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Arsonist carefully planned Church Street fire

The 35-year-old man suffered from severe depression, a judge heard during a sentencing hearing Wednesday
Firefighters are seen at 168 Church St. in this Nov. 5, 2015 file photo. Michael Purvis/SooToday

Dennis Peddle's life was on a downward spiral — fuelled by mental illness, alcohol addiction and financial stress — when he torched a house he was renovating in the fall of 2015, a judge heard Wednesday.

He carefully organized and carried out his detailed plans in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2015, setting fire to the unoccupied home at 168 Church St.

He purchased three cans of gasoline outside the city, dressed in clothes he bought at Value Village, wore gloves, covered his face and had coverings over his shoes so he wouldn't leave any footprints, parked his vehicle on another street and snuck into the house.

Peddle poured out a can of gas on each floor of the house, and with a barbecue lighter ignited fires that engulfed the home he had owned for a year and was renovating to sell for a profit.

He took the clothing he was wearing to the landfill site and disposed of it, prosecutor Dana Peterson told the court.

But when he was interviewed by police, because he was the property owner, not a suspect, he became emotional and confessed to setting the fire.

Peddle, 35, pleaded guilty to arson, causing damage by fire that threatened a nearby home, its resident and the firefighters who responded to the blaze.

It took firefighters several hours to extinguish the fire.

When he spoke to police, the distraught man told an officer he meant to be in the fire, to end his life, Peterson said.

Peddle, who was very co-operative with police, acknowledged that he was suffering from a mental illness that wasn't being treated, and he was going into significant debt because of the renovations, the assistant Crown attorney said.

Strangely, there was no insurance money to be paid out and "no financial benefits flowed to him," she told the court.

"At the end of the day his plan was doomed to fail on many levels."

The Crown and defence lawyer Mark Palombi jointly recommended that Peddle receive a 90-day intermittent sentence, which he would serve on weekends, and three years probation.

In cases of arson, deterrence and denunciation are paramount in sentencing, but mental health is also an important consideration, Peterson said.

The aggravating factors — the premeditation and scope of the fire — "are serious and can't be understated," she said, noting that while depressed Peddle had "very intelligently planned this arson."

A presentence report indicates Peddle has an onerous treatment plan and is considered a low risk to re-offend, Peterson said, citing his lack of a prior criminal record and guilty plea as mitigating factors.

The Crown was supporting the intermittent jail term because "a long sentence would completely undermine the benefits" of what Peddle has done in the past months, she said

The lawyers provided Ontario Court Justice John Condon with medical reports and letters from psychiatrists and a psychologist, which Peterson said demonstrates Peddle's mental health was low at the time of the incident and plummeted even further afterwards.

Palombi said his client has been diagnosed with severe depression with psychotic features. 

All the doctors agree he suffered from this severe depression and suicidal idealization at the time of the fire, the defence said, adding Peddle was experiencing auditory hallucinations, "often hearing the term 'let it burn.'"

Peddle was admitted to hospital six times since the incident, and attempted suicide at least three times. He became involved with police when he had been drinking heavily and was Tasered, Palombi said.

The medical notes show that his mental health was on a downward trajectory from November 2015 until August 2016.

He was in a denial stage, was not prepared to accept responsibility for his actions, had untreated mental issues and was self medicating with alcohol, Condon was told.

The turning point appears to have occurred during his last hospital admission, when he realized he had family support and the only way he could do anything was "to buy in himself."

Since then he has been regularly attending counselling, has been sober for eight months, takes his medication and "doesn't waiver on his mental treatment program," Palombi said.

An emotional Peddle read a statement to the court, admitting he was responsible for the arson, that it was a reckless act that endangered nearby residents.

He told Condon, that as the son of a firefighter, he appreciates how these people put their lives on the line every day.

"Regardless of the outcome I will accept the punishment for my crime," he said.

"For the majority of my life I struggled with my mental health. Periodically I would seek help, but many times I would stop taking medications."

He said he has since learned "I'm responsible for my own health." 

Condon accepted the lawyers' sentencing submission, saying it was in the low end of the range.

"You need to know how close you are to going to jail for much longer," he told Peddle, warning that if he doesn't comply with the sentence and probation conditions "jail will be staring you in the face."

The judge urged him not to get complacent about his mental health.

"There's no shame in seeking help, especially when you have so many people to help you."

Peddle will serve his sentence on weekends, Friday nights to Monday mornings.

He will be on probation for three years, the maximum term under the Criminal Code of Canada.

During this time, he must attend all recommended assessment, counselling and rehabilitation programs for substance and alcohol abuse and psychological and psychiatric issues.

As well, he can't possess any incendiary devices, except for preparing meals, or education and employment purposes, or with the written approval of his probation officer.

"Stay on the course you're on," Condon told him. "If you comply I think we'll never see each other again."

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About the Author: Linda Richardson

Linda Richardson is a freelance journalist who has been covering Sault Ste. Marie's courts and other local news for more than 45 years.
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