Two fire investigators testified Wednesday that the fire that consumed a trailer and the historic Silver Ledge Hotel in Ainsworth started on the trailer’s bathroom floor.
Randy Hanoski, 54, is accused of starting the June 3, 2010 blaze and is standing trial in Nelson Provincial Court before Judge Ron Fabbro, without a jury.
Nelson assistant fire chief Mike Daloise and Cranbrook RCMP Cpl. Pat Prefontaine, who has training in fire behaviour, said they could not ultimately determine what caused the fire, nor whether a liquid accelerant was used.
Daloise said they focused their investigation on a portion of the trailer where the bathroom was. He testified there was a “lack of remaining combustible material,” leading them to believe it was the area where the fire started.
That was also the area where the metal frame the trailer sat on was warped and twisted, Daloise said, indicating it had seen the greatest amount of heat.
He said once then began excavating that area, he detected the smell of what might have been an accelerant, which they didn’t find at other locations.
He described it as a “carbon-based, gas or turpentine smell,” but lab tests did not find any ignitable liquid on the samples they collected.
Daloise said that may have meant there wasn’t any, or that it had been completely consumed.
The cause was officially recorded as undetermined. Daloise said they could not rule out an accident, electrical problem, or that it had been set deliberately.
However, he said the fact witnesses reported the fire burning under the trailer was suspicious and could indicate an accelerant was used — normally, fire burns upward, not down.
Daloise said the scene was secured, and he considered it “extremely unlikely” it was tampered with, leading them to incorrectly identify the point of origin.
Prefontaine reiterated much of Daloise’s testimony and added the hotel burned as a result of “radiant heat” from the trailer. He also stated that while flames were seen licking through the floor of the trailer, the fire did not start in a crawlspace below, as witnesses entered it and did not encounter any smoke there.
“Whatever caused this fire, it burned on the floor,” Prefontaine said. “For a fire to burn through is unusual and reason for suspicion.”
He said the “very dangerous fire” posed a high risk to neighbouring structures, noting the blinds behind a closed window across the street melted.
Neither fire investigator was cross-examined by the defence.
Witness claimed to see man leaving trailer
Also testifying Wednesday via video link from North Vancouver was Wendy Hagerman, who was staying in a camper at Ainsworth the morning the fire broke out.
She said she saw a tall man exit the trailer through a side door minutes before fire consumed it, but didn’t see where he went. She was convinced he was the same man she saw the previous evening walk by her with a letter in hand.
She described him as tall with thick, brushed back brown hair that was graying slightly. “I thought he was good looking,” she said.
She said he walked past her as she was sitting outside her RV, but didn’t look at her. When he returned, he did not have the letter in hand, she said.
She admitted she only had a two or three second glimpse of the man who left the trailer before the fire, but insisted he had the same “profile” and the man she saw her the previous night.
“I am 100 per cent sure,” she said.
However, court heard that a few days later she was shown a photo line-up that included Hanoski’s picture, but identified a different man from among the photos as the one she saw in Ainsworth.
Voir dire begins on admissibility of evidence
A hearing also began on the admissibility of statements Hanoski allegedly made to police, and of a letter he allegedly mailed the night before the fire.
Kaslo RCMP Cpl. Chris Backus testified he was one of the first police officers on the scene, and that a few hours later he arrested Hanoski, who emerged from a bush close to the scene of the fire. He said Hanoski cooperated and took directions, but did not say anything. Backus said he smelled liquor coming from Hanoski’s body.
In the meantime, Backus sent a fellow officer to seize a suspected suicide letter from the post office that Hanoski was thought to have mailed.
Under cross-examination, Backus said he contemplated seeking a warrant for the letter, but balanced it against the urgency of the situation, reasoning the letter might help locate Hanoski, whose whereabouts were then unknown.
After Backus finished testifying, the judge asked to meet privately with both lawyers. After about 10 minutes, court reconvened only to be immediately adjourned to Thursday morning.
Crown prosecutor Sunday Patola indicated she expects to finish her case tomorrow. The defence hasn’t indicated how many witnesses it plans to call nor outlined its arguments. The trial is scheduled to last through Friday.
Hanoski has been on bail since shortly after the fire.
The Silver Ledge Hotel was built in 1896 and in recent years operated as a museum.
Hanoski and his former partner bought the building in 2008.
Court heard this week that the fire occurred the day Hanoski was supposed to leave the property under a court order.