A former lacrosse coach was handed a one-year conditional sentence Thursday for assaulting a referee during a 2019 tournament in Orillia.
Dwayne Palomaki, 49, was convicted Oct. 26, 2020, of assault causing bodily harm. Court heard Palomaki, a trainer with an Innisfil midget lacrosse team that was taking part in the annual Boyd Balkwill Memorial Tournament at Rotary Place, was ejected after a fight between two out-of-town teams on June 14, 2019.
Bracebridge resident Gordon Brown, 46, the referee in charge of the tournament, went to the hallway near the dressing rooms and thanked Palomaki for leaving the game, according to the Crown.
That’s when Palomaki punched Brown in the left side of his face. Brown hit the ground and Palomaki is said to have punched him two more times, knocking the ref unconscious.
In Orillia court Thursday, Crown attorney Neil Riley showed four photos of Brown's extensive facial injuries. Palomaki glanced at each one.
Brown, who is also the referee-in-chief with Orillia Minor Lacrosse, suffered “serious trauma” to his left eye, Riley said, adding he will require eye surgery at some point.
Brown wasn’t able to attend Thursday’s sentencing, so Riley read from Brown’s victim impact statement. In it, Brown said the “worst part of the assault” was the effect it had on his 13-year-old son. The boy didn’t see the attack, but he “witnessed, first-hand, the aftermath.”
He “saw his dad covered in blood, saw the pool of blood on the floor” and accompanied his father to hospital in an ambulance.
“Also aggravating was just the sheer violence of the assault itself,” Riley said, referring to the punches that followed the first one while Brown was defenceless.
He also noted Palomaki, instead of helping Brown, “fled” after the attack.
“This was a vicious assault in a very public way,” Riley said, adding, “Mr. Brown did not deserve what happened.”
Riley asked that Palomaki be sentenced to four to six months in jail, plus a year’s probation, a five-year weapons prohibition and that he be ordered to provide a DNA sample.
Defence lawyer Toomas Ounapuu said a jail term would be “too harsh,” and he requested a suspended sentence and probation. He noted Palomaki did not have a criminal record prior to this conviction, referring to his client as “a law-abiding citizen but for this one day, which he regrets.”
The incident was “a few minutes in a life of 50 years,” Ounapuu said.
Court was provided with 13 character reference letters for Palomaki — the most Ounapuu said he has ever seen. In at least two of those letters, Palomaki was described as a “teddy bear.”
“Reputation is earned and he’s earned a reputation as a good father, a good husband and a good member of the community,” Ounapuu said.
He spoke about how the assault and subsequent conviction have affected Palomaki, including the inability to coach or train anymore.
“He now has a conviction. He will not pass the vulnerable-persons check,” he said, adding it will also make it more difficult for his client to find certain jobs. “So many doors are closed now.”
Palomaki and his family “are being harassed,” Ounapuu said, with some people making comments about how he’ll “look in an orange jumpsuit.”
Before Justice Stacey Nichols handed down her sentence, Palomaki addressed the court.
“I accept responsibility for my actions and the punishment for those actions,” he said, also apologizing to Brown and his family.
“I have tarnished my family name and the name of our organization (the Ontario Lacrosse Association) — something I’ll have to live with,” he added.
“This is not who I am or what I stand for.”
His family is his No. 1 priority, he said, and he choked up while pleading with the judge to allow him to “continue to support and be there for them.”
Nichols took the character reference letters into consideration, saying they showed the attack was “out of character” for Palomaki.
“He is well liked and respected in the community,” she said.
Out of character or not, she acknowledged the serious troubles it has caused for Brown.
She handed Palomaki a one-year conditional sentence. He will be under house arrest for nine months. For the remaining three months, he will have to adhere to a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. He will then be on probation for a year.
Palomaki must keep the peace and exercise good behaviour. He was ordered to provide a DNA sample to police and continue with counselling for anger management. He is not allowed to buy, possess or consume alcohol for the duration of his conditional sentence, and he has a five-year weapons prohibition.
Palomaki cannot be within 200 metres of Brown or his immediate family and cannot contact them in any way.
Victim reacts to sentence
Speaking with OrilliaMatters following Thursday’s sentencing, Brown said he was “glad something was given” in terms of a sentence, but he questioned the effectiveness of house arrest during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I’m happy with the guilty conviction. That was the biggest deal,” he said.
The order for Palomaki to stay 200 metres away from Brown “is sufficient,” he said.
“I feel better in that I know he won’t be allowed in an arena while I’m there.”
Brown had mixed reactions to his attacker’s apology.
“It’s an easy apology when it’s in court. I’ll withhold judgment on the apology until I actually see it, hear it,” he said.
Making it more difficult to accept the apology was that Palomaki had claimed in earlier court appearances Brown started the altercation. Before finding Palomaki guilty in October, Nichols dismissed that notion.
“It bothered me a lot that he was going after me as a ref,” Brown said, noting “reputation is everything” for referees.
Brown talked about the extent of his injuries. He said a specialist told him there is scar tissue in his left eye that will require surgery in three to 10 years and that his eye has aged 15 years as a result of the attack.
He has trouble driving at night because of the headlights from oncoming traffic, and he has difficulty reading for more than 10 minutes at a time, making it especially challenging in his job as a teacher.
Despite the assault and the resulting injuries, Brown remains determined to carry on with the sport he loves.
“It’s not going to stop me from reffing,” he said.
He showed a similar resiliency after the assault.
The attack happened on a Friday. After being released from hospital in the early hours of Saturday, he returned to Rotary Place that day. He didn’t referee any games, but he organized the refereeing. Saturday night, he found himself “cold and shaking uncontrollably” and returned to hospital. At his wife’s urging, he did not return to the arena on Sunday.
He hopes Palomaki’s sentence serves as a “deterrent to others.”
“This is not an isolated problem. It needs to stop,” said Brown, who has been a referee for 26 years. “At the end of the day, we all need to remember it’s just a game.”