Man charged with arson, 1st-degree murder after mother’s body found in fire debris at Toronto home

Click to play video: 'Man charged with arson in deadly north Etobicoke house fire' Man charged with arson in deadly north Etobicoke house fire
WATCH ABOVE: The accused in the case, 24-year-old Joel Vassell, appeared in a Toronto courtroom Thursday afternoon. Catherine McDonald reports – Dec 12, 2019

Toronto police say a 24-year-old man has been charged with arson and first-degree murder after a person was found dead in a two-alarm house fire in Toronto’s west end Wednesday evening.

Emergency crews were called to a home on Stallion Place, west of Highway 27 and north of Rexdale Boulevard, just before 9:30 p.m.

Insp. Jim Gotell told reporters the victim was found dead inside the home by firefighters. He said a criminal investigation was launched by officers and a suspect was arrested nearby.

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“We do consider the death to be suspicious. We do consider the fire to be suspicious,” he said, adding there is a “very good chance” the charges could change in the future.

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Police sources told Global News at around the same time Toronto Fire Services responded to the home, a man called 911 from the Etobicoke General Hospital. The sources said he reported setting a fire at 11 Stallion Place and did so knowing there were still people inside.

Twenty-four-year-old Joel Vassell appeared in a Toronto courtroom Thursday afternoon, showing little emotion.

He appeared in court again Wednesday where he was charged with first-degree murder.

The fire happened at a home on Stallion Place late Wednesday evening.
The fire happened at a home on Stallion Place late Wednesday evening. Global News

According to documents obtained by Global News, Vassell and his mother were at home, got into argument and he approached her with a knife. They struggled, she got the knife away and he punched her multiple times.

While out on bail less than a month after assaulting his mother with a weapon, the documents said he broke into the home of his 95-year-old grandmother and attacked her with a knife. She sustained a stab wound to the chest, a slash wound to the neck and cuts to her hands.

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In June 2015, Vassell was found not criminally responsible for attempted murder and assault with a weapon, relating to his grandmother and mother, respectively.

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Neighbours told Global News Thursday morning that a woman, believed to be in her 50s, lived in the home.

Samson Olawuii said he lives next door and called 911 when he smelled smoke. Olawuii said he was begging firefighters to get the woman, he said is his neighbour, out.

“I was shouting, there’s a woman inside please get the woman out, there’s a woman inside, please,” Olawuii said.

Toronto Fire Services Deputy Chief Jim Jessop said the intensity of the blaze, which he called “well and deep-seeded,” made it difficult for firefighters to respond to.

“Our helmets have been melted. Our bunker suits did their job and protected our staff, but they have been significantly damaged. As I said, this fire has been significant,” he said, adding a shed behind the home melted.

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“All contents in this building ignited, and so the temperature in that building certainly exceeded 1000 degrees tonight.”

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Jessop said the injured firefighter was taken to hospital with minor injuries due to “extreme heat conditions.”

A spokesperson for Toronto Paramedics said two other people were treated and assessed by paramedics.

As of Wednesday night, Jessop said it was too early to identify the cause, the origin and the circumstances of the fire.

The aftermath of a fire that broke out on Stallion Place in north Etobicoke. Robbie Ford / Global News

He said Toronto police, Toronto Fire Services and the Office of the Fire Marshal have begun an investigation, adding they need to take a “scientific, systematic approach.”

Although there was no indication it was related to the fire, Jessop encouraged residents to ensure their smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are operating.

Meanwhile, anyone with information or surveillance video were asked to call police at 416-808-2300 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 416-222-8477.

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