DPP appeals sentence handed to Black Saturday arsonist Brendan Sokaluk
AND SO THEY SHOULD, HE SHOULD GET THAT FOR EACH DEATH, NEVER TO LEAVE JAIL.WHAT SORT OF MESSAGE DOES IT SEND? An arsonist would get the same for burning down a Bunnings store in the middle of the night with no deaths….Extremely inadequate…
THE Director of Public Prosecutions has appealed the 17-years and nine-month maximum – with 14-year-minimum – sentence imposed on one of Victoria’s worst killers, Black Saturday arsonist Brendan James Sokaluk, arguing the jail term was “manifestly inadequate”.
The Churchill fire which Sokaluk started, by deliberately throwing burning paper out his car window on the 46.3C day, killed 10 people, destroyed 156 homes and burnt 36,000ha.
Sokaluk, 42, was found guilty by a jury of ten counts of arson causing death over the February 7, 2009 blaze and was sentenced in April by Supreme Court judge Justice Paul Coghlan.
With almost three years already spent on remand, Sokaluk, a one-time CFA volunteer, would have been eligible for parole in just over 11 years.
Each count of arson causing death carries a maximum 25 years jail.
In delivering his sentence, Justice Coghlan cited Sokaluk’s autism spectrum disorder, but said in the jury’s verdict they had dismissed his claims the fire was started by accident after Sokaluk said he used a napkin to dispose of a burning ember from his cigarette.
Expert evidence during the trial showed the paper could only have ignited the blaze if already burning when thrown from the vehicle.
Justice Coghlan said Sokaluk also tried to divert attention by making an insurance claim on his car the day after the fire and sending an email to Crime Stoppers claiming to have seen a DSE firefighter starting the blaze.
At the time of sentencing, the judge said the law did not seek to place a value, in terms of sentence length, on each life lost.
“For the victims, these were and are life-changing events and no sentence that I impose can in any way compensate for their loss,” Justice Coghlan said.
“The law, through me, does not intend to put a value on a life in those terms. Each life is precious . . . not just to the victim but to the community as a whole.”
Killed were brothers David and Colin Gibson, who died defending their parents’ property at Glendonald Rd; Annette Leatham, at her daughter’s property on Cooks Rd, Callignee; Alfred Frendo and his son Scott, caught in or near their vehicles near the family home in Old Callignee Rd, Callignee; Martin Schultz, as he sought refuge in his ute in a creek bed while trying to drive from his home at Factory Rd, Callignee; and Allan and Miros Jacobs, their son Luke and Luke’s friend Nathan Charles at the Jacobs’ property at Traralgon Creek Rd, Koornalla.
The DPP appeal for a longer sentence will be heard in the Court of Appeal on a date to be fixed.
View Sokaluk’s path of destruction in a larger map
Watch Brendan Sokaluk’s explosive police interview where he admits to starting the fatal Churchill blaze that killed ten people and returns…
A jury today found Brendan Sokaluk guilty of starting the devastating Churchill bushfire that took the lives of 10 people on Black Saturday.
It is believed no one else in the state’s criminal history has killed more people.
Sokaluk, 42, looked confused but showed little emotion when the jury foreperson announced “guilty” as each of the 10 counts of arson causing death were read out in the Supreme Court today.
Sokaluk looked round the court, chewed his lip and twitched nervously.
Victims who lost family members and friends in the inferno were in court to hear the verdict and they smiled and hugged each other.
Sokaluk will face a pre-sentence plea hearing on a date to be fixed but his lawyer announced as she left court that it was likely he would appeal the verdicts.
Asked how Sokaluk was feeling Jane Dixon SC said “Shattered, of course”.
“I think he’s a bit lost at the moment,” she said.
During the trial Ms Dixon painted a picture of a harmless individual, a “simpleton” whose autism set him apart from others in the community.
“He’s a bit of a misfit really, but nevertheless he muddled along in his own way muddled along OK with a bit of help from his mum and dad, comfortable enough with his own company, his dog, his hobbies, his obsessions,” she told the jury in her summing up.
But the Crown painted a different picture.
A man who deliberately drove to bushland and started a fire on a day that had temperatures that reached nearly 45C and ended with a 70km/h wind change that blasted the fire front across the homes of his victims.
