Yesterday, Halifax police issued the following press release:
At 4:23 p.m., Halifax Regional Police and HRM Fire & Emergency responded to a structure fire inside an apartment building in the 5500 block of Victoria Road Halifax. Multiple callers reported seeing smoke within the building.
HRM Fire attended and quickly extinguished the fire. Tenants did temporarily evacuated with the Fire Alarm and have since returned. No one was injured.
Fire Investigators confirmed the fire was intentionally set and the arson investigation has been turned over to police. The arson investigation is in the early stages and is ongoing.
This is the sixth structure fire in the immediate area since March 2018, and the second fire in that time period at 5515 Victoria Road — which is Joseph Howe Manor, a seniors’ residence with 175 units. One of the fires, at 5460 Inglis Street, destroyed the entire building, displacing 18 people. Fortunately, no one has been injured or killed in any of the seven fires. (The @HRMFiresNews Twitter account, which is not connected to the fire department, relates that there have been two other fires in the area that do not show up on the fire department’s list.)
My friend Tempa Hull lives nearby and filmed this video of the fire department’s response to the Inglis Street fire:
All six fires appear to share general characteristics — they were started in an utility room or storage room connected to the exterior of the building. I’ve collected the details of the fire from the fire departments investigations site and from other sources, as follows:
5481 Victoria Road, Halifax
March 5 2018
This fire involved a Mixed Use-Residential & Commercial Building. There were no injuries and no fatalities. The ignition source is unknown. Fire investigators have determined the area of origin as the outside of the building. The cause of this fire is classified as UNDETERMINED.
5460 Inglis Street, Halifax (Knightsbridge apartment building)
May 08 2018
This fire involved a Multi Unit Residential Dwelling. There were no injuries and no fatalities. The ignition source is undetermined. Fire investigators have determined the area of origin as the building exterior. The cause of this fire is classified as INCENDIARY.
5415 Victoria Rd., Halifax
Oct. 27, 2018
This fire involved a storage shed. There were no injuries and no fatalities. The ignition source is undetermined. Fire investigators have determined the area of origin as the exterior. The cause of this fire is classified as INCENDIARY.
5515 Victoria Rd., Halifax (Joseph Howe Manor)
July 3, 2019
This fire involved a residential occupancy. There were no injuries and no fatalities. The ignition source is unknown. The area of origin was determined to be a storage room. The cause of this fire is classified as UNKNOWN.
HalifaxToday reporter Meghan Groff was at the scene at the time and points out that like the previous three fires, that fire started in a shed attached to the exterior of the building.
5280 Green Street, Halifax (the former Salvation Army space)
July 22, 2019
This fire involved a warehouse. There were no injuries and no fatalities. The ignition source is unknown. The area of origin was determined to be the bottom warehouse level. The cause of this fire is classified as UNDETERMINED.
5515 Victoria Rd., Halifax (Joseph Howe Manor)
Still waiting for details, although police have called it an arson.
It’s impossible to look at the recent string of fires and not recall the fascinating case of Carol Elizabeth Jarrett, who was charged with, but then found not guilty for, arson, related to a string of 70 similar fires on the peninsula in 2001.
Here’s how Judge C. H. F. Williams described the events in his 2003 ruling:
Against a background of seventy nerve-wracking unresolved suspicious fires during the Summer and Fall of 2001, Tuesday, December 18, 2001 might well be remembered by the residents of the south end of Halifax, in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and their fire and police services as the burning night when a series of successive suspicious fires seriously compromised public safety and overburdened the official resources that were required to deal with the many potential dangerous fiery threats to life and property. The police and fire services received reports that fires were ignited successively or were in progress at1569 Dresden Row, 1341 Dresden Row, 1252 Queen Street, 5267 Tobin Street, 5653 Fenwick Street, 1136 South Park Street, and 5661 Victoria Road. All these fires appeared to have been set by the same person or persons whom the police suspected, after months of surveillance and intelligence gathering, to be one and the same culprits.
Because Jarrett has a lengthy criminal record “in relation to arson” dating back to 1994, police had suspected her of the string of 2001 arsons.
A 1996 Daily News article explains that Jarrett had been convicted on nine counts of arsons “for starting a string of fires in Halifax garbage bins, department stores and a residential garage.” In 1994, she was diagnosed with Associative Identity Disorder (also called Multiple Personality Disorder), and one of those personalities had “an uncontrollable urge to set fires.”
Jarrett said she was sexually abused by a priest from the time she was 6 to 13 years old, and “I developed another personality to deal with what was happening to me.”
Back to the 2003 decision, Judge Williams explained that:
Because the accused and her friend Christopher Bamford were prime suspects in a series of unsolved fires that plagued the south end of Halifax, in the Halifax Regional Municipality, the police on November 6, 2001, had a surveillance team, led by Constable Charles Bruce, that was tracking their movements and activities. As were their habit, Bamford and the accused met up on Spring Garden Road and travelled on foot to the accused apartment at 1271 Church Street where they intended to watch a movie. Shadowing them, the Constable observed that at the location of 5300 Morris Street which intersects Church Street, the accused disappeared behind the building, into a cul-de-sac, leaving Bamford standing at the corner of Church and Morris Streets. Before she went behind the building, the accused told Bamford that her reason for going behind the building was that she had to do something. She, however, never specified what she had to do and neither did he ask her what she was going to do. He, however, saw that she had a lighter in her hand and he surmised that perhaps she was going to use it.
