PENTICTON - The sentencing hearing of the woman accused of setting fire to a townhouse fourplex in Penticton last October took a strange turn yesterday.
Sidney Leer was scheduled for sentencing in Penticton court after entering a guilty plea to one count of arson damaging property yesterday, March 6, but just as her lawyer was about to speak on her behalf, she asked Judge Gregory Koturbash if she could get a new lawyer, which resulted in an adjournment of proceedings.
Prior to that, Crown Prosecutor Kurt Froehlich was asking the judge for a sentence of four to five years for Leer’s part in setting a fire at the four-unit condominium complex where she lived at 1458 Penticton Ave.
Froehlich told court Leer had been discharged from a psychiatrist’s care earlier in the day on Oct. 13, 2016, where she had been receiving treatment.
Her mother called 911 around 8 p.m. that evening, telling dispatchers Leer had just lit a fire in the basement of the townhouse they lived in. She told dispatchers her daughter had exhibited concerning behaviour on the way home from the hospital when she attempted to grab the steering wheel and direct the vehicle into oncoming traffic.
Police and the Penticton Fire Department arrived on scene to find the four-plex in flames. Leer was arrested while firefighters battled the blaze for several hours.
Four families were displaced, and several pets lost in the fire, but no injuries were reported.
In a statement by Leer, taken by police later that evening, she admitted to setting the fire by using a big candle to set fire to a book in the basement. She said she didn’t know why she lit it, and tried to return to the basement to put it out, but was pushed back by smoke.
Froehlich said the cost of the fire was estimated at $1.19 million, not including the contents of the homeowners, who lost just about everything they owned.
Emotionally charged victim impact statements were read by Froehlich, written by tenants of the building. They talked about their financial losses, the emotional distraught the event caused them, and their mistrust of neighbours as a result of the incident.
Leer’s mother read her statement to the court. She stopped seeing friends, was sick to the stomach, and had memory loss following the incident.
“Since the fire, at first, sad, scared, worried, lost, confused, unloved. I cried and every time it would just happen, and then it went to angry, then questions, questions and more questions,” she said.
“How, why, did I miss something? Angry at Sidney, because she should have come to me to talk things out. She has before, why not this time?” she said tearfully.
“(I’m) angry at the doctor- I want everyone to know that - for releasing Sidney when he should have kept her at the hospital, which is what I told him. That’s why I’m confused.Angry at Sid, but love Sid as well,” she said, adding she was most thankful no one was hurt.
“There are other ways to deal with anger… I’ve never been afraid of Sidney before,” she said, to which Sidney, appearing in court via video link, could be heard to say, “I have.”
Froehlich said Leer’s pre-sentence report noted she used alcohol moderately and smoked marijuana on a daily basis. She had a history of difficulties at school, including bullying and dropped out of school in grade 11.
More telling was her psychological report, which Froehlich said indicated she was "a young lady with a great many difficulties” who was rated a “great risk to re-offend.”
He said she has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder, a serious mental health disorder that generally carries a poor prognosis.
Froehlich said it was noted in the report she didn’t regret burning down the complex, rather she believed she did the residents a favour. She showed little insight into the lethality of her behaviour, had difficulty making proper decisions, showed high impulsivity and was known to exhibit aggressive and borderline psychotic behaviour.
“She’s known to have a high level of self-entitlement, to react with anger and irritability when her needs are not met,” Froehlich said, adding this incident was “part of a steady escalation of problematic behaviour.”
Defence lawyer Norm Yates was about to speak on Leer’s behalf when she requested a new lawyer, after she had been heard making several unsolicited, slurred comments throughout the proceedings.
“Do you want a new lawyer?” asked Judge Koturbash.
“Can I do that?” she asked, prompting the judge to say she could, but needed to think very carefully about it.
“I’m still in here, I’ve been in here four months, I started a five-minute fire, I had no idea what I was doing, and I don’t know who the culprit was who told me to light the fire. I lit a house on fire and left my dog in a burning building. Do you really think that was a stable situation in the first place? No, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said, adding she would love to know who was ordering her to set the house on fire.
The hearing was adjourned to allow Yates time to consult with Leer. The matter is expected to come before the judicial case manager’s office next Monday, March 13.
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