Charlottetown man pleads guilty to setting apartment building fire

Ryan Ross rross@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 1, 2016

A Charlottetown man was sentenced Monday to serve almost four years in prison after pleading guilty to setting fire to an apartment building that had nine people sleeping in it.

Dennis Joseph O’Brien told the court he had planned to smoke a joint in one of the building’s rooms.

Instead, O’Brien said he accidentally set a mattress on fire and panicked.

O’Brien was in provincial court in Charlottetown where he was scheduled to start a weeklong trial but changed his plea to guilty of arson causing bodily harm.

He also pleaded guilty to breaching the conditions of his probation.

The court heard O’Brien knew several residents in the building and he had stayed there overnight numerous times until the landlord told the tenants not to let him.

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Several residents were in the courtroom watching the proceedings and dabbing at tears as they watched surveillance video that showed O’Brien in the building on May 8, 2015.

In one video, O’Brien entered a kitchen and emerged with something on fire in his hands.

O’Brien later said it was a piece of paper towel he planned to use to light a joint in an empty room.

Another video showed O’Brien walking out of that room before flames and smoke filled the hall enough to block out the camera’s view.

A resident who was sleeping when the fire started was trapped in the building and other tenants reported hearing her yelling for help.

They couldn’t reach her, but emergency responders eventually managed to drag the woman out through the heavy smoke.

She suffered minor burns, blistering on her fingers, smoke inhalation and singed hair.

The room where O’Brien lit the fire was the fire exit for the third floor and the court heard two residents had to climb out a window to escape the fire.

Before hearing his sentence, O’Brien said he was reckless and apologized to all the people he affected.

“I’m very sorry for what happened,” he said.

O’Brien said he had gone back to the building to collect some belongings and decided to light a joint.

Judge John Douglas said there were no signs O’Brien was panicked when he left the room.

He also said it was amazing the events weren’t more serious.

“They could have been tragic,” Douglas said.

Douglas agreed to a joint recommendation of five years in prison and gave O’Brien credit for time served, leaving him to serve 46.5 months.

Along with the prison time, O’Brien must pay $400 in victim surcharges.