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Monday, May 20, 2024
Three years later, family is keeping Matthew Wilson’s memory alive
John and Colleen Franz add Easter decorations to Matthew Wilson's memorial on Lakeshore Road. KEVIN MACLEAN

A lovingly crafted, homemade black cross marks the spot in a ditch along Lakeshore Road where Matthew Wilson died after he was hit by a pickup truck three years ago this week.

But rather than solely being a sad reminder of the tragedy that claimed his life, for his family and surviving friends and relatives, it is a way to celebrate the 40-year-old, taken too soon.

“We’re celebrating his life, not mourning his death,” says his mother, Colleen Franz. “It is impossible for grief and joy to co-exist.”

Despite maintaining a positive disposition in three years since that fateful April 4 night, his mother remains inconsolable. Life doesn’t get any easier, she says.

Counselling and the kindnesses of others help — though “the pain never goes away.”

“People think that you just get over it and you get on with your life,” but you don’t, she says.

It’s with her “every single day,” it affects her husband John Franz, and Wilson’s older brother Kirk and other family and relatives.

“It’s harder. It’s not easier. And I don’t think most people can understand that,” Franz says.

“The first year I think you’re in a fog. You’re in a mess and you just go through the motions.”

The reality of the loss hits later and by the third year the longing has grown, she says.

However, their healing is helped by visits to the roadside cross and to his grave in Lundy’s Lane Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

Whenever they do visit, they “have a little conversation” with Matthew. “I know it sounds silly, but that’s what we do,” she says.

Because it helps.

As Easter season approached last week, bunnies and eggs and flowers were added to the Lakeshore Road memorial.

Two weeks earlier, it was puttin’ on green for St. Patrick’s Day and in the past it’s celebrated Wilson’s Sept. 23 birthday, Christmas, Halloween, his love of music, cars, golf and hockey, plus many other touchstones.

Wilson worked at Fallsview Casino but when it was were closed during COVID, to save money he moved in with his mom and stepdad in the Homestead area of Virgil.

He bought himself a large TV and built a pine shelf for it. After his death, his stepfather, John Franz, created the black cross from that pine shelf, insisting that it be a happy memorial, celebrating Wilson’s life, not just grieving his death.

He builds most of the pieces himself and says the memorial is a way to show how much he misses his stepson.

“He loved Kirk and Matthew as if they were both his own sons,” Colleen says, “and this is a way to pay tribute to Matthew.”

“We don’t want people to drive by and think sadness. We want people to drive by and think gladness, because he was a great person. He did a lot of good in this world.”

*****

Wilson was a walker.

A few years before he was killed, the Niagara College photography grad developed a blood clot in his right leg — a hereditary condition that was treated successfully but the doctor advised him to walk more. So, he did. A lot.

Late on the night of April 4, 2021, he was making his way home to Virgil after visiting a friend in St. Catharines. He was struck by Rob Enns’ truck as he walked along the unlit south side of Lakeshore Road.

Enns, a prominent farmer and businessman in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was driving to his home on Irvine Road. He has never spoken publicly about the case. Attempts to speak to Enns this week and earlier through his defence lawyer, Vijai Singh, were unsuccessful.

As documented previously by The Lake Report, grainy, black and white surveillance video from a security camera at Seaway Farms, at Stewart and Lakeshore roads, was played at Enns’ trial in October 2022.

In the video, for a few seconds around 10:26 p.m., Wilson is seen walking along Lakeshore.

Eight minutes later, at 10:34 p.m., Enns’ F-150 pickup truck passes Seaway. Twenty seconds afterward, off-camera, a thud can be heard.

Enns testified he circled back and stopped. He told court he thought he had hit a deer but admitted it also crossed his mind that it could have been a person.

He also said he drank a glass of wine earlier in the evening.

On Lakeshore Road, he used the flashlight from his mobile phone to look around and to inspect the damage to his truck. Some of this was captured on the Seaway Farms video.

In the pitch dark, using the light from his phone, he thought he had some broken lights and other minor damage, Enns said.

After the impact, he didn’t see any sign of a deer, or of Wilson. Nor Wilson’s left shoe near the middle of the road, nor his brimmed, dark-coloured cap, nor his right shoe near the shoulder of the road, court was told.

Enns then drove to his home, about 1.5 kilometres away, on Irvine Road.

Wilson’s body was discovered in the shallow, south-side ditch by the driver of a recycling truck headed toward St. Catharines about 7:20 the next morning.

He immediately called 911.

*****

On Dec. 1, 2022, Justice of the Peace Mary Shelley quietly pronounced Enns guilty of failing to report an accident, a relatively minor Provincial Offences Act charge — not a criminal count.

Based on the available evidence and with no witnesses, it was the only charge investigators laid.

Enns was fined $500 and given nine months’ probation.

He was not in court in Welland that morning to hear the verdict, which surprised both the family and Crown prosecutor Henry Limheng.

Colleen Franz had hoped to read her more than 50-page victim impact statement to the court, but without Enns there, she didn’t see any point.

In the immediate aftermath of the trial, she had some questions for him. Those questions — and many others — linger still.

“Why didn’t you call 911?”

“Why have you never, ever said you’re sorry?”

“Why did you not come to court to hear the verdict?”

Franz maintains that had her son got medical attention sooner, he might have survived. She’ll never know.

“As the justice of the peace said, ‘Seconds matter.’ ”

“He could have dialled 911. An Ornge air ambulance could have taken Matthew to an out-of-town trauma centre,” Franz said.

Enns made that call just after 8:08 on the morning of April 5, 2021, when he realized the damage to his truck was extensive and when he heard police had closed Lakeshore to investigate a fatality.

While he told court he initially thought the truck sustained about $1,500 in damage, the final total was more than six times that amount.

The family reached an out-of-court settlement with Enns’ insurer, but did not sue him personally.

Taking any further action was deemed not worth the emotional toll a court case might have entailed.

*****

Living in a small town like Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s inevitable that people’s paths will cross from time to time.

Whether driving around NOTL, or face-to-face at the hardware or grocery store, Franz says she has encountered Enns several times in the three years since the tragedy.

And now his company, P.G. Enns Farms, owns Tina’s Fruit Market, a small roadside stand a hundred metres or so from Wilson’s memorial.

Their lives remain forever intertwined, but Enns and Franz have never spoken. She longs for that opportunity.

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