I could.

In the morning before Matt woke up I went out to Neil’s and picked up Matt’s car and to feed Neil’s cat who was now all alone.

I was now going on 36 hours of no sleep.

That afternoon Matt woke up and had a shower to get the rest of the dried blood and mud off of him.

I could hear him sobbing in the shower, uncontrollable sobbing and there was nothing I could do.

We discovered a hand print on his chest, later we found out the Neil was bracing him before impact.

We also discovered shards of glass embedded in his skin that required another trip to the emergency dept to get it out.

I thought the first two days were going to be the worst but I was wrong.

Watching my son say goodbye to his best friend was one of the hardest days I have ever experienced.

We were the only two people that saw Neil after he came back from the autopsy and before cremation.

Matt broke down, we both did. Neil had his whole life ahead of him, all of his dreams, hopes and aspirations gone.

I thanked him for saving Matt, for being his best friend and for always being the kid I could count on if I wasn’t getting a hold of Matt.

We told him we loved him, his parents loved him and kissed his forehead. We left knowing he no longer had the opportunity to live a whole life that he deserved. This was a closure Matt needed to do. Say goodbye to his best friend of almost 15 years.

Christina had asked me to clean out Neil’s belongings from his car. This was another hard day for me, The car was unrecognizable. How anyone survived that night is a miracle in itself. The only glass left in the vehicle was the drivers side mirror.

I could not even get to the passenger side of the car. I shook the entire time looking for anything that I could take home to Neil’s parents.

I have a really hard time driving to Peterborough.

I still find myself holding my breath or crying as I see the lone cross with Neils name on it. I still can’t wrap my head around all of it.

After the crash friends rallied around Matthew, but as the days passed friends started seeing Hunter again and Matt felt so alone.

He felt as though he had no friends. I watched him grieve Neil over and over again.

He wanted to die.

He didn’t know who he could talk too, who he could trust, who would understand his feelings. He felt so isolated and I watched my son slip into a dark and lonely place. He felt like it should have been him that died that night.

He had a lot of survivors guilt.

I feared leaving him alone as he needed help and had suicidal thoughts.

Matthew required counselling and at a cost of $100/hour it added up quickly. Multiple sessions were needed to help Matt work through his grief, his guilt, his anger and his TRAUMA.

He missed 3 weeks of employment. I myself missed one week of pay from work. I wished I could have taken more time off to grieve myself, I found it hard to concentrate on my job as I was concerned about Matt being home alone. Unfortunately, I could not afford to take more time off work.

Watching your child grieve and wishing he was dead, that it should have been him and not Nell is absolutely HEARTBREAKING. This is not something that we will just get over. This accident if you can truly call it that was 100% preventable. At 18 you know the difference between right and wrong.

Those kids were held hostage that night with his reckless driving. It was no different than if he was holding a gun to their heads and Neil paid the ultimate price. Matt lost his BEST FRIEND, Christina and Mike lost their RAINBOW baby at 19 years young. Their own child, their future.

Not one day has gone by since that Nell, Christina and Mike has not been in my thoughts.

I try to say Nell’s name daily.

Matthew took it upon himself to let them know that Neil-had died.

Christina and Mike knew hours before the police showed up in person in Elliot Lake.

He thought he owed them that courtesy.

Even after the worst days of their lives Christina and Mike did everything they could to convince Matt that he deserved to be here.

That there was a reason he was still here, with them, with US. That this is what Neil would have wanted. Despite waking up every day and being reminded of this nightmare. I can’t imagine their pain when mine too has been so profound.

Matthew said it best “it isn’t like Hunter just owes Neil a new car mom. He took his life. The only friend I could ever count on is gone and can’t come back and he has been living his life for the last 18 months free. It is so unjust and unfathomable that someone with made a decision to drive under the influence, drive erratically knowing he didn’t have a licence and ignoring the pleas of his friends to STOP, to pull over, has been out living his life like nothing happened. So once again it the victims and our families that have been suffering.

Joy Warner (witness who came upon collision)
August 6th 2021, a day that I can never forget. A day that so many people will never forget due to the actions of 1 person. One person that has ruined and changed and effected so many lives including my own.

I have thought about writing this letter since that day. It has taken me over a year to be able to do so.

My name is Joy, I have never talked to you Hunter, but you single handedly changed my life forever that fateful night.

