A junior firefighter charged with 18 counts of arson after a series of fires in Mayerthorpe, including one that destroyed a CN trestle bridge and forced the evacuation of a nearby school and mobile park, has pleaded guilty to four counts of arson.
Lawson Schalm, 20, made the plea in Mayerthrope Provincial Court on Friday.
In an agreed statement of facts, the accused admitted “he started each of the fires for the excitement of being called into the fire hall and then responding to extinguish the fires. The accused admitted that fires excite him.”
“The accused was not called out or was unable to respond to some of the fires which disappointed him. Though the accused intentionally started the fires he stated that he did not want to hurt anybody,” read the agreed statement of fact.
The cost of responding to the fires and providing psychological support for Mayerthorpe firefighters stands at $8,653.52. The total loss to CN after the trestle fire was about $7.5 million.
Watch below: Video captures Mayerthorpe trestle bridge engulfed in flames
The blazes in April 2016 left the town on edge and, at one point, forced firefighters to respond to 17 fires in six days.
Schalm is the son of former Mayerthorpe mayor Albert Schalm, who told Global News last year that his family would not waver in their support for him.
Mayerthorpe Fire Chief Randy Schroeder said Schalm stood alongside firefighters battling the string of blazes. He said there was a sense of betrayal after learning of Schalm’s arrest.
Schroeder said Schalm had signed on to be a volunteer firefighter when he turned 18; he was 19 at the time of his arrest.
Watch below: Aerial view of the aftermath of trestle bridge fire in Mayerthorpe
A community impact statement submitted by the town’s CAO said the series of fires left the town unsettled, bracing for more fires and feeling like it was under attack. The town poured hours of manpower and equipment into keeping the community safe and added surveillance cameras as a result.
In a letter submitted by Schroeder, he stated that firefighters were running on vapours battling the blazes and worried about when or where the next fire would be. He wrote the fires were getting bolder and suspected that they were being started by a firefighter.
Schroeder wrote he was devastated by news of Schalm’s arrest, adding “all of us felt betrayed.”
The Crown in the case is recommending a five-year sentence minus three months for pre-trial custody.
Crown prosecutor Dallas Sopko cites several aggravating factors in Schalm’s sentence, including a significant breach of trust, the number of fires over the short period of time, the extent of the damage, foreseeable risks to lives and property and the continuation of fires after the CN trestle blaze.
He argues Schalm left the scene after lighting the blazes, which he said displays a disregard for others, and notes the continuation of fires shows lack of responsibility.
The defence is asking for 18 months in prison and three years probation, saying Schalm was only 19 years old at the time of the offence and he argues that all the fires were grass fires.
“He never intentionally set out to burn the trestle,” defence lawyer Ed O’Neill said.
O’Neill said Schalm has significant cognitive deficits and a low IQ. He cited an assessment stating Schalm was bullied when he was younger, had depression and suicidal thoughts but was not a pyromaniac.
He said that the decision to start the first fire lay in the argument that Schalm thought he could enhance his social standing in the community, contribute to it in “an important way” and be a hero by putting out the fires.
The defence said Schlam has no criminal history and submitted approximately six letters of support from the community. He said there are several mitigating factors including Schalm’s youthfulness at the time, his cooperation with police, his timely guilty plea, family and community support and his cognitive deficiency.
O’Neill also said there have been no problems since Schalm was let out on bail.
The defence asked the judge to show “compassion” for Schalm, who he called “a nice, young man” who is salvageable and on the road to rehabilitation.
When the judge asked about the fact Schalm continued to set fires after the trestle bridge fire, O’Neill argued that Schalm has limited cognitive abilities, which separates this case from others.
The judge is set to make a decision on July 6.