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Trial begins in teen's tragic death in a Burnaby crosswalk

Visibility is looking like a key factor in a trial for two drivers involved in a pair of crashes that killed a young Brazilian exchange student in 2018.
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 Fernanda Girotto poses in a photo posted on social media. Girotto, a 15-year-old Brazilian exchange student, was killed in a collision on a Cariboo Road crosswalk on Jan. 17, 2018.Fernanda Girotto poses in a photo posted on social media. Girotto, a 15-year-old Brazilian exchange student, was killed in a collision on a Cariboo Road crosswalk on Jan. 17, 2018.

Visibility on a rainy January morning is looking like a key factor in a trial for two drivers involved in a pair of crashes that killed a young Brazilian exchange student at the foot of Cariboo Hill in 2018.

The trial for Paul Oliver Wong and Kai Man Cheu began this week to determine whether either - or both - of the drivers are to be held criminally responsible for the death of Fernanda Girotto.

Girotto was a 15-year-old exchange student staying in Burnaby at the time of her death.

On Jan. 17, 2018 at around 7 a.m., Girotto attempted to cross Cariboo Road at or near the crosswalk between two churches just south of the Highway 1 overpass.

As she did so, she was reportedly struck by a northbound pickup truck, driven by Wong, who then pulled over. A car being driven by Cheu then reportedly passed the truck and hit Girotto a second time.

 Emergency crews attend the site of a fatal crash on Cariboo Road in January that saw a 15-year-old girl killed on a controversial crosswalk. Burnaby NOW file photoEmergency crews attend the site of a fatal crash on Cariboo Road in January that saw a 15-year-old girl killed on a controversial crosswalk. Burnaby NOW file photo

It’s unclear which impact killed Girotto.

Vancouver’s provincial court heard testimony from three witnesses Tuesday, including Saidi Bigirimana, who saw the incident; Helena Ahrari, who hosted Girotto at her home for two weeks or so before her death; and Cpl. Sukhdip Tiwana, an officer with the Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service, which investigates vehicle crashes.

In court on Tuesday, Bigirimana testified with the help of a Swahili interpreter. He told the court he walked from the complex he lived in, which Girotto also lived in, to a southbound bus stop on Caribo Road near the crosswalk where Girotto was hit.

As he walked, he testified, Girotto walked behind him, but she passed him at the southbound bus stop and proceeded to the crosswalk to get to the northbound bus stop on the other side of the road.

Bigirimana said he saw Girotto stop at the crosswalk to allow cars to pass before crossing the road. He said he saw Girotto get hit by the first car, which then pulled over. He said he saw a second car, driven by Cheu, pass the first car, crossing the double solid yellow lines as it did, before hitting Girotto.

Under cross-examination from defence lawyers, Bigirimana pushed back against suggestions that visibility was low at the time, potentially obstructing his view. Both defence lawyers noted the time of the incident, as well as the distance of the crosswalk from the bus stop and the rainy weather as potential issues hindering Bigirimana’s sight that morning.

But he pushed back, saying he clearly saw the incident. For instance, he said he was clearly able to see that Girotto had not been looking at her phone as she crossed the road, despite the suggestion to the contrary from Wong’s lawyer, David Fai.

In her testimony, Ahrari said she rarely saw Girotto use her phone, especially when compared to other students she has hosted. However, she conceded Fai’s point that she could not be sure of Girotto’s phone use while the two were not together.

 A memorial sprung up by a crosswalk at the bottom of Cariboo Hill after a 15-year-old girl was hit by a vehicle and killed while walking in the area. Photo by Cornelia NaylorA memorial sprung up by a crosswalk at the bottom of Cariboo Hill after a 15-year-old girl was hit by a vehicle and killed while walking in the area. Photo by Cornelia Naylor

Bigirimana also said he clearly saw Cheu’s car drive over the double solid yellow line, despite a suggestion to the contrary from Cheu’s lawyer, Laura Ramsden.

Bigirimana couldn’t say exactly which part of the first vehicle struck Girotto. However, Crown prosecutor Geordie Proulx said Tiwana’s testimony, a painstaking look at dozens of photographs and drone footage, should prove that the first car did not merely brush Girotto, but struck her head-on.

The second car appears to have dragged Girotto for roughly 40 metres, Proulx said.

The trial is scheduled through to Thursday, but it’s unclear at this point whether it will finish in time. Proulx said he expects to call several more witnesses, while defence lawyers have not said how many witnesses they intend to call.