On the night of August 6th 2021 driving home from catering a wedding with my husband, daughter, and friend I saw Neil’s car in the ditch smoking, I jumped out of our truck before it was even stopped,

I wanted to help but I had no idea what that would mean. As soon as my door opened I could hear terror, cries and screams, including that of a police officer who is trained in that situation. As I ran down that hill my shoe sunk into the mud and it was gone.

I looked to the right and I saw my first dead body.

Neil was laying in the muddy grass, he was laying on his stomach but his face was facing me. I looked to see if I could help him but he was gone, to me it looked like his arm was nearly ripped off.

Again he was on his stomach, but I could see his face, I see this face every time I relive this night, this happens to me frequently.

Neil the sweet boy who never knew a stranger, a hero.

He is gone because of you. I am not a doctor, or a paramedic or trained in this field at all.

This was not something I should have seen.

I remember my daughter following close behind me and me looking at her begging her to stay back, wanted to protect her from seeing this scene. I knew the effect that this would have on her. Her life would be forever changed that night as well. Again caused by your neglect.

I could hear your own cries for help, “help Jack, please don’t let him die, please help Jack” the officer was asking for help, I held down the button on his radio as he called for help, I could see the terror in his eyes, I could feel the panic in his voice Jack was gone….the girl was crying just behind the officer, I could see that she was moving and I assisted that officer with CPR on Jack as you begged for us to help him.

I will never forget that moment when Jack coughed and covered me in his blood. Blood from a stranger in my mouth, all over my face. Jack’s blood. Jack’s blood covering me because of your actions Hunter.

It wasn’t long before help arrived and I walked back up that hill covered in blood.

Paramedics actually thought I was in the accident, I walked up that hill to my truck where my daughter and husband were taking care of Matthew, another innocent victim of your actions that night. Another life, forever changed by your actions to drive while impaired.

My husband started to wash the blood off my face and body with water bottles. I watched as they got Jack secure and off for help, then the girl, then you, then Matthew. I watched and cried as Neil laid in the cold muddy, swampy area alone…for hours and hours because of your actions that night.

That sweet boy who had so much going for him, Matthew his best friend had no idea that he was gone.. his family, his parents, his friends and those that didn’t know him yet. These are lives destroyed and changed by your hands.

We were stuck at the accident site for hours before finally being told we could leave but would have to come back in the morning for our trailer.

It was a long quiet ride home, my daughter sobbing, myself in shock and my husband not knowing what to do.

I got home and took a very long hot shower to try and get the blood and mud off of me.

I didn’t sleep that night, I couldn’t sleep.

Every time I closed my eyes all I could see was Nell.

Not the beautiful side of Neil, I didn’t know that side yet…I had to see the Neil who saved his best friends life, the cold, blue swollen Neil. Neil who had nearly had his arm torn off and had to lay in that cold wet swamp alone for hours while you were home with family and friends.

Matthew was in touch with my daughter that night. He was so grateful that she was there to help. Jacks cousin reached out to me, she thanked me for helping him, and helped me get through with hourly updates on Jack. I spoke to Matthew’s family, I spoke to the girl’s family.

I never heard from you Hunter? Why?

I learned that everyone in that car that night was begging you to stop, pull over, let them out. I wonder do you still hear those voices??

I wasn’t in the car but I can still hear your cry for help.

You have no idea the trauma you brought to my family.

My husband and I both missed weeks of work.

I remember my first day back to work I got a call from the SIU asking me to again relive the night, and I again I had to leave work. I went to many counseling sessions, the one thing I remember the most is being told I need to “mourn the person I used to be because that person is gone” yet another life effected by your choices to drive impaired and ignore the screams for help.

I have teenage boys who I wouldn’t allow in vehicles with friends. It took me months to realize that not everyone would make the decisions you did and put lives at risk. Again 2 more lives effected by you.

For months I would have the smell of that swamp creep up on me, out of the blue and the panic attacks would begin again.

The one thing. I was able to use to help me get through this past year is Jack.

Jack has the most wonderful family. who accepts me as a part of their family and kept me updated daily with messages, calls, pictures and videos of Jacks progress.

Everyday I relive that night, it effects me and my family.

It’s hard for me to accept that I didn’t do this, I am not responsible for that night.

