He dressed up as a police officer, and with two accomplices rang an Edmonton doorbell just before midnight. Then he abducted the man who opened the door, taking him out to a snowy field. When the man asked why, his captors referred to an incident where he had hit a child with a car, and the child had died. Then they cut off his thumb with pruning shears, leaving him unconscious in the snow in his bathrobe.
For Steven Vollrath’s act of vigilantism against Richard Suter in January, 2015, he received a 12-year prison sentence, and on Tuesday, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld that sentence by a 2-1 count. It said Mr. Suter and his wife, in whose presence he was abducted, suffered permanent psychological trauma, and Mr. Suter had believed his violent death to be imminent. The dissenting judge would have given Mr. Vollrath nine years, after taking into account the deprivations of his childhood.
There was no evidence that Mr. Vollrath had known the dead child or its family, the appeal court said.
The vigilantism was so rare that the appeal court said it could not find another case to guide it in sentencing. The closest was the crime of abduction for money, for which sentencing guidelines in Alberta call for 10 to 20 years (the maximum for kidnapping is life in prison).
“This case however was not about money, but pure vengeance – arguably an equally, if not more, aggravating factor,” Justice Patricia Rowbotham and Justice Frederica Schutz wrote in their ruling.
Mr. Suter was parking next to a restaurant in May, 2013, when he and his wife began to bicker. He neglected to put the car in park and, as it moved forward, he pressed on the accelerator, instead of the brake. The car lurched on to a patio, striking and killing a two-year-old child. Mr. Suter was convicted of failing to provide a breath sample. The trial judge accepted that it was a driving error, not drunkenness, and that Mr. Suter received poor advice from his lawyer to refuse to provide a breath sample. He imposed a sentence of four months, which the Alberta Court of Appeal raised to 26 months. But partly because of the vigilantism, the Supreme Court said in the Suter case that 15 to 18 months would have been a suitable sentence. In the end, he served 10 months.
“Vigilantism undermines the rule of law and interferes with the administration of justice,” it said. “As a general rule, those who engage in it should be dealt with severely.” The appeal court cited that ruling in upholding the 12-year sentence for Mr. Vollrath.
Mr. Vollrath, who was 31 when he committed the crime, had a long record before the vigilante attack: 63 convictions, many for violence or weapons offences. In his sentence appeal, he argued that the trial judge who imposed the 12-year term put too much emphasis on that record, and too much on the harm to the man he’d attacked, and had not given enough weight to his personal circumstances.
As the son of a Métis father, he had a presentencing report done for the trial judge, exploring possible connections between his criminality and deprivations he had experienced as an Indigenous person. He had not known his father, but his stepfather had beaten him with a dumbbell at a young age. His early home life featured alcoholism and domestic abuse. By the age of 8, he was homeless and using cocaine. He was in “native gangs” at 10 or 11, and incarcerated from the age of 13 on.
But Provincial Court Justice E.A. Johnson said the most important thing was to denounce the vigilantism and deter others. “It is not clear how Mr. Vollrath’s unfortunate background bore on his commission of these particular offences,” she said in a 2016 sentencing decision. “His constrained circumstances do not diminish his moral culpability for these offences.” The prosecution had asked for 15 years, and the defence four to five years.