A Lytton man accused of intentionally sparking a 2014 wildfire has been found not guilty after a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled there was “very little” evidence linking him to the blaze.
Percival Williams stood trial in early November on a charge of arson, stemming from the 1,500-hectare Botanie Creek Fire, which destroyed two structures and forced dozens of Lytton-area residents to flee their homes.
The fire started on July 15, 2014, and was soon after labelled suspicious in nature. BC Wildfire Service investigator Steven Richburg testified for the Crown and said he ruled out natural causes, like lightning, and accidental causes, such as a discarded cigarette.
Williams was one of several people in the area when the fire began, driving his pickup truck on Botanie Creek Road. A group of First Nations protestors opposed to logging in the area had set up a roadblock nearby.
Five months after the fire, Williams became a suspect when his ex-girlfriend, Sheila Murphy, told police he confessed to her. Murphy said Williams sent her a text message claiming to have started the blaze.
But the alleged text message was not entered into evidence at trial. Murphy told court she deleted it not long after it was sent and the two never discussed it any further.
In her decision on Monday (Nov. 30), B.C. Supreme Court Justice Amy Francis said she did not believe the text was ever sent.
“Ms. Murphy’s evidence about the text is improbable,” Francis said. “It is very unlikely, whether or not they were romantically involved, that Mr. Williams would send a text saying he started the fire and then they would never speak of it again.”
Under cross-examination from defence lawyer Jay Michi, Murphy admitted she was bound by a court-imposed no-contact order with Williams in 2014. That order followed an incident in which Murphy threw gasoline on Williams.
Francis ruled Murphy’s statement to police was meant to exact revenge.
“She was upset about Mr. Williams breaking up with her and she wanted to get back at him,” Francis said.
With the incriminating text message off the table, there was nothing but proximity connecting Williams to the wildfire.
“Absent Ms. Murphy’s evidence, there is very little linking Mr. Williams to the fire other than his being one of several people in the area,” Francis said.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct information on what vehicle Williams was driving when the fire began.