I am not responsible for Jacks injuries, I am not responsible for Neil’s death.

Hunter Smith you are responsible

Dezyree Warner (Daughter of Joy and witness who came upon collision)
As I’m writing this, it’s been 8 months to the day that changed so many lives for the worst.

I can still picture every single second, like it was yesterday.

Every time I talk about it or think about it, it feels like the air is getting sucked out of me and my chest tightens.

It’s something that I don’t talk about often, because most times when I do it brings back the feelings as if I’m reliving that night all over again.

But when told I could write a victim impact statement, I knew I needed to talk about it, because although I didn’t know Neil, I’ve come to learn how beautiful he was inside and out, and how many lives are broken without him in it, and how this could have all be prevented, and if something isn’t done, something similar may happen again.

Since that night, I’ve experience night terrors, cold sweats, insomnia, an overwhelming feeling of guilt, for not being able to do more.

I’ve relived that day almost every night, since it happened. I can still hear the screaming, and I can still picture how each person looked.

I remember every second of helplessly screaming in the street for the paramedics that were in the distance driving to us.

I remember being covered and held down by inches of mud trying to get to the people on the ground.

I remember my mom screaming at me not to look while she gave CPR to a lifeless body.

I remember puking, and crying.

And now that’s almost an every day reality. I tried to go back to living a normal life, but I just can’t.

I can’t even play the same video games, or watch the same tv shows or movies because certain things trigger me so much and I just can’t handle it, because I start picturing things from that night.

In late September 2021 I was diagnosed with PTSD.

What my family and I saw and went through, no person should have too.

We were lucky, although it doesn’t feel that way most days, we were lucky to be there because in some ways, we were able to help.

But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, all these lives are forever destroyed and tainted because of one persons decision.


Deborah J Alley, (Neil Henley’s biological grandmother)
Neil was my first grandchild and I was at the hospital when he was born. I had come down from Alberta to be there for his birth.

Neil was a awesome kid and I spent a lot of time with him after moving back to Ontario that October.

We did a lot of firsts together, from babysitting him while his mom worked, Victoria Park Beach, playing basketball, going to his soccer games, ball hockey, graduations, birthdays, Christmas, whenever we could be together.

Not once did he give me any grief.

Neil was a Godsend.

He treated everyone with respect.

He did not like racism and it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, he respected you.

One particular incident sticks in my mind when he was about 7 or 8.

It was Christmas day and he could not wait for me to play his new video game with him.

We started getting a little loud and all of a sudden. he jumped up and ran to the dining room.

His grandma Henley was laying on the bed and he looked at her and asked if we were making to much noise for her.

So much respect for such a young person.

I never knew when he was going too walk in the door and he would talk to me about everything.

He would do anything for me from taking me for groceries to helping me wash walls.

He didn’t want me on the stepladder.

He would come to stay overnight, just to chat or take a shower after work.

He was about 14 or 15 when I moved to a new apt.

He came to help me load the truck, little did I know until his mom got there after work that his feet were full of poison ivy.

He wouldn’t tell me because he wanted to help. He got upset and apologized for having to go home and not being able to help unload.
He was so excited when he got his new car, he made a special trip to my place to show me.

He must have hugged me a dozen times in the parking lot that day. (I lived approx 45 minutes from him)

I miss him so much.

I miss his teasing of my Newfie accent, changing my ringer on my phone etc but most of all I miss his love for me and bear hugs. He loved unconditionally.

I had to move out of my apartment and go an hour away from my friends because everywhere I looked there was a memory.

Every time the door opened I’d look for him.

The last 2 Christmases I have spent by myself crying my eyes out, he so loved Christmas.

We have a hard time celebrating my youngest granddaughters birthday, he’s always in the back of our minds because he died the same day. It’s very hard to find good in anything because I miss my buddy so much.

Yes we all know none of them should have been in the car that night. There were a lot of bad choices made and those kids are going to live the rest of their lives knowing that Neil is no longer here but the worst choice was made by the driver when he sped from the police.

Nothing will bring my precious grandson back. “The kid that never knew a stranger “

Pete Fisher
Author: Pete Fisher

Has been a photojournalist for over 30-years and have been honoured to win numerous awards for photography and writing over the years. Best selling author for the book Highway of Heroes - True Patriot Love

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