Afghan vet deep in debt after two-year fight against charges that were later abandoned: ‘I feel numb’
|National Post 23 Oct 2016 at 17:30|
Collin Fitzgerald is a highly decorated veteran of the Afghan war, hailed for risking his life to save others on the battlefield, but for the last two years he has been living under a cloud as an accused criminal.
He always insisted he was innocent, targeted unfairly by the provincial police in his eastern Ontario hometown, and last month he finally walked out of court with a clean slate.
All charges against him have been withdrawn, but in an interview last week it was clear Fitzgerald is not ready to put the ordeal behind him.
I feel numb to the whole situation, because there isnt any justice in any of it, he said.
In July, Fitzgerald agreed to pay $1,000 into the provinces Direct Accountability Program, a diversion program, and the Crown withdrew a charge of motor vehicle theft. Fitzgerald said the charge was unfounded but he did not want the expense of going to trial.
And on Sept. 26, charges of intimidating and criminally harassing a police officer were withdrawn after Fitzgerald agreed to sign a peace bond promising to stay away from the officer in question. Fitzgerald denies having harassed the officer and said he signed the bond to avoid trial.
Now the veteran wants answers on how the justice system could be allowed to consume his life and leave him deep in debt, only to acknowledge in the end that the cases did not merit going to trial.
Im going to do everything I can do to press the government to get a judicial inquiry, he said, pointing a finger at the Ontario Provincial Police and the Crown attorneys office.
They need to be investigated, because I am not the only one, he said. There are many people in this area who have been railroaded.
Randy Hillier, a Conservative MPP representing the eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, raised Fitzgeralds case in the legislature this month as he questioned the government on why the Crown ends up dropping 43 per cent of criminal charges filed.
This 43 per cent of stayed and withdrawn cases are not just numbers. Theyre actual people, Hillier said.
One of those people is a highly decorated Afghan war vet who endured a multi-year criminal prosecution that saw him barred from his hometown. He lost custody of his child. All the charges were withdrawn but he still has a $200,000 debt. What is the remedy of this government? Nothing. Zero.
In a statement, Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario Attorney Generals office, said the Crown abandoned its prosecution of Fitzgerald as a result of an ongoing obligation in all cases to assess whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction and whether it is in the public interest to proceed.
With respect to all of these matters, he said, referring to the Fitzgerald cases, while the Crown determined that there still existed a reasonable prospect of conviction in the matters, the Crown determined that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the prosecutions.
Fitzgerald, 37, was already suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from his nine-month tour with Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan when he was awarded the Medal of Military Valour in 2006. Described as a Canadian hero by Gen. Rick Hillier, then chief of defence staff, Fitzgerald soon saw his life spiral downward.
The low point came on March 9, 2013. Medically discharged from the military for severe PTSD the previous year, his marriage disintegrating, Fitzgerald triggered a police standoff that he hoped would end with them shooting him. They shot him, but with a beanbag gun. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to several offences and spent 16 months in mental-health institutions and under house arrest.
He received treatment for his PTSD and says he was trying to turn his life around when the more recent charges were levelled. They were the result, he is convinced, of the OPP wanting to run him out of town because they considered him dangerous.
I am not the only one. There are many people in this area who have been railroaded
Now he focuses much of his energy on speaking engagements, working with Kerri Tadeu, a sexual-assault survivor, to educate law enforcement and the general public about the long-term consequences of trauma.
Collin is not crazy. He is not psychotic. He is hurting, Tadeu said. He is hurting from his war trauma. He is hurting from a series of unfortunate events. Wherever we go, he tells people that. There are so many people out there suffering.