Prince George police, firefighters, courts kept busy in 2020

·6 min read

A suspicious and deadly fire at a Prince George motel, a surge in drug-related gunplay and a fatal stabbing were among the major stories on the police and fire beats in 2020.

On the morning of July 8, firefighters were called to the Econo Lodge City Centre Inn. By the time the flames were extinguished, three people had died and, in the aftermath, a wave of questions have been raised as those who survived maintained they never heard a fire alarm go off.

One survivor said she was alerted by yelling and screaming.

“The entire staircase was engulfed in flame, it was like the sun hitting your face,” Cassandra Whitmarsh told Citizen reporter Ted Clarke. “It was like Dante’s Peak, the fire was completely back in the courtyard. It was so hot, and so close.”

The fire was deemed suspicious and RCMP have launched an investigation that remains ongoing.

However, in September, one of the roughly two dozen people who escaped filed a class action lawsuit against the motel owners, the fire alarm company and the City of Prince George seeking damages. The lawsuit remains subject to certification.

Also in September, RCMP were kept busy when a rivalry between two groups involved in the drug trade escalated into a string of driveby shootings targeting homes around the city. A woman suffered a gunshot wound in one of the attacks and survived but was not cooperating with police.

However, RCMP did arrest three men suspected of opening fire on a Bellos Street home. Kenneth Ricardo Munroe, Bradley Andre Ouelette and Eric Vern West remain in custody.

Also in response, local Mounties got some help from B.C. Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit's Uniform Gang Enforcement Team. Three times in three months they paid a visit to Prince George to conduct checks of people known to be involved in drug trafficking.

The campaign has led to some major breaks. Perhaps most notable was the discovery of a drug operation in some shipping containers buried into a hillside in Salmon Valley.

Inside, police located an active psilocybin or magic mushroom grow operation; a cannabis oil extraction lab with commercial equipment and processing station; and a commercial grade packaging area for the illicit sale of cannabis, shatter and edibles. Also located were advent calendars produced for distribution of illicit cannabis products.

Charges remain pending from the December 3 find.

Also among the more unusual crime stories of 2020, the driver of a stolen truck struck an ambulance on Highway 97 just north of the Simon Fraser Bridge. Police said it appeared the truck had come barreling out of a ditch alongside the highway and hit the ambulance, which was carrying two patients.

Jocelyn Rae Wood of Chetwynd, 34, was subsequently charged with dangerous driving, fleeing the scene of an accident, refusing to provide a breath sample and possessing stolen property over $5,000 from the October 28 incident. Two others in the truck also face charges.

Perhaps the saddest story of the year was the fatal stabbing of a woman near the courthouse steps on July 2. It was the city's first homicide of the year and shortly after RCMP said they had a person of interest but charges remain pending.

The victim has since been identified as Jessie-Mae Hayward-Lines. She was 26 years old.

The COVID-19 pandemic weighed heavily on court proceedings. Cases were delayed while offenders were given lighter-than-usual sentences to keep the number of inmates at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre down to a manageable level for a time.

However, some major decisions were handed down.

The most significant occurred in November when Seaver Tye Miller was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole for 15 years and Joshua Steven West to life in prison without eligibility for parole for 13 years for second-degree murder from a January 2017 shooting that left two men and a dog dead and another man with lasting injuries.

The two had pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of David Laurin Franks and Thomas Burt Reed. They were shot to death in their car at a pullout alongside Foothills Boulevard after driving to the spot to sell some cocaine.

"While this is not a planned, deliberate murder, they brought shotguns – ostensibly to rob (the victims). They used those shotguns to shoot indiscriminately into the vehicle," B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church said. "The moral blameworthiness of the offenders is significant."

Reed's Shih Tzu dog, Molly, was also killed in the shooting.

Bradley William Knight, who dove onto the back seat floor of the car, was badly injured but survived the attack.

In November 2019, Aaron Ryan Moore was sentenced to five years on two counts of criminal negligence causing death in relation to the crime. Less credit for time served, he had 9 1/2 months remaining.

A sentencing hearing for one last co-accused is to be held in 2021. Perry Andrew Charlie was found guilty of second-degree murder following a trial in November 2019.

In February, Barbara Joan Husband, 85, was banned from driving for five years after she drove over a toddler in a parking lot off Ospika Boulevard. An appeal of the decision for the December 2018 incident was dismissed.

And in March, Zacharie Xavier Paul Bock, 32, was sentenced to a further three years in prison for pistol whipping a woman while leading a drug-related home invasion in July 2018.

Although he was wearing a bandana over his face, the woman recognized Bock and RCMP were able to "ping" a cellphone that was stolen to track down Bock and two co-accused. The woman had been struck on the back of the head with the gun when she had refused to hand the cellphone over to Bock.

Looking ahead, James David Junior Charlie is to be sentenced in the new year after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the January 2012 death of Fribjon Bjornson on the Nakazdli reserve just south of Fort St. James.

In October 2017, a jury had found Charlie guilty of first-degree murder but the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the verdict, finding the judge overseeing the trial failed to properly explain to the jury the law on liability for murder.

Bjornson, who was 28 years old at the time of his death, had been buying drugs from Charlie and his friends.

Testimony and evidence indicated that the father of two young children was strangled and beaten to death in an unprovoked attack in the basement of a home on the reserve.

Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince George Citizen