Jury finds man accused of torching Esquimalt rental guilty

A Montreal man has been convicted of setting fire to his Esquimalt rental property two years ago.

Late Friday afternoon, a B.C. Supreme Court jury found Wei Li guilty of intentionally causing damage by fire to his house at 318 Uganda Ave. and threatening the health, safety or property of his tenant, Billy Montgomery, on Oct. 3, 2017. The 12-member jury reached the unanimous verdict after deliberating for about six hours.

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A date for Li's sentencing hearing will be scheduled on Oct. 23. In the meantime, he will remain out on bail in Montreal, where he lives and reports to a bail supervisor.

The 49-year-old, who took the stand in his own defence this week, denied setting fire to the garage and destroying Montgomery’s property.

The verdict means the Crown proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Li, who was badly burned in the blaze, was the one who set fire to the house.

The jury heard that Li bought the duplex and lived in the basement suite from October 2016 to April 2017, when he moved back to Montreal. On Sept. 30, 2017, he returned to Victoria to deal with numerous police and bylaw complaints and to clean the basement suite, which was being vacated by another tenant.

After he arrived, Li sent Irene Brett, the woman who lived in the other half of the duplex, a text saying they needed to talk because “someone threatened to burn the house.”

Montgomery, who lived in an upper suite, had once been good friends with Li. But their relationship soured after Li left Victoria, court heard. In the days leading up to the fire, Li and Montgomery clashed repeatedly.

Li testified that Montgomery had threatened to both trash the house and burn the place down.

Montgomery denied making those threats.

The jury heard that on the morning of Oct. 3, 2017, Montgomery watched Li walk up the driveway to the garage. He was angry that Li had shown up unannounced. He started yelling at Li, who went around the back of the house and entered the suite.

Montgomery yelled and swore at Li through the floor and through the basement door and also went downstairs to confront Li.

Just after 10 a.m., Montgomery and two friends left to buy groceries. By the time they returned, about 20 minutes later, the garage was engulfed in flames. Li was the only one remaining on the property after they left, the jury heard.

About 10:33 a.m., Li arrived at Victoria International Airport. As he passed through security, he asked for help. He was in pain from burns to his hands, neck and face. He told airport security that he had been burned in a house fire and he had been lucky to escape with his life. The woman who helped Li was concerned that he hadn’t called 911 and that there might be a tenant in the burning building.

Police investigating the fire searched the garage and basement suite and found a gasoline container and kindling. The previous tenant testified that she had never seen those items and they did not belong to her.

The jury heard evidence from Esquimalt firefighter Andrew Luch, who saw a flame 1.5 metres to 2.5 metres high in the middle of the garage. Luch testified that after the fire was extinguished, his clothes smelled strongly of gasoline.

Fire Capt. Troy Saladana investigated the fire, but was not able to determine its source or whether an accelerant had been used to start the blaze. Saladana testified that he did not believe the fire was caused by the electrical setup in the garage.

There was not much electrical wiring in the garage, Saldana said. A single circuit appeared to be the power source for the electrical outlet mounted on the wall near where the fire had been most intense, he said.

However, Saladana could not rule out the possibility that an electrical spark caused a gasoline vapour fire.

Crown prosecutor Jess Patterson argued that Li wanted Montgomery out of the house and set the fire because he was angry at him, and that the text to Brett was part of Li’s plan to divert suspicion from him.

The defence countered that Li did not set fire to his home because he had already been warned by police that insurance would not cover the loss in the event of a fire.

Li told the jury that he found a plastic container with gas in the lower suite the day before the fire and he got rid of the gas by dumping it outside the door.

He testified that he arrived at his home on Oct. 3 at 9:30 a.m. He said he smelled chemicals as soon as he walked into the suite and he thought he heard someone running or moving in the suite, but saw nobody.

Li said that he heard a noise outside and went to investigate. He found the kitchen window wide open with a log underneath it and saw the gas container and wood.

He said he noticed that the door to the garage was slightly open. When he flicked on the switch for the garage light, there was an explosion and he was badly burned, he said.

Li testified that he fled to the airport because he was afraid for his life.

Psychologist Peter Meuser testified that Li’s failure to call 911 was in keeping with someone who has been traumatized.


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