The hammer of justice fell swiftly in two high-profile cases in Invermere Provincial Court on Monday, April 28th.
Invermere resident Kris Weller, 27, was sentenced to 15 months in a provincial prison for his role in an arson in Fairmont Hot Springs in December 2012, while the truck driver accused of dangerous driving causing the death of a California family in July 2011 was found guilty on all four counts.
Despite many letters of reference read aloud by Mr. Weller’s family and friends in court prior to sentencing, Judge Grant Sheard concluded that although “it is readily apparent that Mr. Weller has been an otherwise exemplary character,” his actions in enabling the fire that destroyed five half-completed buildings in the Columbia Eagle condominium development required a significant jail sentence.
“A suspended sentence would be inadequate,” he said, noting that recent changes to the Canadian Criminal Code mean a conditional sentence is no longer acceptable for the charge of arson damaging property.
The total damage caused by the blaze, set by Cheyenne Mason-Lalande after Mr. Weller poured several litres of gasoline on the floor of one of the units at about 3 a.m. on December 22nd, 2012, amounts to just under $1.7 million, according to a victim impact statement submitted by the condominium owners.
Tragically, Ms. Mason-Lalande took her own life in late January 2013, a week after her confession led to charges being laid against her and Mr. Weller, who was led away and handcuffed after the verdict was delivered on Monday afternoon.
“It is my submission that both of the parties were equally responsible,” said defence lawyer Buffy Blakley. Crown prosecutor Lynal Doerksen noted several motivating factors for the crime, including the inspiration Mr. Weller and Ms. Mason-Lalande drew from the supposed end of the Mayan calendar on that night.
Mr. Doerksen had sought a sentence of 15 to 18 months, while Mrs. Blakley sought a 15-month sentence and a restitution order. Mr. Weller will have to pay back $5,000 within two months of his release from prison, and was ordered to provide a DNA sample within a week.
Mrs. Blakley noted the Weller family is “well known for its many, many contributions to the community,” and that Kris Weller, an able builder, is willing to commit to helping rebuild the condos.
About a dozen family members and friends spoke of his qualities as a person prior to sentencing, in which sentences handed out in similar cases were considered first by Judge Sheard.
Kris’ father, Herb Weller, described Kris as an excellent student, athlete, climber and volunteer who once saved his life during a climbing accident.
“His many good choices are a true reflection of his character,” he told Justice Sheard in a shaky voice. “He is the best climbing partner that I could absolutely trust.”
“He has been nothing but a joy in my life,” said his mother, Colleen. “I will always love him and always be proud of him.”
Friends spoke of his qualities as a lifeguard at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, and of his skill as a builder.
Mr. Weller addressed property owner Lara McCormack — who owns the units along with her father, Wayne Franchuk — and the financial damage he caused. The buildings were not insured against arson.
“I feel bad for what I put your family through,” said Mr. Weller, who has no prior criminal record. “I’m deeply sorry; I got caught up in the moment and I now I’ve made a mistake.”
“His apology to Mrs. McCormack appeared genuine,” noted Judge Sheard.
After considering evidence from the Crown and defence at Jaswinder Singh Bagri’s three-and-a-half day trial in March, Judge Sheard found Mr. Bagri was negligent in carrying too much speed around a corner and crossing the centre line on Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park, giving rise to a disastrous jack-knife and subsequent fire that killed the family, who were on vacation from Palo Alto, California.
“It is established that (Mr. Bagri’s) conduct amounts to a marked departure from the standard of care,” for safe truck driving practice said Judge Sheard, noting Mr. Bagri’s conduct behind the wheel was “not a momentary lapse of attention,” but the culmination of nearly a minute of poor decisions.
In the trial, Mr. Bagri said “I just took a chance that everything was OK,” in describing his approach to driving past a brake check into a reverse curve near Olive lake where the accident occurred. That was a relevant admission, said Judge Sheard, who added the fact Mr. Bagri was driving a large truck pulling two unloaded trailers on a well-travelled highway during a peak travel period, and his failure to heed a sign recommending a speed of just 60 kilometre per hour through the curve, also contributed to his decision.
Although there were no direct witnesses to the accident, what then transpired was Mr. Bagri’s truck jack-knifing into the path of a northbound Dodge camper van that was towing a Suzuki SUV.
The family of four in the camper van — Robert Howard, 48, his wife Ana-Maria Dias, 50, and their two children Veronica, 9, and Samantha, 11 — perished in a fire after their camper van and SUV were pinned against the highway barrier, trapping the family inside the blazing camper. All four died in the fire, while Mr. Bagri was uninjured in the crash.
Brake failure was not deemed to be a cause of the accident, and Mr. Bagri’s lawyer, Selwyn Russell Chamberlain, contended the application of the jake brake caused an unexpected locking of the rear wheels of Mr. Bagri’s truck. However, Mr. Sheard found Mr. Bagri’s testimony unreliable and concluded the Crown’s assessment — that Mr. Bagri did cross the centre line and was driving too fast — is accurate.
Neither members of the Howard family of Mr. Bagri, 41, from Vancouver, were present in court for the verdict. A sentencing hearing was expected to take place on Tuesday, April 29th, after the Valley Echo’s press deadline.