The Constable who had, for a few minutes, temporarily lost visual contact of the accused, reestablished it from a secluded vantage point. However, when he did so, he only saw her walking about three to five feet away from the direction where there was located a wooden garbage dumpster near the building. He saw her walked up to Bamford and they hugged each other. Again, even when they hugged the accused and Bamford never discussed what, if anything, she did when she was behind the building. Nonetheless, almost immediately as they hugged, the Constable noticed that a fire was burning in the dumpster and he radioed for the fire service. Tenants and the fire service extinguished the fire which was classified as suspicious in nature by the fire investigator. Nevertheless, on November 21, 2001, the police arrested the accused and, after detaining and interrogating her for twelve to thirteen hours, released her without charge.
Between 0230 hours and 0330 hours on December 18, 2001 the police and fire services of the Halifax Regional Municipality had to contain and suppress seven successive suspicious fires that were reported burning or in progress. The protection services were leapfrogging from fire to fire in their efforts to extinguish and to control them. The first fire reported in at about 0233 hours was at 1569 Dresden Row. This was followed by reports of fires at 1341 Dresden Row, 1252 Queen Street, 5267 Tobin Street, 5653 Fenwick Street, 1136 South Park Street and 5661 Victoria Road. The origins of these fires were the garbage or the debris stored or kept near the buildings.
The problem with the police investigation and subsequent prosecution of Jarrett, ruled Williams, was that it was based on the testimony of Bamford, who was entirely unreliable, and police never saw Jarrett start a fire. Moreover, one of the fires on the night in question started after Jarrett was arrested:
In my opinion, there was not the remotest of supporting evidence that the accused was outside her apartment on the early morning of December 18, 2001, and if so that she was in Bamford’s company. Indeed, the only objective evidence of the whereabouts of the accused was from the police officers who had her apartment building under constant and continuous surveillance from 0243 hours until she was arrested inside her apartment at 0316 hours. During their period of surveillance the officers did not see the accused enter or leave the building and there was no empirical objective evidence to demonstrate that she had recently entered or was recently outside the building before the police arrived on the scene although fires that she was supposed to have started were being reported to the authorities.
Furthermore, in my opinion, Bamford’s testimony revealed significant internal discrepancies and contradictions. It was also inconsistent on material particulars with other credible and trustworthy witnesses. Thus, even if I were to give it the most generous interpretation it would still hardly be consistent with the hypothesis that his testimony was sufficiently reliable to eliminate from my mind any reasonable doubts concerning his reliability or creditworthiness as a witness or to strengthen my belief that he was truthful. Overall therefore, I find that it would be unsafe to ground convictions on the unsupported testimony of Bamford a self-confessed accomplice. In the result, I find and conclude that the Crown has failed to meet its burden in proving the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt on all counts charged on the Information tried before me.
A 2014 lawsuit Jarrett filed against Halifax police was dismissed by Justice Arthur W.D. Pickup:
Ms. Jarrett’s claims against the named police officers and the Halifax Regional Municipality are dismissed in their entirety. I am satisfied that all the investigations were done in a diligent and reasonable manner by all of the named officers, and that the arrests were lawful and in good faith. All of their actions were intended to protect the public by stopping a rash of fires in Halifax south end and to find those responsible. The actions of these police officers reflect a professional police response to the circumstances before them at the time.
I stumbled upon the 2014 decision some months ago, and soon after discovered Jarrett on Twitter. I discussed this privately with another reporter last night, and we both remember that her account was named something like @hfxFireGirl, but it now seems to have been deleted. Jarrett stated on her profile that she was working in mental health, counselling others.
To be clear: I have no idea where Jarrett is, and I have no evidence at all that she is responsible for the recent fires. She was found not guilty of the 2001 fires, for what looks to me like sound legal reasoning. And in other unrelated criminal cases, I’ve come upon situations where the supposedly “likely suspect” was indeed not guilty, and someone else entirely was responsible for the crimes.
I bring her case up, however, because I think it provides a bit of insight into the complex mental health issues involved with arson. If she’s reading this, I’d like to speak with her to gain more understanding.
No meetings this week.
No public events today.
Open Waters Festival 2020 (Friday, 9:00am, various locations) — until January 9, celebrating new and improvised music from many traditions, and featuring celebrated European composer/improvisor/bassist Barry Guy and baroque violinist Maya Homburger. More info and tickets here.
In the harbour
05:30: Mediterranean Highway, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Emden, Germany
06:00: YM Essence, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York
06:00: RHL Agilitas, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from New York
07:00: Algoma Verity, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from Point Tupper
15:30: Mediterranean Highway sails for sea
15:30: RHL Agilitas sails for Kingston, Jamaica
16:00: Tombarra, car carrier, arrives at Pier 31 from Southampton, England
16:00: YM Essence sails for Rotterdam
16:30: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Pier 34 to Autoport
22:30: Oceanex Sanderling moves to Pier 41
Happy New Year! I’m leaving town on a work project tomorrow for a few days. Don’t wreck the place while I’m gone.