Jail time for Sarnia apartment arsonist

·4 min read

A substantial blaze causing more than $300,000 in property damage has landed a woman one year behind bars.

Sara McKinley, 22, sent the Guernsey Gardens on Queen Street ablaze in the middle of the night April 9, 2019. The unit she started the fire in, owned by her cousin and where she was staying, was almost fully destroyed and plenty of the hallway was damaged after smoke spilled outside.

Firefighters were able to put out the blaze before it could spread to the rest of the four-story building. Nobody was injured. The apartment’s reliance on cement blocks for construction averted a far worse crisis.

McKinley plead guilty to the arson back in January. She confessed to police three weeks after the incident when their investigation began focusing on her cousin as the suspect.

With her actions no longer in doubt, court submissions from the Crown and Defence revolved around why McKinley had done this and whether she was criminally responsible.

McKinley had an argument with her cousin the day of the fire about the supposed messiness of the apartment. He’d left the house when she committed the crime.

“She indicated that she was hearing voices telling her to ‘burn this dirty apartment down’ that her cousin lived in,” says Defence Lawyer Robert McFadden. “And she did just that and lit a fire.”

McKinley is diagnosed with a number of mental health issues including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and ADHD.

McFadden says her thought process that the fire would solve the unit’s messiness problem and not affect other residents of the building “might have been brought on by the mental health issues or the voices she was hearing.”

McKinley is also battling drug addictions which include crystal meth and fentanyl. She suffered a severe overdose recently where she ended up in the hospital after being revived with naloxone.

Crown Attorney David Nicol says McKinley’s pre-sentence report shows she understood her actions were wrong because she waited for her cousin to leave before setting the fire. She said she didn’t like her cousin but that she knew what she did was wrong.

McFadden didn’t seem particularly concerned with his client’s criminal culpability either. He says communication between McKinley and himself has always been good, though he acknowledges she does have to deal with her mental health issues.

But Justice Deborah Austin remained concerned over the revelation of ‘voices’ during the June 14 appearance and adjourned the case to request a doctor’s analysis. Since both Crown and Defence anticipated a jail sentence McKinley was taken into custody from the courtroom.

However McKinley didn’t consent to the doctor’s visit before the June 24 return, leaving Austin no choice but to proceed with sentencing.

Austin says the lack of a doctor’s note and no objections from either Crown or counsel lead her to conclude McKinley is mentally fit enough to be found criminally responsible. She cites the “view of Crown and Defence that despite the auditory issues experienced by Ms. McKinley at the time of this incident, she was nevertheless able to and actively appreciate the nature and quality of her actions and she knew it was wrong to set a fire despite hearing voices.”

“She had not lost touch with reality, but because she was angry with her cousin, knowing it was wrong, set that fire,” says Austin.

The justice says a pair of issues from the pre-sentence report also troubled her. One was McKinley still didn’t seem to grasp how many people she actually put at risk with the arson and the other her stated reluctance to give up the use of illegal drugs.

“Her motivation and track record has not been a good one about getting help for drug abuse, whether residential treatment or other programming. And she hasn’t shown much interest in counselling or programming for mental health issues,” says Austin.

Balancing all factors Austin decided a 12 month jail sentence in addition to McKinley’s 20 days of pre-sentence custody would suffice. Her likely destination will be the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton so she can take part in rehabilitative programming to “help her return to the community in a healthy way with a good discharge plan.”

Once she’s released McKinley will be on probation for two years. She’ll continue counselling for substance abuse, mental health, anger management and psychiatric treatment. She also can’t contact her cousin and must stay 100 metres away from the apartment building.

Restitution orders of $50,000 to Lambton County and $270,919 to the building’s insurance company were also ordered, although Austin acknowledged payment of these is highly unlikely unless McKinley “wins the lottery.”

A 10 year weapons ban, DNA order and instructions not to possess certain incendiary devices was also imposed.

Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent

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