BEAUSEJOUR — Jessica Muench was abandoned in the water by a hit-and-run boater who left her suffering horrific, life-altering injuries. Now the family of the 25-year-old Winnipeg woman believe she’s been abandoned by both witnesses to her tragedy and the justice system as a result of a controversial deal struck with the man who nearly killed her.
Dillon Snowden, 24, pleaded guilty on Monday to leaving the scene and failing to report an accident causing bodily harm. In exchange, the Crown dropped more serious charges of impaired driving causing bodily harm and dangerous operation of a vessel causing bodily harm.
Snowden remains free on bail and is expected to be sentenced on Sept. 12 in Beausejour. The Crown will be asking for up to three months in jail, while he will be seeking a non-custodial penalty that keeps him free in the community.
The basic facts of the case were never in dispute: Muench had gone camping for the weekend with a group of friends last summer. They hit the water at Nutimik Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park on the afternoon of July 16, where they took turns pulling each other in a tube behind a boat.
One moment, Muench was having the time of her life. The next, she was fighting for her life. Muench had just got out of the tube when another boat that had been following closely turned sharply and drove right over her, slashing both her legs with the propeller. The result was catastrophic to her left leg, tearing flesh and muscle away from her mangled limb and leaving her bleeding heavily and in dire straits.
“She tried to get out of the way. She went under the water to try to avoid it and started kicking away to try and get away, to swim,” her father, Gerald Muench, told the Free Press Monday outside court after watching the man responsible admit to the most minor of the three charges he was facing.
The driver of the boat then took off as Muench was comforted by her friends and taken to shore. Paramedics quickly realized the severity of the situation, and the STARS air ambulance was brought in to rush Muench to Winnipeg where she underwent the first of seven different surgeries to save her life — and ultimately her limb when amputation was a very real possibility. Muscle from her back and skin from her buttocks were used to try and offset the damage.
“The propeller just flipped the skin off and took out everything underneath,” said her father. Patricia Muench added her daughter likely would have been killed instantly had it been her neck or head caught in the propeller’s path instead of her legs.
RCMP issued a public plea for help in finding the boater responsible, saying the man had been drinking.
Snowden turned himself in the next day. By then, it was far too late to do testing to determine his state of sobriety at the time. And the investigation would take a major hit when several of Snowden’s friends who were with him in the boat apparently gave conflicting statements about whether he was even driving, the manner of driving and how much alcohol had been consumed prior to hitting the water.
In an unusual move, two of the friends were charged with obstruction of justice as police suspected they were deliberating trying to sabotage the case. However, those charges have since been dropped by the Crown without explanation to the court or the victim’s family.
It appears the damage was already done. Because the Crown has now told Muench’s family they don’t believe they have sufficient evidence to prove the impaired driving and dangerous driving charges — which would likely carry substantial prison time if convicted — based on the muddied nature of the witness statements that a justice source described as being “all over the place.”
“In the beginning, there were some bad decisions made. And that set the course for the rest of the year,” said Gerald Muench. “We’re talking about the people who basically curb-stomped Jessica.”
Snowden’s lawyer, Danny Gunn, told the Free Press on Monday his client was as surprised as anyone when friends were evasive with police about the fact he’d been driving and can’t speak to why they did that. Gunn said Snowden only left the scene that day because he believed Muench was already getting the medical help she needed and there was nothing more for him to do at the time.
The Crown declined to comment on the case at this time, citing its ongoing nature. No facts were read into the public record on Monday, as that won’t occur until the sentencing date.
“I appreciate the public campaign around boating safety, but it has to be backed up.”– Shannon Lee, Jessica Muench’s sister
That’s not sitting well with the family, who believe the Crown should have fought harder to prove all of the charges that were laid. They say Jessica was prepared to testify about what she knew and saw — including the drinking history of Snowden and how he was driving the boat just prior to hitting her. Muench and her friends had been socializing with Snowden and his friends before they went boating, and the family says her statements to police helped form the basis for all of the original charges.
“She saw everything that happened. She knows,” said her sister, Shannon Lee. “There have been times where she looks at her leg, looks at how her life has changed and cannot believe there wasn’t more cooperation around the people who experienced with her that day. There are times where she just wants it to all go away, because she wears her heart on her sleeve and she just wants it all to be over. She’s been on a roller-coaster.”
“Jessica told the truth and accounted for everything that happened that day. They had what happened. They had the facts. Where it went from there, well we know where it went from there,” added her father.
They also are puzzled by the fact Snowden was actually released without charge when he initially turned himself in. The charges didn’t get laid until days later.
“There were no consequences immediately. He was able to walk away with his boat and his boat keys,” said Lee. “I appreciate the public campaign around boating safety, but it has to be backed up, I feel, with more stringent marine laws.”
Muench had just finished up her second year at the University of Winnipeg and was working as a waitress to help pay for her schooling. She had to give up that work, unable to spend long periods of time on her feet. She’s now working as a receptionist in an office and will return to the U of W this fall after an unexpected one-year hiatus.
If there’s a silver lining to the tragedy it’s the fact Muench is now interested in biology, is volunteering at CancerCare Manitoba and wants to pursue a career helping others — like the many doctors and nurses who have assisted her.
But she continues to deal with the physical and emotional fallout from what occurred. At least one more surgery is scheduled, and her left leg will never be the same again. There is extensive, permanent scarring.
“That muscle in there is never going to replace her calf muscle. All it does is bring blood there. It will never grow, like a calf muscle. It doesn’t fire,” said her father.
The guilty plea and upcoming sentencing likely won’t be the end of this matter, however. The family has already contacted a lawyer and are looking into a possible civil lawsuit against Snowden and others — where they could be subpoenaed and forced to answer key questions that would have been posed had this proceeded to a trial.
And it won’t be about money, but about getting to the truth and hopefully affecting behaviours by those participating in watersports and by justice officials in enforcing the laws of the land.
“I wish it wasn’t my daughter that this happened to. But if it changes the course of what we’re going to do on the waterways, fantastic. If this gets swept under the rug and nobody does anything… if something doesn’t change, I just don’t know,” said Gerald Muench.