A difficult sentencing concluded in Sarnia Court this week, resolving an incident from last year that sent Lanark Court up in flames.
Three townhomes were destroyed as fire ripped through the small Sarnia cul-de-sac in the early morning hours of Nov. 3. There were no injuries, but two men living in one of the homes just managed to flee as flames engulfed their unit.
The fires appeared deliberate but the perpetrator was initially unknown. Nearly a week later though forensic evidence and witness assistance led police to arrest 31 year-old Nathan Gardiner.
Gardiner’s guilt was confirmed during a plea in February. The case was adjourned to Mar. 29 so a pre-sentence report could be prepared, focusing on Gardiner’s mental health.
The findings revealed a long history of struggles for Gardiner, originally from Prince Edward Island. Untreated bipolar disorder combined with childhood trauma and long-term substance abuse issues, particularly crystal meth, were noted as catalysts for a breakdown in Gardiner’s life. He had no criminal record before the arson.
The actual trigger itself appeared to be a contentious relationship between Gardiner and the owner of the townhomes, Nic Palumbo, also Gardiner’s former landlord. The pair had a series of serious altercations last year, including a road rage incident less than a week before the fires where Gardiner drove Palumbo off the road.
The exact cause of the dispute wasn’t revealed during plea or sentencing. But a victim impact statement from Palumbo’s wife showed a trusting relationship had once existed.
“I feel very betrayed by Nathan Gardiner and his actions. I have had him in my home many times over the years for meals and visits,” wrote Angela Palumbo, who owned the homes with Nic. “The actions of Nathan Gardiner have made it even more difficult for me to cope with my day to day life, let alone with the enormous task of cleaning up the devastation caused by his multiple acts of arson.”
Nic Palumbo passed away this January. “It is my firm belief that the actions of Nathan Gardiner hastened the death of my husband Nic Palumbo due to the stress of dealing with the fires,” says his wife.
Defence Lawyer Sarah Donohue says the relationship between her client and Nic Palumbo was “very complicated,” and that Gardiner was in a “position of dependency” with him.
Without elaborating, Donohue says Palumbo had “control over Mr. Gardiner financially, and that was very difficult for him.”
“He wishes that he could take it all back,” says Donohue of her client. “He’s been unable to stop thinking about it, and how different things might have been if he’d given his actions more thought.”
"Just reinstate how sorry I am for everything," Gardiner says in his lone comments to the court.
Donohue and Crown Attorney Ryan Iaquinta agreed that Gardiner needs considerable help for mental issues. They recommended he be sentenced to a further one year in jail, to be spent at the St. Lawrence Valley Treatment Centre in Brockville.
Justice Anne McFadyen says she’ll make the recommendation, but it’s up to the province to decide where inmates serve their sentence. She says his expressions of remorse and engagement with programs already “gives the court confidence that Mr. Gardiner may be able to return to the community and lead a pro-social life.”
But, a long sentence was still necessary given the damage done. “It’s clear their lives have been completely and utterly devastated,” says McFadyen of the Palumbo family. “There’s not only financial impact on the victims, but the emotional impact is evident. It is unclear at this stage whether the victims will ever be able to recoup their losses and continue their lives as planned prior to the actions of Mr. Gardiner.”
Gardiner’s punishment won’t end when he’s released from jail in a year, or anytime soon after that. Restitution orders totalling $440,000 were ordered to a pair of insurance companies for the destroyed homes.
Gardiner will be on probation for three years where he must stay away from the Palumbo’s and Lanark Court, take several counselling sessions and not possess any incendiary devices. He also has a 20 year weapons ban and will provide a DNA sample.
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent