NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. — A six-year old autistic girl occupied with a computer tablet was strapped in the back seat of a running SUV when her mother ran into a food shop at a Saskatchewan strip mall.
At the same time, a young man with an intellectual disability was in the same area and wanted to go for a joy ride.
The theft of the Mercedes, and the child inside, sparked an Amber Alert and an extensive search in North Battleford, Sask., last September that ended 14 hours later when the girl was found unharmed in the vehicle a few kilometres away.
Details emerged in court during a sentencing hearing Wednesday.
Johnathan Gunville, 19, had earlier pleaded guilty to several charges, including theft of a vehicle and abandoning a child. Court heard he fell on his head when he was a child and has a serious cognitive delay.
Defence lawyer Bill Archer said his client is more like a six-year-old and didn't at first realize he'd taken a vehicle with a child inside.
"He stole a car and didn't know what do. And he's scared out of his mind," Archer said outside court.
"Those of us who are more advanced ... would go to the RCMP. He's not capable of that."
An agreed statement of facts said Gunville did try to help the girl. After driving from the strip mall about 5 p.m., he drove the SUV off the road and got stuck in some brush in an industrial area. He took off on foot and went to a casino, where he called his father to pick him up. He then went to his father's home in Lloydminster.
The document says that the next day, about 4 a.m., Gunville called 911 to say he had seen the stolen Mercedes near a bottle recycling station in North Battleford.
"He was worried about the girl in the car and thought she might die because the vehicle was hard to find," said the document.
Gunville did not provide the specific location of the SUV.
It wasn't until 6:30 a.m. that three workers hooking up a truck to haul fertilizer from a potash mine noticed something unusual in nearby trees. As they approached, they realized it was the missing SUV that was all over the news.
"The windows were fogged up when one of the men approached. He feared the worst," said the document.
"But (she) was found in the back seat alive but out of her car seat."
The girl, who is also epileptic and non-verbal, had been wearing a T-shirt, pants and a diaper but no jacket. The temperature had dropped to 1 C overnight and the vehicle had shut off automatically because it had a keyless ignition switch.
One of the workers grabbed a heavy winter jacket and wrapped up the girl. She was taken to hospital where she was medically cleared.
The girl's mother read a victim impact statement in court describing how her family had been overwrought while the child was missing. The girl had also missed taking her nightly dose of epilepsy medication to prevent seizures.
Gunville was arrested a few days later after stealing an asphalt truck. He was later found mentally fit to stand trial.
Archer said his client has expressed remorse and is glad the girl is fine. He recommended Gunville receive 18 months to two years in a secure unit at the Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford psychiatric facility.
Crown prosecutor Lee Hnatiuk told court that Gunville is a risk to the public and should serve three years in a federal prison.
Judge Bruce Bauer is to deliver the sentence Feb. 20.
— With files from Angela Brown at CJNB