It was a beautiful weekend.
Michael and Laurel Middelaer were getting ready to celebrate their son Christian’s eighth birthday on May 19, 2008.
Two days before, on May 17, Alexa, their four-year-old daughter, went with Michael to Abbotsford to pick up his parents who had flown in from Calgary. When they returned to their East Ladner home, they all enjoyed the early afternoon poolside in their backyard.
It was perfect.
Later that day, Alexa was excited to show her grandparents a horse that she fed near their home. Michael’s sister Daphne, who was also joining in the celebration, suggested they go to a tack store in Ladner to get some special horsey treats.
So Daphne, Alexa and her grandparents got in the car and off they went.
It would be the last time Michael and Laurel would see their daughter alive.
Laurel, Michael and Christian continued their afternoon by the pool.
“I heard a few sirens close by and I remember saying to Christian, ‘Wow, there is something significant going on.’ If we hear more sirens let’s get on our bikes and go see what is going on,” recalls Laurel.
Michael says their backyard faced to the east and the next major roadway was 64th Street.
“So we were literally 500, maybe 1,000, feet from the accident scene,” says Michael. “My Blackberry was inside. Laurel went inside to get something and noticed the phone and that someone had called. We didn’t recognize the number. I thought it was odd.”
Michael checked his voicemail, which informed him a family member had been in a serious accident.
“I called back and the first thing I asked is: How is my daughter? The person at the end of the line said just get here.”
To this day, the Middelaers have no idea who was on the other end of the line.
“After Michael got off the phone, I knew. I don’t know how, but I just had this sense that it was Alexa and that she was dead,” says Laurel. “We quickly scrambled out. I was in my bathing suit and we drove, which is inexplicable to me thinking about it now, because we could have just ran.”
Laurel remembers parking the car, leaving the keys inside and jumping out.
“We just opened the doors and we said we are the family and the crowd just split apart and we ran through.”
At the time of the accident, Michael’s parents stayed in the car while Daphne and Alexa went to feed the horse. Had they not stayed in the car, they too would have likely been killed.
“I went to my parents first and my dad was covered in blood – he looked terrible. I asked him how Alexa was and all he said was, ‘I’m sorry,” Michael says. “At that moment as a son and as a father I knew it was incredibly dire. At that point I started shutting down my emotions and my mission became getting close to my daughter.”
Laurel described the scene as “true chaos.”
“Because she hit on impact, the fence was shattered. A number of cows got loose and with the helicopters coming to land, they were frightened. Then there was so many first responders.”
For Michael, one of the toughest parts was seeing the faces of the police officers.
“The police officers were in shock. I actually had to calm down some really young officers. I said I understand this is gruesome, but you need to let me get to my daughter.
“That connection was so critical for me. After a period of time I connected with an off-duty EMS instructor and he said your daughter is non-responsive, not breathing on her own, her heart is beating, but this is extremely dire. It became clear to me that we had lost Alexa.”
After convincing first responders they would remain calm, they were able to get closer to Alexa.
“All we could really touch was her ankle,” says Laurel. “At one point I remember being alone at the scene. I remember standing beside Carol’s car and Alexa’s basket with all the horsey treats were all over the road. A firefighter came to me and he handed me Daphne’s personal items. In this horrible scene I looked down at her jewelry all covered in twigs and blood and I’m thinking what horrific thing has just happened to our family.”
As Alexa was put in the air ambulance for the trip to BC Children’s Hospital and Michael confirmed which hospital his parents were being sent to, Laurel’s attention turned to Christian. In all the chaos they had lost him.
“There was an officer who noticed me and she came to me and said do you need help and I said we had lost Christian,” says Laurel. “She slipped her coat over me. We later learned that it was Const. Sarah Swallow. She came back and said look, and all I saw was this tall police officer with Christian in his arms.”
All three of them were then loaded in an ambulance so they could be at the hospital when Alexa arrived.
“I just remember becoming detached from a lot of things around me,” says Michael. “I turned to Laurel and I said this will not break our family. We will find some good. I don’t know how those words came to me, but they just seemed at the time the right thing to be thinking and believing.”
The next hours and days are a blur, but Michael and Laurel were committed to celebrate Christian’s birthday.
“At that time we were looking for some normalcy,” says Michael. “To this day, and I don’t talk about this much, Christian provided me with this great anchor and epicenter of normalcy. When we came home and settling in on that birthday evening, he is sitting on the floor with some friends and he looks up and says, ‘Did Alexa die?’ And we said sadly she is no longer with us. He said, ‘Oh.’ He didn’t cry, he just went about his business. I know he had internalized it, and he missed and loved his sister, but that was a tremendous amount of leadership that I look back on today. That desire for normalcy has been critical for all of us.”
Seeking justice (the trial process)
After an exhausting judicial process, Carol Berner was convicted in July 2010 of impaired driving causing death and bodily harm, and dangerous driving causing death and bodily harm.
She was sentenced to 30 months in prison in November 2010, but was released on bail to launch an appeal after serving just two weeks of her sentence.
After exhausting all her appeals, Berner, began serving her sentence in March 2013. She was released in November 2014.
Journey for change
The journey for change began when the Middelaers learned the crash was a result of an impaired driver.
“For us it was finding some good in this tragedy,” says Michael.
Laurel says there was an amazing outpouring of support and emotion, including financial aid for the family. A friend suggested a memorial fund be set up, which the family did, but they felt there was another way for their story to be told.
So from that memorial fund, Alexa’s Team and Alexa’s Bus – a police station on wheels -- were born and became the catalyst for change to impaired driving laws.
The bus allows police to conduct impaired driving investigations at the scene of a roadblock, while Alexa’s Team is a province-wide policing effort targeting impaired drivers.
More than 2,000 provincial and municipal officers are now part of Alexa’s Team, a group that has removed thousands of impaired drivers from our roads.
The Middelaers also challenged the provincial government to reduce the number of deaths in B.C. caused by impaired driving, resulting in the introduction of the Immediate Roadside Prohibition program, which has helped cut the number of alcohol-related fatalities by more than 50 per cent.
Laurel says the advocacy work and being in the public eye has been emotional at times.
When she hears stories of officers carrying a picture of Alexa in their notebook, on their car visor or in a jacket pocket close to their heart she is in awe of the emotional effect Alexa has on so many people.
“Last week we were at an Alexa’s Team event in Kelowna and the top cop in the southeast division said something that I have never heard before and it actually is a beautiful, healing tonic,” says Laurel. “He said I want you to know there is not a day that has gone by in our detachment that Alexa’s name is not spoken. When I heard that as a mother – 10 years later – my daughter’s name is spoken for motivation, inspiration and public good, I just wept.
“Her story has impacted men and women and motivated them to do better in their work and make our province safer.”
In 2012, on the advice of a therapist who was helping Christian, the family moved from East Ladner to South Surrey.
Laurel says that move made a significant difference in their healing.
“Ladner is a very dear community and we are so grateful for the support we had in that community, but living so close to where it happened was a constant reminder.”
Laurel says they’ve looked at the 10-year mark as a transition point for the family.
“Although there has been tremendous change in our province, I think that is where it is,” she says. “There are a lot of committed officers where impaired driving is on the radar and the changes to the laws have been incredible, but we are at the point where our son is graduating from high school. We are committed to have stability for him, but now there is an opportunity to transition into something else.
“We just don’t know what that transition will be yet.”