According to a Vernon judge, where there's smoke, there isn't necessarily fire. Supreme Court Justice Allen Betton dismissed the four arson charges against Edward Wade, 47, of Coldstream today after deeming there was insufficient evidence.
The four counts pertained to three fires: one set in a garbage bin at Okanagan College, and two others set about a kilometer away near Kal Lake Store. Betton said the two off-campus fires were fueled by "piles of straw called wattles" which are used for erosion control, and railway ties. The fires were set on Christmas Eve in 2010, and Vernon fire chief Lawrie Skolrood concluded they had been deliberately ignited.
Wade was arrested in the area, not long after the fires were discovered.
"He was carrying an overnight bag including two bottles of cologne... a lighter and cigarette butts," Betton said.
In his statement to police, Wade said he had arrived at the college by bus after visiting his girlfriend in Kelowna. He said he went to the school gazebo to collect cigarette butts, then walked down a path toward the railway tracks.
The bottles were half empty, and investigative work revealed the principle ingredient in the cologne was a type of alcohol capable of accelerating a fire. A constable on scene noted Wade smelled of smoke—the fire, not the cigarette kind.
Around the area was a set of lone footprints. These impressions were compared with Wade's shoes and revealed a similarity in size and pattern. Snowfall meant an accurate impression of the footprints could not be achieved, and an identical match could not be made.
Skolrood testified that because of weather conditions, a substantial heat source would have been required to light the fires as quickly as they were. The cologne and lighter found in Wade's bag might have been enough, but Betton wasn't willing to make that conclusion. In fact, he wasn't prepared to put his faith in any of the evidence.
"The lighter and cologne are not in and of themselves enough to be suspicious," Betton said. "The footprint evidence cannot be linked specifically to the accused's shoes."
He noted that Wade simply being in the location was not enough to associate him with the fire.
"The ultimate question is whether the evidence taken as a whole is such that I can be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt the accused is guilty," Betton said.
Crown counsel Cristina Cabulea argued there was enough circumstantial evidence to convict Wade of the crimes. But Betton wasn't taking any chances.
"I cannot say I am satisfied beyond a doubt, and the accused is entitled to the benefit of that doubt," Betton said.
Wade shook hands with defense lawyer Claire Abbott, and emerged from the court room to an abundance of hugs from family members. He told InfoTel News he was very happy about the verdict, but declined to answer any further questions.
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