UPDATE 2 TODAY 27/04/12
Brendan James Sokaluk jailed for Black Saturday fire that killed 10 people
BLACK Saturday arsonist Brendan James Sokaluk, a former CFA volunteer who killed 10 people in the Churchill fire, has been jailed for 17 years and nine months with a minimum term of 14 years before he becomes eligible for parole.
Sokaluk, 42, a long-time Churchill resident, had earlier been found guilty by a jury of lighting the massive blaze when he deliberately threw lit paper from his vehicle into a eucalyptus plantation on the 46.3C day.
The February 7, 2009 blaze took hold in winds reaching more than 70km/h and blew out to a front of more than 15km, threatening several towns, destroying 156 homes, a community hall, 36,000 Ha and killing 10 people.
In sentencing Sokaluk for 10 counts of arson causing death, Supreme Court Justice Paul Coghlan said this afternoon that setting punishment for the arsonist was an extremely difficult task, given Sokaluk’s borderline mental impairment and diagnosed autism.
Justice Coghlan said he accepted Sokaluk did not intend to kill, but he found that Sokaluk would have appreciated his actions would have at least caused property damage.
“Death from natural disaster would be awful enough,” Justice Coghlan told the court, which was filled with relatives of those who died.
But to know the fire was sparked deliberately would be exceptionally hard to accept, he said.
Justice Coghlan said the law did not seek to place a value – in terms of sentence length – on each life lost due to a crime.
“Any sentence I impose could in no way compensate for their loss,” he said.
Sokaluk, dressed in a green shirt and with black-greying hair, looked impassively at the court ceiling as the sentence was passed.
Outside court the relative of Black Saturday victims Rhonda Jacobs said justice had been served, but it didn’t change the fact her family had been torn apart.
Ms Jacobs lost her brother Alan, sister-in-law Miros and nephew Luke in the fire.
“For our part it is not about hate, revenge or reprisals,” she said in a statement prepared by her father.
“Justice has been done and seen to be done, and for that we are very grateful.
“Even though sadly, for us, not a lot changes. We are without our much loved family, and we still have a grandson without a mother, father or brother.
“Our deepest thoughts and empathy are extended to the other people who have lost loved ones, homes and property due to the terrible bush-fires of 2009.”
Ms Jacobs said her family extended their thanks to emergency services and legal teams who worked throughout the case.
UPDATE 1 TODAY 27/04/12
A FORMER volunteer fire-fighter who lit a Black Saturday bushfire that killed 10 people will be sentenced TODAY.
Sokaluk, who has autism spectrum disorder and a mild intellectual disability, faces up to 25 years in prison on each of the 10 counts on which he was found guilty.
It might seem all is good and people are rebuilding their shattered lives from Black Saturday 2009. Apart from bloody red tape and the bureaucracy making folks lives and nightmare, they are getting on with it.
BUT WE cannot let society forget about the criminals, the wannabes, the useless tools who thought they deserved more recognition. The ones that we trusted to keep us safe. The ones who did not give a shit about human life. They are the rogue CFA volunteers who rip the hearts out of the real volunteers crews who risk their lives to save our bacon every day UNPAID for the most part give and take a few professionals.
This case is all about this fool
UPDATE: A FORMER CFA volunteer accused of starting a Black Saturday bushfire that claimed 10 lives told police “I done it accidentally”, a jury heard today.
Prosecutor Ray Elston said said on February 7, 2009 he was smoking while driving in Glendonald Rd near Churchill when he dropped some ash in the car.
Mr Elston said Mr Sokaluk 42, said he tried to pick up the burning ash with paper and “swished it out the window” and it ignited a bushfire.
“I done a bad thing” Mr Sokaluk told police, according to the prosecutor.
Mr Elston said the Churchill fire destroyed a huge area and 10 people died as it was driven by winds gusting at up to 70km/h.
Mr Elston told the Supreme Court that the accused told a number of lies about his reason for being in the area.
Mr Sokaluk mentioned a wedding, helping a mate fight the fire and visiting a mate, all of which were lies, Mr Elston said.
Mr Sokaluk who was the second person to make a 000 call about the fire and denied deliberately starting the fire, claiming it was an accident.
But the jury heard that an expert would tell the court that the fire had two ignition sources 80m apart in Jellis Rd at Glendonald Rd.
Opening the prosecution case, Mr Elston said witnesses would say later in the afternoon they saw Mr Sokaluk standing on his roof watching the progress of the fire.
Mr Sokaluk has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of arson causing death and two counts of causing a bushfire over the blaze in Gippsland on February 7, 2009.
Mr Elston said Mr Sokaluk’s distinctive white and blue Holden car was seen in Glendonald Rd at around 1.40 pm near the seat of the Churchill fire.
Mr Elston said a short time later his car was seen broken down in Glendonald Rd.
Mr Elston said the fire had started at around 1.30pm at a junction of Glendonald Road, about 3km from the Churchill fire station.
He said it spread rapidly in plantation blue gum and pine and scrub, driven by a northwesterly wind gusting at up to 65km/h.
Mr Elston said that within the first 50 minutes the fire had travelled 7km and by 6 pm it had a flank of 15km.
At 6.30pm a southeast wind change gusting at up to 70km/h hit the flank of the fire, causing to become the front and drove it across a number of towns and communities.
Mr Elston said the Churchill fire eventually consumed 36,000ha.
“Clearly this bushfire caused vast destruction in the area,” Mr Elston said.
A police check of Mr Sokaluk’s computer discovered he had used it to make a report to Crime Stoppers on February 10 saying the fire had been deliberately lit by a DSE firefighter.
When asked about the report Mr Sokaluk said, “I just made it up”.
However, the defence say Sokaluk was an easy target for blame for the fatal blaze and may even have convinced himself he started it.
Defence barrister Jane Dixon SC said Sokaluk’s presence at the location of the fire was “coincidence” and the prosecution account of how it started was deficient.
Ms Dixon said her client is autistic and it affected his interaction with the world and what he said.
“Brendan Sokaluk comes across as a little bit strange,” Ms Dixon told the Supreme Court jury.
She said he told police he was driving down Glendonald Rd on Black Saturday when he dropped ash from a cigarette, scooped it up with paper which he threw out of the window.
This led Mr Sokaluk to tell police he started the fire.
“Perhaps something he did started the fire, perhaps not,” Ms Dixon said.
She said the defence would call evidence from bushfire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst who would say there were several suggested possible causes of the fire which were not proven or disproven.
Dr Tolhurst would tell the trial there may have been two Churchill fires which later joined or one fire which ignited the second 600m away.
Ms Dixon said Mr Sokaluk reported the fire to 000, which was hardly the action of an arsonist, giving his name and mobile number to the operator.
Ms Dixon said the jury would have to decide if Mr Sokaluk started the fire or if “a more mobile person” was responsible.
“Was this a case of arson at all?,” Ms Dixon said.
She said it was easy in a situation of “self blame” to say Mr Sokaluk was responsible for conduct “of the utmost seriousness”.