Radio-Canada has learned that a convicted murderer who once slipped from custody and was on the lam for four years is now the primary suspect in an Old Montreal arson case that killed seven people in March.
Surveillance cameras show an explosion, flames and then Denis Bégin, 63, fleeing the scene as the fire began tearing through the heritage building on Place D'Youville, Radio-Canada confirmed.
Montreal police investigators linked him to the crime several weeks ago, though Bégin has not yet been charged. His alleged link to the crime was first reported by the Montreal daily news service, La Presse, on Thursday.
Bégin had been on several most-wanted lists after escaping from a minimum security institution in Laval, Que., where he was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
He escaped with the help of an accomplice on Feb. 15, 2019. Correctional Service Canada announced Bégin was caught on May 15 by the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM).
Two months before he was caught, a fire broke out in a three-storey building in Old Montreal on March 16.
Short- and long-term rentals in building
The building housed long-term and short-term rentals, including Airbnbs, which are prohibited in this area of Old Montreal under a bylaw adopted in 2018.
Quebec ordered a public inquiry into the fire after concerns emerged about safety code violations that went unfixed for years. On Aug. 28, Montreal police announced the fire had been intentionally set.
"We are now talking about a criminal investigation," Insp. David Shane said at the time, noting traces of an accelerant were detected.
A fire broke out in the three-storey building in Old Montreal in March. The night of the fire, there were 22 people in the building. Six of them escaped unharmed, nine were injured and seven died. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)
Members of the SPVM's major crimes unit took over the investigation, joining their colleagues on the arson squad who have been investigating the fire from the beginning.
Radio-Canada confirmed on Thursday that Bégin, who has a lengthy rap sheet, is now the main suspect.
Bégin was nicknamed the "Halloween Killer" for his role in the death of 19-year-old Riccardo Jezzi in 1993 during a Halloween party at a Montreal bar.
When he opened fire on partygoers with a sawed-off shotgun, Bégin was wearing a goalie mask like that donned by fictional villain Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th film series. Jezzi was also wearing a hockey mask when he was shot.
Public danger profile outlined by Parole Board
Radio-Canada obtained six documents from the Parole Board of Canada that highlight Bégin's public danger profile.
Documents show that Bégin's wife filed a domestic violence complaint after fleeing the relationship with their two children. She told the police that she had been threatened, beaten, strangled to unconsciousness and sexually assaulted multiple times.
In 1995, she told police it was Bégin behind the goalie mask. A jury found Begin guilty of first-degree murder in 1997, but that conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered after he successfully argued that his statement to police after his arrest was not voluntary.
Bégin pleaded guilty in 2003 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 10 years.
Montreal police Insp. David Shane announces on Aug. 28 that the Old Montreal fire that killed seven people was deliberately set. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press)
However, Bégin's records go back further.
As early as 1979, Bégin was involved in arson, according to the parole board. He was convicted of extortion and conspiracy to extort in 1984 after, working with an accomplice, he sent a fake bomb to a bank and demanded $100,000.
The parole board documents show he has been charged with fraud, theft and drunk driving.
In the years following his imprisonment in a maximum security penitentiary in 2003, he was twice described as a psychopath by a psychiatrist, documents show.
"Violence and manipulation were perceived by you as legitimate methods for resolving conflicts with others and for achieving your goals," the parole commissioners assessed in writing.
A psychological evaluation carried out in January 2008 reported a diagnosis of mixed personality disorder, highlighting persistent narcissistic and antisocial traits, limited introspection and inflexibility, documents show.
On his Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a psychological assessment tool to assess the presence of psychopathic traits, Bégin was found to have a high risk of violent recidivism.
"Your behaviours demonstrate a tendency to seek power and control, occasionally using lies and manipulation while taking advantage of the ambiguity you generate, to the detriment of honesty, transparency and candour," says the parole board's evaluation report on March 19, 2008.
Transferred to Laval, attempts to escape
In June 2015, he was transferred to the minimum security Leclerc establishment in Laval. A year later, he failed his first escape attempt.
After several attempts, he finally escaped in 2019 and used a false identity for four years until he was caught in Montreal.
Montreal police Const. Jean-Pierre Brabant said at the time that Bégin's arrest was not tied to the prison escape, but the officer didn't give more details. Instead, he said the man was arrested in an unrelated investigation.
The SPVM declined to comment on the La Presse report or information obtained by Radio-Canada on Thursday.
Bégin's lawyer, who has represented him since May, did not return Radio-Canada's calls.