‘His future was robbed from him’


One punch on Canada Day 2019 in Grand Bend led to a life-long brain injury

Alex Kurial/Local Journalism Initiative

What should be the punishment for making a man “a prisoner in his own body for the rest of his life?”

That was at the heart of a sentencing hearing in Sarnia Court Tuesday. On Canada Day, 2019, Cole Willemsen, now 24, was arguing with Kyle Hern, 22, on Grand Bend’s Main Street.

They knew each other and were in a heated exchange.

Willemsen had walked away, but when he heard Hern yelling, he turned around, walked back and punched him in the face.

“He was struck hard and fast before he had a chance to act,” says Crown Attorney Nila Mulpuru.

“Mr. Willemsen acknowledged he despised Mr. Hern and he wanted him to pay for offences Mr. Willemsen believed he committed.”

Mulpuru says Willemsen acted “out of revenge.”

Hern was knocked to the ground and struck his head on the curb.
Court heard Hern was offered help but initally refused. He went to hospital later that night, but was released.

Soon after, Hern suffered bleeding in his brain and had a massive stroke.

“He is still unable to function without daily assistance. He continues to reside in a rehabilitation facility. He will never be able to fully recover,” says Mulpuru.

“My son is a prisoner in his own body for the rest of his life,” said his father in a victim impact statement. Hern’s brain injury has forced him into relearning basic movements such as talking, seeing, chewing, walking and using his hands.

He’s undergone four major surgeries and continues to recover at the Parkwood Institute in London.

“Kyle Hern is my hero for going through all he has and can still smile,” says his father.

His loss of memory means he is retraumatized on a constant basis. “As he always asked for Mom,” said his sister. “Every time we would have to remind him that she already passed and witness him grieve her loss over and over again because his brain trauma is so severe he cannot recall.

“It is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Their mother passed away from cancer before the attack on Hern.

“There are no amount of words that can describe how deeply this incident has broken my heart and the lifelong impact that it will have on my siblings and I,” says his sister.
“It has shaken my faith in the idea that good people who do good things and work to support their friends and family will have good things come to them.”

Other family members recounted how Hern was a natural athlete who loved all sports, especially hockey and the Washington Capitals. He lit up when a jersey was hung in his room at the rehab centre.

Hern was a reliable worker at the Hayter turkey farm and always made time for family.
“Although we do have hope he will get better we can’t help but feel like we will never see him walk through our back door again, running to the couch to hold his nieces,” says Hern’s brother.

“His future was robbed from him and it is so heartbreaking and infuriating that someone so senseless could take his future away from him and him away from us.”
During the trial Defence Lawyer Scott Cowan argued Willemsen acted in self defence after being threatened by Hern.

Justice John Desotti rejected this argument finding him guilty.

Cowan says the full extent of Hern’s injuries were an “unforeseeable result.

“A single punch to the face generally does not cause serious injury,” he says.
“If this punch had happened on grass it might have never been a police matter…
“It was a coincidence that this happened so close to the curb, it was an exquisitely awful confluence of factors.”

Cowan says nobody could have predicted the resulting brain injury, including Hern. Cowan says even after the punch Hern declined help and attempted to get back in the bar, also texting Willemsen saying they weren’t finished.

“I’m not trying to blame anybody for how this injury aggravated… I only point that out because this shows the unforeseeability of it,” says Cowan.

“The person that happened to, the people who care about him, didn’t know he needed the hospital. Surely Cole Willemsen can’t be held to a higher standard.”

Cowan provided 20 reference letters to the court describing Willemsen as “polite, helpful, and hard working… Those elements of his background show that he is governable.”

Cowan says a short conditional sentence in the community or even an intermittent sentence not lasting more than a few months would be an appropriate punishment.
He says Willemsen has an “excellent reputation in the community,” and is not a threat to the public.

“He is very sorry for this injury. He wishes things had turned out differently and he wishes these injuries did not aggravate themselves.”

Mulpuru argued a jail term in the two to three year range would be more just.
“A one punch assault does not necessarily lessen the gravity of what Mr. Willemsen did.”
She says Hern was alone and vulnerable at the time of the attack and Willemsen was in no danger and had the chance to walk away.

“His role in returning to confront Mr. Hern in the middle of Main Street was critical to the eventual strike and the serious wounding that ultimately occurred,” says Mulpuru.
“There is a high degree of moral blameworthiness in this case.”

Justice Desotti says he’ll need time to review the submissions before making a decision.
He adjourned the case to Sept. 27 when he will hand down Willemsen’s punishment.

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