TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Brandon Fire and Emergency Services members at the scene of the fatal 2012 fire.
An accused arsonist seems to have made a stunning confession to starting a deadly fire, but it remains to be seen whether his video-recorded statement to police will be admissible at trial.
In the video, two detectives grill Ashtyn Franklin James Richard in a small interview room at the Brandon police station. After more than 20 minutes, one detective puts the crucial question to Richard point-blank.
"Did you start the fire?" Brandon Police Service Const. Chris James asks.
"I’m not going to lie to you man, yeah I did already," Richard responds, standing out of his chair.
"What’s that?" James asks.
"Yes, I did," Richard replies.
The admissability of Richard’s statement, however, was at question as his trial began this week with a voir dire.
The trial began in Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench on Tuesday as Richard, 22, entered not guilty pleas to arson with disregard for human life and manslaughter. The trial resumed on Wednesday.
The charges relate to a house fire that destroyed a two-storey home on the 200-block of First Street in the early morning of April 4, 2012. Firefighters were called to the blaze around 3 a.m.
The body of the home’s lone resident, Robert (Bob) Long, 75, was found on the second floor.
Firefighters spotted his body through a 20-foot hole in the roof of the burned home, court has heard. It appears Long had been naked and his body was found by the bathtub, which was full of water.
The voir dire is to test the admissability of a statement that Richard made to two BPS detectives during an interview that began about 12 hours after firefighters were called.
The following account of events is based on the testimony of the four police officers who have taken the stand so far.
First, a patrol officer described the fire and Richard’s arrest.
He testified to seeing the glow from the flames as he drove to the scene, and spotting the fire as he rounded the corner onto First Street.
"It literally engulfed the entire two storeys of the front of the house," he told the court. "The flames were as high as the house was tall."
By coincidence, that same officer then responded to another call that ultimately led to the identification of Richard as a suspect.
That officer and another were called away from the fire scene to deal with a nearby disturbance at a home on the 500-block of Frederick Street. That call had originally come in around 3 a.m., as a report that a man had been kicked out of a house and was yelling in the front yard.
Police couldn’t respond at first, but there came a second call an hour later to report that the intoxicated man was now banging on windows and doors.
The home was that of Richard’s father-in-law, and Richard, believed to be the man causing the disturbance, was arrested outside for breach of the peace.
Police testified to finding a lighter in his front pocket.
While still at the home, Richard’s common-law girlfriend indicated to an arresting officer that her boyfriend may have been involved in the fire. That made Richard, who was lodged at the Brandon jail, a suspect and set the stage for the interrogation at the police station later that afternoon.
In the video recording of that interview, Richard doesn’t initially mention the fire as he outlines the events that led to his arrest.
The Sandy Bay First Nation man mentions coming to Brandon with his girlfriend and her brother to visit their family.
The evening of the fire, he was at his father-in-law’s and drank some beer before he and his girlfriend got into an argument and, around 1 a.m., he was told to leave. Richard said he started walking back to Sandy Bay and crossed the First Street bridge before turning back to try to say sorry to his girlfriend.
Once back at the home, he said, his girlfriend’s family wouldn’t let him talk to her and her father called police and he was arrested.
Initially, Richard denied involvement in the fire. "I wouldn’t burn anybody’s house down," he said.
But James told Richard that his girlfriend had supplied police with a different story — she said Richard had returned to her father’s home and made comments about lighting a house on fire using cloth wrapped on a stick. The girlfriend described how she looked to the sky as Richard spoke and saw the glow of the fire, James said.
Richard denied making the comments, suggesting that his girlfriend made up the story because she was mad at him. He expressed surprise when James tells him a body was found at the burned home.
"If you did (set the fire), you need to talk to us about this. Because, it’s not just a fire, a person died in that fire," James tells Richard.
"Are you serious?" Richard responds.
The questioning briefly continues but then, just as Richard indicates he’s willing to take a lie detector test, the interview takes a dramatic turn.
Twenty-two minutes into the interrogation, James bluntly asks Richard if he lit the fire and Richard tells him "I did."
Richard then goes on to describe how he found a piece of cloth, set it on fire and threw it into the front porch that contained a number of items, including couches. He then ran, without knowing if the fire caught.
He said there was a light on inside the home, or on the side of it, and added he’d made some noise — based on that, he believed any occupants would be awake and escape.
At first, Richard told detectives he doesn’t know why he set the fire, then says he was "angry and stressed." It seems to have been a random act, as Richard said he didn’t know why he burned that particular home and it was like he was a "different person."
"I couldn’t control myself."
Richard then sobs and repeatedly says he’s sorry, and continues to cry and apologize after officers leave him alone in the room.
He then supplies a written statement in which he describes how he believes the lit rag landed on one of the couches.
"It feels like a horrible dream, all I can think about is the old man. I’m so sorry for all this," he wrote.
However, Justice John Menzies still has to decide whether Richard’s verbal and written statements to police — which need to have been given freely — are admissible at trial.
Crown attorney Jim Ross and defence lawyer Ryan Fawcett have yet to make their arguments on the voir dire.
Part of Fawcett’s cross-examination of police focused on when Richard was clearly informed of the charges against him, when he realized someone had died and his level of fatigue when he gave his statement.
Richard has been denied bail and remains in custody. The trial resumes on Thursday.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 5, 2013