A courtroom was filled this morning with family and friends of the five victims of a July 2011 rooming house fire who came together for the sentencing hearing of the woman responsible for those deaths.
Lulonda Flett, 42, set a couch on fire that quickly spread to a three-storey rooming house in Point Douglas.
Court was told that a deeply intoxicated Flett had set the fire to scare the mother and teenaged sister of her boyfriend, who lived on the first floor. But the intended victims were able to escape unharmed, while the fire trapped six people on the second and third floors, five of whom died from smoke inhalation.
The fire was described by both defence and Crown counsel as a unique crime in Manitoba’s history.
Crown prosecutor Liz Thomson told the court that Flett was originally charged with five counts of second-degree murder, but that was lowered to manslaughter because Flett was severely intoxicated when she set the fire and claimed she never meant to hurt anyone.
Flett pleaded guilty to five counts of manslaughter and one count of arson at trial in October. Sentencing has been delayed for the completion of several reports, which were finally ready for today.
Thomson told Justice Deborah McCawley that the horror of Flett’s actions demanded she be sentenced to concurrent life sentences. The manslaughter conviction ensures Flett would not be eligible for parole for seven years, and the life sentences would then subject her to supervision from justice officials for the rest of her life.
Defence counsel Darren Sawchuk said that based on precedents for similar offences involving arson and death, Flett should be given a sentence in the range of eight to 10 years.
'Deeply sorry': Flett
At the conclusion of the hearing, McCawley reserved judgment on sentencing for a later date.
Flett made an emotional appeal to the families of the victims following the lunchtime break, asking them for their forgiveness and blaming her addiction to alcohol for her actions.
McCawley gave Flett permission to leave the prisoner box and to turn and face the public gallery. Flett immediately broke into tears as she read her statement.
"I am deeply sorry for what I have done," Flett said. "I really hope you forgive me for what happened.
"I never meant for this to happen. I cry myself to sleep knowing I can’t change what happened."
Flett sobbed as she was led out of the courtroom, handcuffed and feet shackled.
Earlier in the day, several individuals in the public gallery broke into tears as Michelle Wazny read a statement to the court, detailing the impact the death of her brother, Robert Laforte, has had on her and her family.
Wazny read out her brother’s name and age and the names and ages of the other victims and added: "They deserve to be remembered today — and every day."
Wazny said firefighters had pulled her brother from the burning rooming but he was so badly injured he was placed on life support with no chance of recovery. Her mother agreed to remove Robert from life support and he struggled on to live for several more hours, prompting officials as HSC to transfer him to Riverview Health Centre, where his life slowly ebbed away from him.
"I held his hand so tight and cried and pleaded with God," to take him, "but he continued to struggle for several more hours," Wazny said.
Flett had drinking problem, had been abused
Thomson said that Flett had a long-running dispute with her boyfriend’s mother and teenaged sister that culminated in the early hours of July 16, 2011. Flett set fire to a couch on the front porch and the flames spread to the rest of the house.
Flett then ran off to a nearby residence where she met up with her boyfriend and admitted to him that she had set the fire.
Police found Flett later that day drinking at the bar at the nearby Northern Hotel.
Sawchuk said that Flett was "grossly intoxicated" that day and had been drunk for several days.
Thomson said that a pre-sentence report on Flett found that she has an intellectual and cognitive deficit, a severe drinking problem, poor language skills and is easily angered.
Sawchuk said that Flett had been sexually abused for several years as a child and then physically abused by her first husband. He described her as "a vulnerable person, a victim of neglect and abuse … who numbed herself with alcohol for years."
The sentencing hearing resumes this afternoon.