Two men jailed for brutal attack on Kelowna homeless man in 2020

Jailed for swarming attack

Two young men were taken into custody by court sheriffs Friday afternoon, following their all-day sentencing hearing for their brutal assault on a homeless man in a Kelowna alley back in March 2020.

Devin Comerford and Zachary Gaubert, now 22 and 23 years old respectively, both pleaded guilty last September to the aggravated assault of a 29-year-old man who was living on the streets at the time.

They were arrested about two months after the attack, and spent one night in custody, before their release on bail. But the two men, who had no prior criminal record, were taken into custody Friday to serve a 16-month jail sentence.

While Comerford and Gaubert's defence counsel, Grant Gray and Glenn Verdurmen, had sought conditional sentence orders, which are served in the community under a number of conditions like house arrest, Justice Gary Weatherill's sentence was closer to the 18-month sentence sought by Crown prosecutor Patricia O'Neil.

Justice Weatherill described the incident as a “senseless, brutal swarming attack” that was “violent, vicious, excessive, unprovoked and cowardly.”

O'Neil read out the circumstances of the assault Friday morning, the details of which were agreed upon by both the Crown and defence. Video surveillance of the attack was also played in court.

Comerford, Gaubert, Austin Pedersen and a fourth young man began drinking at Comerford's Rutland home on the evening of March 1, 2020, before they headed downtown to the Liquid Zoo nightclub.

Comerford was 19 at the time, while Gaubert and Pedersen were 20. Comerford had just received $600 through Employment Insurance and he was looking to spend it on a night out with his friends.

The four men left the Liquid Zoo very intoxicated at about 2:15 a.m. and began loitering in a nearby alley. They met C.B., a 16-year-old girl, in the alley who asked for a cigarette. She began hanging out with the men, and it appears the men propositioned her for sexual services.

“I have five bucks and a pair of $120 Ray-Bans, that's all I've got boys,” Gaubert could be heard saying on a video taken by Comerford.

“I'm gonna want a, f***ing, at least a blowjob or something,” Gaubert says in response to something indiscernible from C.B.

A subsequent video shows Gaubert and C.B. alone in the alley, and O'Neil said she appeared to be undoing her bra. C.B. stops when she notices the camera filming her.

C.B. left the company of the four men and met up with her close friend, M.R., who was living on the streets and struggling with addiction at the time. At this point, Gaubert and the fourth friend were getting food at the nearby Pita Pit while Comerford and Pedersen waited outside. M.R. approached Pedersen and Comerford and “accused them of trying to pay C.B., an underaged girl, for sexual services,” O'Neil stated.

Pedersen reacted aggressively to the accusation and began punching and kicking M.R., causing M.R. to produce a knife and begin “swinging it around.”

Pedersen called out to the others for help, and M.R. fled south down the alley. The four men chased after him and midway down the alleyway, Pedersen tripped M.R.

“Mr. Pedersen, Mr. Comerford and Mr. Gaubert all proceeded to repeatedly punch, kick, and stomp on [M.R.] while he lay on the pavement,” O'Neil said. “The three assailants also took turns repeatedly striking [M.R.] with Mr. Pedersen's wooden cane.”

The fourth friend didn't participate in the attack, but filmed it on his phone.

The initial attack, all of which was captured on surveillance video, lasted about a minute. The video, played in court, shows M.R. lying in the fetal position, trying to protect his head during the beating. As the men go to leave the scene, Pedersen delivers one final vicious stomp to the immobile man, while Comerford throws the now-broken cane onto a nearby roof.

But while M.R. lay bleeding alone in the alley, barely moving, the three men returned moments later. Pedersen rolled the man onto his back, Comerford takes his knife and throws it onto a roof, and all three deliver more kicks.

They then flee south down the alley towards Lawrence Avenue, only to return yet again to deliver a couple final kicks to M.R., before running towards Bernard Avenue.

About nine minutes later, a bystander discovered M.R. lying in the alley, bleeding from his nose, mouth and the back of his head. His eyes were swollen shut.

He was rushed to Kelowna General Hospital's ICU in an ambulance, suffering from a life-threatening traumatic brain injury. M.R. suffered brain bleeding, “significant mass effect,” which is the squeezing of brain tissue due to pressure from a hematoma, and “brain herniation,” which is the shifting of brain tissue from its normal position.

M.R. discharged himself from the hospital against medical advice on March 7. The court heard how he continues to suffer from PTSD and other psychological impacts.

Following the attack, the four men broke into the construction zone at what is now the One Water Street buildings and took photos of themselves from high up in the under-construction tower. They posted the photos to social media.

Comerford called a cab back to Rutland for him and his friends at 3:50 a.m., giving his name to the dispatch centre. The cab driver told police he overheard the men talking about seeing something “crazy” as they drove back to Rutland.

“This information combined with the social media posts were essential in allowing police to identify [M.R.'s] assailants,” O'Neil said.

Gaubert, Comerford and Pedersen were arrested on May 7, 2020 and charged with aggravated assault. Pedersen, who was on bail and probation for separate offences when the attack took place, pleaded guilty in June 2021 and was handed a two-year jail sentence.

O'Neil noted Gaubert and Comerford both expressed horror when police showed them the surveillance footage of the attack. Comerford told officers he had no recollection of the incident due to his intoxication, while Gaubert said he had limited memory of it.

Despite admitting to police their participation in the attack, they waited until September 2022 to plead guilty – the month before their trial was scheduled to begin.

Both Gaubert and Comerford are young fathers who are gainfully employed, and their friends and family spoke about how the attack was out of character for them. The two men addressed Justice Weatherill Friday afternoon and expressed their shame and remorse for participating in the attack.

But while the men were hoping to serve their sentence at home, Justice Weatherill said a true jail sentence was required to denounce their actions and deter others.

"Conduct like that fuelled by intoxication or any other substance has no place in our society," Justice Weatherill told the men.

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