A man who set his house on fire during a fight with his wife, horrifically burning her, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
The case was heard in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster, with Justice Frits Verhoeven presiding. There is a publication ban on any information that could identify the victims. The man is identified in the judge’s reasons for sentencing only as a Mr. L who lived with his family in a two-level home “in a Lower Mainland suburban city.” His wife, whom Verhoeven noted suffered “an agonizing, gruesome death,” is identified only as Ms. V.
Mr. L pleaded guilty in February to manslaughter and arson causing bodily harm and was sentenced on March 7. He had originally been charged with second-degree murder but pleaded guilty to the lesser offence.
“The crimes for which Mr. L has pleaded guilty are shocking, senseless and horrific,” Verhoeven said. “Time can never completely erase or completely heal their tragic consequences.”
The Crown and defence presented the court with a joint submission of 18 years imprisonment.
“The children lost their mother in horrifying circumstances that they all witnessed and experienced,” the judge noted. “They and the other members of her family have suffered a devastating loss. It is difficult to imagine that the children will ever fully recover. Their lives were shattered.
“The psychological and emotional harm must be profound. In addition to losing their mother, they lost their home and possessions. They also lost their father in practical terms.”
The couple’s children told the court their father had “pushed around” their mom in the past and that he was quick to anger, smashed things, and would then apologize. Several years before the fatal fire, he attempted to burn their Christmas tree down inside the house and lit their curtains on fire, the court heard.
The fatal fire happened on a Sunday afternoon, July 10, 2016
During a fight with his wife Mr. L set their home on fire, with five of their six children present. Their eldest son, 18, had been shopping at the time. Of the other children, who were at home, the eldest was 16 and the youngest was 4. The two basement suite tenants weren’t home at the time.
The court heard the couple was cooking in the kitchen on the second floor, began arguing and Mr. L grabbed some dishes from the counter and smashed them on the floor. He “swiped” a pressure cooker off the counter, hitting his wife in the back and spilling the cooker’s contents onto the floor, Verhoeven noted, and “then threw the pressure cooker and a rice cooker off the deck of the house into the backyard.”
Their 16-year-old son emerged from his bedroom to investigate, called his dad “crazy,” and his dad attacked him. Ms. V “tried to physically intervene” while the next eldest child took the three youngest into the master bedroom and called 911. The 16-year-old son ran into the bathroom, and also called 911.
Before police arrived, Mr. L ran downstairs to the garage, grabbed a 20-litre gasoline can, brought it upstairs, pouring gas onto the stairs, in the living room, family room and kitchen while his wife and their son, 16, tried to stop him. Mr. L grabbed a lighter, lit it and dropped it on the living room floor. He, his wife and son were within a few feet of one another. “Gasoline was all around them,” the judge noted.
The boy’s feet were burned. His mom’s clothing and body caught fire, and Mr. L’s leg was also on fire.
Mr. L went into the master bedroom, put out the flames on himself, told the children to go out the second-storey window and three of them jumped to a trampoline in the backyard. The youngest, age 4, was rescued by the 16-year-old brother.
When police arrived, they saw Mr. L apparently trying to put out the fire with a blanket or towel.
One of the officers used a blanket to smother the flames on Ms. V and brought her outside. “Her entire body was burned,” the judge noted. “She was in extreme pain, but was conscious and able to speak.”
She died in hospital four-and-a-half hours later. “Ninety-five to ninety-eight per cent of the surface area of her body was burned.”
Mr. L sustained second and third degree burns t0 his leg. The couple’s 16-year-old son suffered second-degree burns to his feet and his 13-year-old brother was “slightly injured” while escaping the scene. The three younger kids escaped without injury.
The court heard the husband operated a computer and cellphone business and his wife had recently opened a cafe in Vancouver.
Mr. L told the court he had been working long hours and was “anxious” about deadlines. “He felt overwhelmed by his work,” the judge noted. “He had been trying to sell the business for several months, unsuccessfully.”
The court heard there had been “tensions” between the couple two days prior to the fire, concerning their respective businesses.
Mr. L told the court he was in a “fit of anger and frustration and wanted to make a point by destroying some material things,” intending to set a small fire and put it out.
“He had done so on two occassions in the past, although he had not previously used gasoline, and I infer the fires were small and did not cause much damage,” Verhoeven noted. “He states that he had a premonition about the family home being destroyed by fire one day. He states that the catastrophe that occurred was beyond his comprehension.”
Verhoeven noted that Mr. L’s lawyers “wisely” did not present his claimed intention to light a small fire — which the judge didn’t accept — as a mitigating factor.
“Efforts to understand Mr. L’s behaviour are ultimately pointless,” the judge concluded.