Family ties severed by drunk driver

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Except for one very special privately cherished picture of his mother, Jason Hills, president of Edmonton’s MADD chapter has no family photos. Hills shared his story with the Gazette in hopes that it might bring awareness to the issues surrounding impaired driving.

“I don’t have family photos,” said Hills. “People just don’t understand what an accident such as this does to families. It breaks them apart.”

The “this” Hills referred to was a motorcycle accident, caused by a drunk driver in Montana 31 years ago that took the lives of his parents, his aunt and his uncle. Hills was three then and though he had a sketchy understanding that his parents had been killed in a collision; until last year, when he began to search for facts, he didn’t know what happened.

“My first memory as a kid is being in a room in my grandparents’ house with my sisters. A pastor told us our parents were killed in a crash,” Hills said.

No one said anything more about the tragedy. For years he had hazy dreams about his mother, muddled with bits of stories told to him by his maternal grandmother, who raised him. So far as he recalls, visits with his father’s family were few and far between.

His grandfather died a few years after his parents’ death. He recalls when he was 12 or 13 years old he tried to talk to his grandmother about what happened to his parents, but it was too emotional and too hard for her.

Hills’ first glimmer of information came after his grandmother became ill. Hills was searching for something she needed and found documents, including autopsy reports. They were too technical for him to understand and after his grandmother passed away in 2003, he was left with nothing but a few pieces of paper that hinted at information but did not tell him what he wanted to know.

Last year Hills attended a Mothers Against Drunk Driving conference in Toronto, an event he now says was the most difficult but also the most rewarding thing he has done. It forced him to make changes. At the conference he met other people he could relate to. Again and again, even though his knowledge of his own story was minimal, he was hugged and hugged others who had lost loved ones in collisions caused by drunks.

When he got home to Edmonton, Hills dug out the crash report and in the middle of the night, phoned the Browning, Montana number he found on the bottom of the page. He asked if he could speak to the police officer, whose name was printed there 30 years previously.

“Remember it was the middle of the night when I called but they told me the officer had retired and was now a judge. They gave me a phone number and I called it the next day.”

He ended up talking at length to the judge and to another person who is now a crown prosecutor.

“The judge told me all the details. He remembered when he got to the crash. He said he knew immediately it wasn’t good. He remembered seeing my mother,” Hills said.

Hills learned that his parents and aunt were at the end of a motorcycling holiday and were on their way back to their Benalto home near Sylvan Lake, Alta. They were hit from behind by an 18-year-old impaired man. The car’s speed was estimated to be 150 kilometres per hour.

“The judge told me the car struck my aunt and uncle first. My aunt was on the back of the bike and died on impact. My mom was driving the other bike and my dad was on the back and died on impact. My mother was thrown face down into a water-filled ditch and they tried to revive her. My mom and uncle died on the way to the hospital,” Hills said.

Hills has nothing but loving praise for his grandmother, who did the best she could for him. He also knows that his loss was even greater than the loss of his parents. He lost connections with his extended family.

“My family did an amazing job of raising me but there is no replacement possible. I still grew up with that hole in my heart. I’ve learned it’s not just about me. I learned that my aunt lost a sister. My sisters also lost their parents. My grandmother lost a daughter. The accident drove a wedge between us so that I have no contact with my father’s family. I am not close to my sisters,” he said.

He is thankful for the MADD connections he made because it helped him come to terms with his three-decades-old grief. He believes he can use his own experience to help others.

“Now I want to help people face the most difficult thing to ever happen in their life. There is no better way to honour my parents,” Hills said.

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About Author

Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.