Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Teen spared jail for huge fire at stadium

Mental-health issues, anxiety mitigating factors

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He flicked the Bic that set off a dangerous and costly arson at the former home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Peer pressure was the spark.

On Tuesday, a Winnipeg teen escaped jail time after admitting to recklessly igniting gasoline fumes in a storage shed at Canad Inns Stadium in April 2013.

He was sentenced to two years of probation.

The fire triggered fear the whole facility on Maroons Road had caught fire because of the extent of the flames and smoke.

"It's a prime example of why you don't play with matches -- it's that basic," prosecutor Dan Angus told court this week.

"It's a $300,000 lesson instead of a $50 lesson," Angus said of the estimated damage.

Led by a co-accused, the arsonist and other youths broke into the storage shed on the evening of April 2, 2013.

At the time, the stadium was being demolished as Investors Group Field had became the new home for the CFL team.

While horsing around among massive pallets of wooden flooring for stadium concerts, a can of gasoline got kicked over.

"Should I light it? Should I light it?," the offender, then 17, asked, according to one account told to police investigators.

"If you're going to do it, it would be funny to see," the lone girl in the group replied. "But I don't want to be in here when it happens," she said.

"Do it, do it," said the others.

"There was more -- there was a lot of encouragement," defence lawyer Darren Sawchuk said.

The fumes ignited with a poof after the teen flicked a lighter, court heard.

The blaze quickly engulfed the structure.

"He had burns on his face... his eyebrows and his hair," said Angus.

There were no serious injuries.

Firefighters battled the blaze for hours. At one point, they were forced to retreat and bring in an aerial ladder to fight the flames from above.

The case was solved after one boy had a "crisis of conscience," told his mother about the event and she contacted police, Angus said.

Of the five youths arrested, only two were prosecuted -- one for breaking into the shed and the other for setting the fire.

Two others were diverted away from the court system and one was never charged, Angus said.

Because of the statements police gathered from the group, there was never an issue about who started the fire, he added.

The offender was described as "low-functioning," and has anxiety and mental-health issues.

He left school in Grade 7. His isolation made him more vulnerable to poor influences, Judge Heather Pullan was told.

He had no criminal record.

Despite these factors, Angus argued the facts of the "exceptional case" left it open to the court to sentence him to custody.

"If people understood you could burn a large public building without any repercussions as a youth, I think the public might be a little discouraged," said Angus.

The offender feels remorse that appears to be genuine, a psychologist wrote in a report.

"(The) intention was to be mischievous, but not to the extent of what happened that night," Sawchuk said. "Now he's even afraid to have friends, getting into trouble like that."

The offender told Pullan he's changed the kind of people with whom he makes friends.

"I definitely have learned from this," he said.

Pullan called the arson "shocking and serious," but decided he wasn't eligible for custody under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The teen will receive counselling and must perform 240 hours of community work.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 A4

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