A Nelson provincial court judge has found Randy Hanoski not guilty of setting the fire that destroyed Ainsworth’s historic Silver Ledge Hotel in June 2010.
Hanoski was not in the courtroom when Judge Ron Fabbro announced his verdict Thursday.
“After a somewhat lengthy trial and with the help of counsel, I have concluded that the Crown has not proven this offence beyond a reasonable doubt,” Fabbro said.
In his written ruling, the judge said while Hanoski, 54, had a strong motive — he was upset about losing control of the property he jointly owned with his former partner, Cathy Brewer — the case was “not without conflicting evidence.”
Ultimately, he found a lack of physical corroboration and could not accept a man seen leaving the trailer next to the hotel where the fire started was Hanoski.
“This is a circumstantial case and as the Crown proceeded to trial I am sure it believed it had the evidence that would lead to the proof of the ingredients of this offence,” Fabbro wrote. “As the trial unfolded all the circumstantial evidence was under attack.”
JUDGE REJECTS EVIDENCE
Fabbro said the Crown did not prove Hanoski was in the trailer on the morning of the fire, nor that he even had access to it.
“The Crown says the only reasonable conclusion is that he stayed in the trailer the night of the fire. An equally valid conclusion is that he stayed in the hotel,” he wrote.
He noted a witness who claimed to see Hanoski leave the trailer that morning only had a brief glimpse of the man, obscured by smoke, and misidentified him in a photo line-up.
Fabbro also said there were inconsistencies in her description of the man.
“I am unable to find that it was the accused who left the trailer early in the morning … The defence submits there is a real possibility it was some other person.”
Although investigators considered the fire suspicious, they could not rule out causes other than it being deliberately set. The possibility an accelerant was used wasn’t borne out by testing of debris from the ruins of the trailer, the judge said, and ultimately the cause was not established.
“The Crown investigation of this fire for the most part went down a road that became narrower and sometimes closed.”
LITTLE WEIGHT TO STATEMENTS
Fabbro did not accept utterances Hanoski made in the back seat of a police car after being arrested as self-incriminating.
These included “I’m really upset the porch is gone, but my emotions got the better of me” and “I wanted to watch it burn, I was really frustrated” and “I got drunk and then I got angry.”
Because the comments weren’t tape recorded and the context of the conversation wasn’t known, little weight should be attributed to them, the judge wrote.
“The utterances to the police do not, I find, amount to an admission of guilt … The utterances can have a meaning other than he was responsible for the fire but may reflect upset from his observation of the ruins of the fire.”
Fabbro also said a lighter allegedly found on Hanoski but not seized by police until several days later was of little use in the case, as there was no direct evidence it was used to start the fire or was even operable.
Police officers who dealt with Hanoski upon his arrest didn’t smell accelerant on him or his clothes, and the presence of a possible accelerant on his boots could have been the result of a cleaner, he wrote.
Fabbro agreed there was evidence Hanoski had motive and opportunity to set the fire, “but it does not have that level of certainty of suspicions that would come from reports that could identify the cause or causes of the fire.”
Furthermore, he said there were “conflicting considerations” that cast doubt on Hanoski’s motive, “such as the fire would destroy his property and tools in the hotel … and cause him to be otherwise responsible for the debt owing on the property.”
“The circumstantial evidence in this case has crumbled badly,” Fabbro added in finding Hanoski not guilty. “It can not be said ... that the evidence is consistent with guilt and inconsistent with any other rational conclusion.”
The acquittal comes following a trial last September.