AMQUI, Que. — The driver of a pickup truck that killed two people and injured nine others in the Quebec town of Amqui was charged with dangerous driving causing death on Tuesday, after police said he drove into pedestrians chosen at random, including children.
A small group of residents showed up to boo and heckle as 38-year-old Steeve Gagnon was led in handcuffs into the courthouse in Amqui, about 350 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
Gagnon — a slim, bearded man wearing glasses and a grey T-shirt — did not speak in court. His lawyer, Hugo Caissy, said his client understood the two charges against him and asked the judge to waive the requirement that a bail hearing be held within three days.
Crown prosecutor Simon Blanchette said more charges would undoubtedly follow once all the evidence is gathered.
“The police investigation isn’t finished at the moment, and there’s a large number of witnesses who still need to be met, more information that needs to be collected,” he told reporters outside the courtroom. “So necessarily, there will be other charges brought when the investigation finishes.”
The case returns to court April 5, and Gagnon will remain detained until then.
Quebec provincial police said earlier they believe the suspect acted deliberately and with premeditation on Monday afternoon, but they did not suggest a motive.
Provincial police Sgt. Claude Doiron told reporters near the scene that the investigation suggests the driver swerved from one side of the road to the other over a considerable distance to hit victims who ranged in age from a baby to 77 years old.
“We’re talking about pedestrians who were walking all along the (road), on both sides in fact, over a certain distance,” he said.
Doiron said it’s unclear whether the suspect knew any of the victims. It’s not clear what the motive was, or the suspect’s state of mind at the time of the crash, he added.
Gérald Charest, 65, and Jean Lafrenière, 73, were killed. The injured include two children — one who is less than one year old and another who is about three — who were both seriously hurt but whose lives are not in danger. On Monday night, a crumpled baby stroller could be seen off the side of the road behind police tape.
Six of the injured, including the children, were airlifted to a hospital in Quebec City, where three adults remained in critical condition as of Tuesday morning. One victim remained in hospital in Amqui, where their condition was described as stable.
David Morin, a local resident, said he witnessed the panicked moments that followed the tragedy. A shaken Morin told reporters on Tuesday he couldn’t get the image of one of the victims out of his head.
“He was alive when I arrived, and when I went to see another person, I came back and he was dead,” he said.
Morin described the moments that followed, as residents ran to the aid of the victims. He recalled sitting next to a woman dressed in pink, and asking her name as others helped the two young children.
The suspect turned himself into police shortly after the Monday afternoon collisions. Police said they were investigating him for hit-and-run and murder, but that the final charges would be decided by the Crown.
Doiron said the suspect had not “necessarily” had previous encounters with police and was co-operating well with authorities.
The tragedy comes less than six weeks after two young children were killed when a driver crashed a city bus into a daycare in Laval, north of Montreal. The 51-year-old bus driver is facing first-degree murder charges in that alleged attack.
François Bonnardel, the province’s public security minister, said Tuesday that it’s too soon to say what motivated the Amqui driver, or whether the two suspects had anything in common. He said the government will try to learn lessons to help prevent future tragedies, but that it’s hard to fully eliminate all possibility of an isolated attack.
“This murderous folly is hard to prevent,” he said at a press conference. “We can put everything in place, and then tomorrow morning someone can decide once again to get into a car, into a truck, and strike.”
Quebec Premier François Legault announced that the flag atop the legislature would be lowered to half mast on Wednesday and that he would visit Amqui on Thursday along with the leaders of the major opposition parties.
Kristina Michaud, the local Bloc Québécois MP who is from Amqui, described the town of 6,000 as a peaceful place where everybody knows everyone else.
“Here in Amqui, when we hear a police, ambulance or fire truck siren, we glue ourselves to the windows, because we ask ourselves ‘Who is it? I must know the person,'” said Michaud, who said her own mother regularly walks the road where the crash happened.
“Yesterday, it was several people we knew (who were affected.) It’s extremely troubling,” she added.
“The whole community wishes it were just a bad dream.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2023.
Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press