The case against a Lytton man facing an arson charge in connection with a 2014 wildfire that scorched 1,500 hectares and prompted the evacuation of dozens of properties “has been reduced to smoke,” a judge has been told.
Percival Williams, 51, stood trial this past week in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops on a count of arson. He was charged following an investigation into the Botanie Creek Fire, which sparked north of Lytton on July 15, 2014, destroying two structures and prompting the declaration of a state of local emergency.
There is no physical evidence linking Williams to the fire. The Crown’s case depends largely on two points: the theory of a BC Wildfire Service investigator and the word of Williams’ ex-girlfriend, who told police he admitted via text to having started the fire.
The girlfriend, Sheila Murphy, told court she deleted the text almost immediately. She said she handed her phone to police when she reported the text in December 2014, but no copy of the message was presented as evidence in court.
BC Wildfire Service investigator Steven Richburg, an expert in origin and cause of wildfires, testified about his belief the fire was suspicious in nature. Richburg said he came to that conclusion after ruling out all other causes, including lightning strike, equipment, vehicles and smoking materials.
Despite that assertion, Richburg admitted in court there was no evidence at the scene of any matches, lighters or other incendiary devices. He maintained, however, that the fire was “hot set,” meaning it started by open flame.
Richburg also testified about a specific area along Botanie Creek Road where he said he believes the fire started.
Court heard Williams was in that area around the time the fire was first spotted. A Lytton woman who knows Williams saw him cross a protest checkpoint driving his employer’s pilot truck. At the time, an unrelated logging-related protest was taking place in the area.
Crown prosecutor Tim Livingston called eight witnesses over the course of the four-day trial. He said in his closing argument the evidence points to Williams as the fire starter.
“The evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the fire was set deliberately and it was set by Mr. Williams,” he said.
Defence lawyer Jay Michi, however, said the word of Murphy and the theory of Richburg fall well short of establishing Williams set the blaze.
“The fire was inadvertently caused by someone other than the accused,” he said. “The Crown’s case has been reduced to smoke. There’s no way this court can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Williams started that fire.”
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Amy Francis is expected to deliver a verdict on Dec. 16.
Williams is not in custody.