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Edmonton Transit to review decisions surrounding fatal beating on LRT

Passengers get on the Clareview LRT in Edmonton on Jan. 1.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Edmonton Transit has launched a review after the vicious beating of a passenger on a city train, with the victim's family questioning whether officials did enough to stop the ultimately fatal encounter.

Jonny Hollar, 29, was attacked aboard an LRT train on Dec. 28, dying from head injuries two days later. Another man, who police believe knew Mr. Hollar, is facing charges in what investigators suspect was a targeted attack.

Mr. Hollar's fate, though, revolves around a decision made by Edmonton Transit System (ETS) officials, who ordered the driver to continue one more stop after the beating began. They say it meant police and paramedics could respond more quickly, although it gave the attacker three more minutes. Some other cities' transit agencies stop trains as soon as possible, but Edmonton's mayor isn't jumping to conclusions before a review is done.

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"I don't want to second-guess anybody. That's easy to do," Stephen Mandel said. "It's a horrific event to happen. I feel horrible for the family."

The attack began as a train left Coliseum Station just before 2 p.m., and quickly turned ugly and one-sided, police say. Mr. Hollar was struck repeatedly in the head.

Passengers tried to intervene, to no avail, and alerted the driver by using one of the 22 alarm buttons in each train car. The driver watched the attack through a security camera, though the footage was somewhat obscured by the attacker's body. The attack continued as he warned, over the speaker system, police had been called. The driver didn't know Mr. Hollar was already unresponsive.

"You can appreciate this is occurring in a very short time-frame. There's lots of confusion" said Ron Gabruck, director of operational support for ETS.

The train pulled into Belvedere Station, three minutes from Coliseum. The doors opened and everyone else fled the car – except Mr. Hollar and his accused attacker.

Transit officials faced a dilemma. Drivers are forbidden from intervening in fights, because they're not trained to. The nearest security guards were at Churchill Station, three stops south. Police could easily reach Clareview Station, one stop north and three minutes by train. But Belvedere was jammed up – a lengthy passing freight train, running parallel to the LRT tracks, had blocked the road.

"It was a decision. Do we wait an unknown length of time at Belvedere, waiting for help to arrive, knowing there's congestion? Or do we go three minutes down the road and go to where we know there's going to be help?" Mr. Gabruck said. ETS decided to go to Clareview. "It was done in the interest of getting help for the victim," Mr. Gabruck said.

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Rolando Palaypay, who runs a convenience store in the station, said Mr. Hollar was taken out, motionless, on a stretcher. Witnesses told police Mr. Hollar was kicked in the head several times, Mr. Palaypay recalled.

Some of Mr. Hollar's relatives have publicly questioned the decision, with one criticizing ETS for "taking its sweet time to decide what to do."

Mr. Gabruck, the ETS official, extended his condolences to the family, but said the context of the case led to the decision.

"If the train would have stayed at Belvedere, who knows how long it would have taken for help to get there? The feeling was it would take a lot longer than three minutes," Mr. Gabruck told The Globe and Mail. "Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim. We all have family and we all understand what impact this would have."

In emergencies, the Toronto Transit Commission stops trains at the next possible station, leaving them there until police arrive – so too, typically, does Los Angeles's Metro system. Vancouver's TransLink declined to discuss its policy, saying it didn't want to second-guess Edmonton. Transit officials in New York and Chicago rely on advice of police – consultation that could chew up more than three minutes. Transit police in Washington, D.C., say they handle each scenario on a case-by-case basis.

In Alberta's other major city, though, ETS has support. Calgary Transit's security chief says that, in certain scenarios, it's best to keep a train moving so as to reach police as quickly as possible. "It's such a tough call," said Brian Whitelaw, Calgary's public safety and enforcement co-ordinator. "Trying not to be an armchair quarterback … if you can't intercept the train at the very next stop, the decision to use the train as a conveyance to emergency medical services is probably not a bad decision."

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Mr. Gabruck said the internal review is routine. "Technically, we believe all our systems worked. Operationally, it was a very difficult and tough decision," he said, later adding: "If there are changes we have to implement, we'll certainly do that."

At Clareview Station Wednesday, retiree George Sponga, 71, said ETS security guards are few and far between. "There should be more around here," he said. Other riders say they feel safe on the system.

"I don't go looking for trouble, and hopefully it don't go looking for me," said Kathy Johnson, 47, who said she's never had trouble in her years riding the train.

Jeremy Newborn, 29, faces charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault. He remains in custody.

The homicide case is the first to happen aboard a train in the 34-year history of Edmonton's LRT system. In 2010, a young woman was shot and killed at Stadium Station, one stop south of where the attack on Mr. Hollar began.

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