London group home operator Keith Charles sentenced to intermittent jail, probation

Keith Charles seen arriving at Provincial Offences Court on Dundas Street, April 24, 2017. Natalie Lovie/AM980
The question wasn’t “if a fire tragedy was going to happen — it was [the question of] when,” said Justice Peter Aharan, as he sentenced a London man found guilty of 12 fire code violations after a fatal blaze nearly two-and-a-half years ago, to 20 days of intermittent jailtime and two years of probation.

Keith Charles owned an apartment building on Oxford Street East, across from Fanshawe College, that caught fire in November 2014, and claimed the life of 72-year-old David MacPherson. The building was used as an unregulated group home, operated by Charles through his organization People Helping People.

The Nov. 3, 2014 fire at 1451 Oxford St. E left one resident dead and prompted the city to implement a bylaw in late 2016 to licence unregulated group homes.
The Nov. 3, 2014 fire at 1451 Oxford St. E left one resident dead and prompted the city to implement a bylaw in late 2016 to licence unregulated group homes. AM980


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Charles’ sentence will be served on weekends starting at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 5, and could be served in an intermittent sentence work period if his application for the program is approved.

Aharan said the sentence intends to deter future fire code violations, and means to address the gravity of the situation because “the risk posed to a significant number of extremely vulnerable people was obvious.”

“I can’t overstate the vulnerability I see in this circumstance,” Aharan told the court, painting an image of Charles’ buildings with damaged doors propped open and hallways blocked by pieces of furniture.

But Charles wanted the courtroom to know — since the charges — that he’d made fire safety a top priority at the three homes he still operates. He asked Kenneth Johnson, a volunteer with People Helping People, to testify about changes he’d made in the past month.

“I’ve seen him go through the checklist and check all the items on it,” Johnson explained — referring to a document Charles wrote himself and submitted as part of his sentencing report.

Johnson was the only witness asked to testify, although there were a number of other people gathered in the courthouse.

Twice, a woman named Tammy interrupted proceedings, referring to Charles as “Dad,” and walked up to the front of the room to tell Aharan, “It isn’t his fault. It’s my fault,” before being ushered out of the room crying, clutching two stuffed animals.

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The prosecution had asked that Charles pay a $5,000 fine for each fire code violation, which would have totalled $60,000.

But Aharan didn’t include any fines in his ruling. Instead, he told Charles that during a two-year probation period, he wouldn’t be allowed to operate any buildings with more than five unrelated tenants each. Charles currently has three group homes; there are four tenants living at home in Burwell Drive, four tenants living in a home on Oakland Avenue, and eight tenants living in a home on Edmonton Street.

Aharan said the probation wouldn’t impact Charles’ location on Edmonton Street.

“From my recollection, this is the first time in the city of London that somebody has actually been given a jail-sentence because of fire code violations,” said fire Chief John Kobarda, adding that he believes the ruling is fair.

“It shows that the legal system does support us in fire safety, that there isn’t a tolerance for this type of stuff, and that not only is Mr. Charles aware of that now, other people maybe doing the same thing will know that the London Fire Department takes this very seriously, and so does the judicial system.”

— With files from Matthew Trevithick, Natalie Lovie, and Trudy Shaw

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