Landlord convicted of torching rental gets two years, to be served in prison

A Montreal man who set fire to his Esquimalt rental property two years ago to get rid of a difficult tenant has been sentenced to two years in a federal prison.

On Oct. 18, a B.C. Supreme court jury convicted Wei George Li of setting fire to his rental property on Uganda Avenue and threatening the health, safety and property of his tenant, Billy Montgomery. The arson took place on Oct. 3, 2017.

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The maximum sentence for the offence is 14 years in prison. At Li’s sentencing, prosecutor Jess Patterson said an appropriate sentence would be in the range of two to three years in prison.

On Friday, Justice Robin Baird said the crime committed by Li was extremely dangerous, “unbelievably stupid” and deserving of rebuke. However, the judge also considered that Li, who is almost 50, is an electrical engineer with a long history of gainful employment and no previous criminal history.

Li emigrated to Canada from China in 2003 and lives in the same house as his estranged wife. Together they raise their two children, one of whom has autism, said Baird.

Based on Li’s age, family responsibility, work history and otherwise blameless life, Baird said he decided on the lowest end of the sentencing range.

Baird outlined the facts he believes were essential to the jury’s guilty verdict.

Just after 10 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2017, fire broke out in Li’s side of a duplex, at 318 Uganda Ave. Li did not live at the property but rented it to tenants. The basement suite was vacant because a tenant had moved out the previous day. The upper floor was rented by Billy Montgomery.

Irene Brett lived in the other side of the duplex. She had sold the other half to Li a year earlier.

Baird noted that for several months before the fire, Li had been involved in a “pitched and heated” dispute with Montgomery. “He had served Mr. Montgomery with an eviction notice and relations between them had become extremely volatile,” he said.

On the morning of Oct. 3, 2017, Montgomery watched Li walk up the driveway to the garage.

Montgomery was upstairs with two overnight guests. He was angry that Li had shown up unannounced. He started yelling at Li, who went to the back of the house and entered the basement 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, leaving Li alone on the property.

By the time they returned, about 20 minutes later, the garage was engulfed in flames.

The jury found that Li intentionally set fire to Montgomery’s belongings, said Baird. “I am satisfied, on all the evidence, that he did this to intimidate Mr. Montgomery, or to force him off the property or both. The fire seriously destroyed Mr. Montgomery’s personal property. … The garage and the duplex were also damaged.”

Setting the fire was a premeditated act, the judge said. Li used gasoline as an accelerant and searched the internet for information about the safe transportation of gasoline in plastic containers. He sent Brett a text saying they needed to talk because “someone threatened to burn the house.”

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.

Baird noted that the house is located in a densely populated residential area. Although Li set the fire after Montgomery and his guests had left the building, Brett was home in her part of the duplex.

The fire created a serious risk of other property damage and loss of life, said Baird.

“The firefighters who attended the scene were exposed to peril. There is no doubt at all the accused has committed a very serious criminal office.”

Outside court, Brett said she’s relieved it’s all finally over. “It’s been a real nightmare.”

She said when the fire broke out, a “big mushroom cloud came over me.” She ran to Li’s side of the duplex and banged on the window to alert the tenants, then called 911.

Li’s side of the duplex is now owned by a couple she has known for years, she said. “It’s nice to see it back in loving arms again.”

She said she’s happy to see an end to the “pandemonium” — the disputes and police calls — caused by Li’s tenants in the months leading up to the fire.

“Peace has been restored,” said Brett. “And I’m staying.”

It’s expected Li will serve his sentence in a Quebec prison so he can be close to his family in Montreal.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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