Extra year for escapee from William Head; no other offences alleged

A provincial court judge has sentenced one of two men who escaped from William Head Institution in July to an additional year in prison.

Zachary Armitage, 30, is already serving a 14-year sentence, handed down in May 2011, for robbery and aggravated assault.

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The sentencing occurred at Western Communities courthouse. Armitage, who is currently at the medium security Mountain Institution prison in Agassiz, appeared by video.

The defence had requested a six-month sentence, while Crown prosecutor Susan Rupertus had asked for the maximum 24 months.

Armitage and James Lee Busch, 42, escaped from minimum-security William Head in Metchosin on the night of July 7. They were discovered missing during an 11 p.m. head count. The two were recaptured in Esquimalt on July 9 by an off-duty RCMP officer.

Zachary Armitage
Zachary Armitage was one of two inmates who were recaptured July 9 in the West Bay area of Esquimalt after escaping from William Head on July 7, 2019. Photograph by CORRECTIONAL SERVICE OF CANADA

The same week the men escaped, Martin Payne, 60, was found dead in his home on July 12, three days after his vehicle was found in Oak Bay. Payne’s home is about eight kilometres from William Head prison. No charges have been laid in his death.

In explaining his reasons for the sentence, Judge Roger Cutler said: “The Crown does not allege the defendant committed any offences while the defendant was unlawfully at large, although at the time of the defendant’s arrest, he was found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.”

Armitage had been due for parole in September. Outside the courthouse on Monday, defence lawyer Roberto Alberto said his client had been nervous about his possible release, after being in jail for so long.

Cutler said the two prisoners made the decision to escape on July 7 while walking along the shoreline at the oceanfront prison grounds.

When Armitage appeared before Cutler on Sept. 30 in the same courthouse, the judge said he was “perplexed” and “bewildered” as to why the inmate — with five previous escapes — was at the minimum-security prison.

Since the escape, federal and municipal politicians have also questioned why the violent offenders with escape histories were at the prison.

Alberto previously confirmed his client has gang affiliations.

At the September hearing, Cutler asked Crown counsel for further information on why the Correctional Service of Canada placed Armitage in a minimum-security prison.

On Monday, Cutler referred to a Correctional Service of Canada internal report that revealed Armitage was assessed in February 2018 as a moderate risk to escape and best suited for a medium-security institution, “but one week later,” that recommendation was “overridden” and he was assessed as a low risk to escape and determined to be suitable for minimum security, said Cutler.

Armitage was placed at William Head in April 2018.

The internal report referred to Armitage’s attempts to rehabilitate, and the transfer to William Head was explained as a gradual reintegration. “His case-management team did not believe he posed a risk to escape or to attempt to escape,” said Cutler.

Cutler said Armitage’s escape after his transfer to a minimum-security institution is “understandably disconcerting” for the community. “The public is entitled to expect that those incarcerated for violent criminal conduct and who have an extensive and recent escape history are rarely, and only with solid reasoning, placed in a position where escaping incarceration may be achieved merely by walking the shoreline at low tide.”

When such an escape occurs, the public should be provided a full explanation of the process and decisions made, said Cutler. “It’s essential that the public and the courts have confidence in our corrections institutions,” said Cutler, noting the case has led the correctional service to review its practices to avoid such situations in future. “I’m not saying any more on the topic because this is not the forum to address any shortcomings of our corrections [agencies].”

Cutler said he took into account several factors in sentencing Armitage, including his troubled childhood, which included family breakdown and being the victim of family violence. Armitage was involved in government child-protection services from the age of 11, and engaged in substance abuse at the age of 12, Cutler said, noting he lacked stability at home and at school and did not finish high school. His inability to focus and other factors make it seem that he’s much younger than his 30 years, said the judge, referring to reports.

Cutler also noted Armitage had pleaded guilty to his unlawful escape.

Busch is scheduled to appear in court via video on Thursday.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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