A man who was calculating enough to lie about his reasons for being in the area, to try to cover his tracks and to point the finger at others.
The trial before Justice Paul Coghlan was told people in the Churchill area thought Sokaluk was a weirdo and called him” beanie boy” and other names and as soon as locals learned he was in the area where the bushfire erupted he became the prime suspect.
And he knew it.
Sokaluk was questioned by police five days after Black Saturday and took part in a reconstruction of his movements on the day and in a later four-hour record of interview told detectives he had “done it accidentally”.
He gave an explanation that a piece of ash dropped from a cigarette as he was driving along a dirt road and he scooped it up in a napkin and threw it out of his car window.
This led him to believe he had started the inferno that consumed 36,000ha and destroyed 156 homes.
The case against Sokaluk was circumstantial. No one saw him light the two fires at the junction of Glendonald Rd and Jelleffs Outlet, about 3km from Churchill fire station.
Prosecutor Ray Elston SC told the jury it was the Crown case that Sokaluk tried to disguise his crime by claiming to police that it was an accident, lying about his reasons for being in the area and trying to point the finger at others.
Police managed to piece together Sokaluk’s movements on Black Saturday almost to the minute from phone records, witness accounts, shop receipts and CCTV footage.
In the morning of Sokaluk picked up his father Kazimir in his distinctive sky blue Holden HJ and the pair drove to Morwell and Traralgon, visited auto and hardware stores, had lunch at KFC and bought lottery tickets.
Kazimir Sokaluk said Brendan’s car was playing up and “running rough” but against his advice his son said he was “going up into the trees” because it was cooler there.
Sokaluk also said he wanted to get a chisel set back from a friend named Dave who lived in that area.
At 1.16 pm Sokaluk was in the IGA store in Churchill where he bought cigarettes before heading off into the Jeeralang Hills.
Within 15 minutes a fire erupted in the hills and witnesses said that in tinder dry conditions the inferno tore through the bush seawards towards Yarram.
Later in the day a devastating wind change forced the fire to burn back on itself and in the hours following 10 people died.
Sokaluk 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.
The Crown called 80 witnesses and its case was a mosaic of evidence that pointed to the guilt of Sokaluk.
Mr Elston told the jury the accused had no reason to be in the area that day and if he was going to see Dave, who was home, he never got there.
“Why did he travel on a dirt road to get out there?” Mr Elston said to the jury in his summing up. “Why did he drive off that dirt road on to a graded track on the south side of Glendonald Road?
“That is obviously the wrong side of the road for someone going east. He he chooses (a track) one on the right-hand side closest to the eucalypts.”
Sokaluk admitted to police he was the only person in the area just before the fire started and the jury heard a 000 call he made to report the fire and in which he told an operator “it’s getting big”.
A short distance from where the fire started Sokaluk’s car broke down and he was spotted at the side of the road by a Churchill CFA truck and then later picked up by a couple who drove him back to town.
Neighbours saw Sokaluk on his roof watching the progress of the fire and for some never explained reason he later walked back into the fire area.
A resident found him in his back yard and told him to shelter in his house a few minutes before the returning fire storm passed.
The jury saw a pathetic picture of Sokaluk with a garden hose in his hand taken by the resident.
Mr Elston said Sokaluk told a number of differing stories about his reasons for going to the hills and performed several incriminating acts, including making a false anonymous report to Crime Stoppers from his home computer blaming a DSE worker.
Ms Dixon told the jury it was a “finely balanced circumstantial case” against her client and Crown case was not “bullet proof”.
Ms Dixon said people who knew her client described him as a “lights out and no-one home” type of personality.
But the technical term was that he had autism spectrum disorder, a neuro developmental disorder which affects his communication, executive processing and his sensory perceptions.
In her summing up Ms Dixon told the jury to reject the prosecution case that Sokaluk was a calculating and cunning liar.
“Frankly Brendan Sokaluk would not be capable of calculating his way even out of a paper bag unless he had a map,” Ms Dixon said.
“He’s not retarded, he’s not dumb in that sense, but he’s certainly not in terms of autism, he’s not some Rain Man character”.
But the jury rejected the notion Sokaluk was an innocent victim of circumstance and who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He was a killer who brought death and devastation to his own community and left a vile legacy for LaTrobe Valley that will never be forgotten or erased.