A high-profile double homicide case has collapsed due to concerns the jury might be tainted by an unexpected dispute over a key piece of evidence.
Justin Rosdobutko, 29, is accused of setting a Winnipeg bathhouse on fire in October 2009, killing two patrons. His trial began Monday with him pleading not guilty to two counts of manslaughter.
But Queen's Bench Justice Doug Abra abruptly pulled the plug on the trial Wednesday, saying going further could be dangerous to the administration of justice.
Specifically, lawyers had previously agreed the deadly blaze was caused by arson, and the only question was whether the accused was responsible.
But the entire tone of the case changed late Tuesday when the lead fire investigator was repeatedly questioned by defence lawyer Todd Bourcier about the possibility the fire was started accidentally. This came as a surprise to both the Crown and the judge.
"That was an acknowledged fact. The only thing we were arguing about is who set the fire," prosecutor Deann Sahulka told court.
She said the Crown's case would have proceeded much differently if not for the pre-trial agreement. For example, several additional witnesses would have been called and much more time would have been required than the scheduled nine days.
"The damage has already been done," Abra said. He accused the defence of "changing horses in midstream" and said the only remedy was starting over with a new jury. It could be many months, even a year or longer, before that occurs.
Rosdobutko remains free on bail.
Jurors previously heard forensic analysts who combed through the rubble of the Aquarius Men's Bathhouse on Notre Dame Avenue were able to determine arson as the cause.
The lead investigator, Kevin Ross, said one large fire was set in a couch and a secondary blaze began in a bed. Both were triggered by "direct flame contact" and led to extensive flame and smoke damage in the building.
Ross said the fact there were two points of origin made it clear this was a deliberate act.
Jurors also heard Rosdobutko was visiting the facility that evening and told a friend they should "burn the bathhouse down."
Steven Yablonski, 23, and Robert Gene Clark, 62, died of smoke inhalation. Yablonski was a local entertainer and Clark was from Saskatchewan.
There were no witnesses to either fire being set.
DNA testing on a cigarette butt found in the room where the bed was set afire contained a "mixed profile" of two people, jurors were told.
Rosdobutko's DNA was not in the profile, but his friend's was.