Special to the Castlegar News
The man who set two Castlegar churches on fire, destroying one and severely damaging the other, apologized but offered little explanation for his actions as he was sentenced Monday to two years in federal prison.
Lee Wilding, 19, changed his plea to guilty, admitting to starting the fire at the Kinnaird Church of God that resulted in $500,000 to $600,000 damage. Almost exactly a year earlier, he set fires that destroyed St. Rita’s Catholic Church and a Red Cross van parked at Kinnaird Community Church. For those crimes he was sentenced to 14 months in jail with credit for time served.
Wilding was released on March 10 and returned to Castlegar eight days later to testify at the trial of the teenage girl co-accused in the St. Rita’s fire. (The charges against her have since been dropped.) That night, he set fire to the Church of God.
“It’s almost beyond belief that this series of events unfolded the way it did,” said Crown prosecutor Sunday Patola.
Wilding’s jail sentence, the result of a joint submission by Crown and defense, is to be followed by three years probation with a curfew and an order to stay away from incendiary material. He still needs to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $1,700 restitution as part of his earlier sentence.
In outlining the case, Patola said the Church of God fire was believed to have started in or near a rear shed after someone doused a camping-size propane tank with lighter fluid.
As fire crews battled the blaze, RCMP went to the Sandman Hotel where Wilding was staying and found him awake, although he declined to make a statement. They later came back to advise him he was a suspect.
That night, the hotel desk clerk saw Wilding drop two plastic bags into a dumpster. Police seized them and found lighter fluid, candles, and burnt matches. Wilding’s father and stepmother later arrived at the hotel and he was arrested as they left the building together shortly after 6 a.m. He has remained in custody since.
From video surveillance, investigators determined Wilding bought the lighter fluid at the nearby Chevron station. Although he didn’t buy the candles there, they were similar to ones the store sold. The wooden matches were of a type sold at the Dollarama across the street, although staff didn’t recall Wilding buying any.
Wilding also appeared on video surveillance at Canadian Tire buying a toque and three pack of propane tanks. While no tanks were recovered from his belongings, Patola said an explosion a neighbour heard at the church was “consistent” with one of them going off.
She said the joint sentencing submission followed “extensive discussion” with his lawyer and Wilding could have faced much more jail time but for his age and guilty plea, which prevented a trial that the judge and lawyers acknowledged could have lasted up to three weeks.
Three victim impact statements from church members were submitted, including one from Rev. Cynthia Pelletier.
“A church is more than just a building,” Judge Don Sperry told Wilding, who was dressed in a maroon shirt and matching pants. “The whole community has been greatly affected by this crime. That church has been there since at least the late 1950s and has been a focus for members of the community of Kinnaird. You took that away from them.”
Before passing sentence, Sperry asked Wilding if he had anything to say. He stood in the prisoner’s box and looked at the floor.
“I’m taking full responsibility,” he said. “I try to apologize the best I can. When I got out of jail I didn’t think I would be in a situation like this. I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m not going to blame anybody else. I’m truly sorry to everyone at the church, in the community, and my family.”
Earlier, his lawyer Tyleen Underwood said Wilding wants to obtain his high school diploma and told her “This stupid shit is done. This is not going to happen again.”
“He wants to get out and stay out,” Underwood said. “This is still a young man with his family’s support. They want him to get counseling and treatment. We’re asking you to give him one more chance.”
Sperry asked Wilding if he could explain his actions. “You don’t have to tell us but a lot of people would like to know,” he said. Wilding paused and replied “It had nothing to do with religion. I never deliberately planned on lighting that church on fire. I’m sorry.” Sperry, however, said he didn’t buy that: “You purchased or stole items necessary to do what you did.”
He told Wilding he had been “well represented” by his lawyer and “more than fairly treated” by the Crown and could easily have received a prison sentence twice as long.
Father David John of St. Rita’s church, who was present in the courtroom, told Mountain FM he found it “significant” that Wilding denied any anti-religious reason for his crimes but had hoped the young man would have elaborated on his motives.
“It does disappoint me very much. I think it would have helped bring a certain amount of closure to the community,” he said. “It’s very sad when a young guy just goes off the rails like that. When he finishes all the supervision, he’ll be in his mid-20s and hopefully know himself a bit better and be able to go on a positive line through his life.”