THE Winnipeg police homicide unit is now leading the investigation into a purposely set fire that killed two men in a Notre Dame Avenue bathhouse earlier this month.
Police confirmed arson is to blame for the Oct. 11 blaze at Aquarius Men's Bath in the 400 block of Notre Dame Avenue that claimed the lives of Steven Yablonski, 23, of Winnipeg and Robert Clark, 62, of Saskatchewan.
The fire was set sometime before 7 a.m., when emergency crews were dispatched to the business.
The bathhouse's owner, Somchai Pengpharsuks, told the Free Press last week he believed the blaze was set by two men on the building's second floor.
He said the incident was potentially hate-motivated, according to information he received, because the bathhouse is frequented predominantly by gay men.
Both men died of smoke inhalation in a fire that police believe was "deliberately set," said a police spokesman.
"(It's) a very horrific event," said Const. Jason Michalyshen.
Kaj Hasselriis, an outspoken member of Winnipeg's gay community, said he was "totally surprised" by the police finding, and added the crime "makes me uneasy."
"If someone would do that, what else might they do?" asked Hasselriis, the Manitoba reporter for www.xtra.ca, a national gay and lesbian news website. "I'm worried it could be a hate crime, and worried for the community as a whole."
Homicide investigators have consulted with the Winnipeg Police Service hate crimes co-ordinator, Michalyshen said.
"There has certainly been contact, members and supervisors within that unit have certainly had some dialogue," he said.
"Right now, at this point, there's no evidence to support that this is a hate-motivated crime."
Police have not released Clark's city of residence in Saskatchewan at the request of the man's family.
The family of Yablonski marked his death with a funeral in Gimli Monday.
The Aquarius bathhouse was a facility both men and women frequented.
The city does not license bathhouses.
However, city employees monitored the facility to make sure it met the fire code.
It was last checked in 2001, and fire officials said they will be reviewing if the building was up to code at the time of the fire.
Police asked anyone with information about the crime who has not already been contacted by officers to call 986-6508 or 786-8477 (TIPS).