Arsonist sentenced to 4 years for startling string of fires in Bay d'Espoir

A man who torched a school, town hall and RCMP detachment on Newfoundland's south coast has been sentenced to four years.

School, town hall, RCMP detachment all set on fire Jan. 17, 2017

Donald Craig MacHaight has been sentenced to four years in prison for the arson of three community buildings in the Bay d'Espoir region in 2017. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

A man who torched a school, town hall and RCMP detachment on Newfoundland's south coast to "extract a payment" from society was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison.

Donald Craig MacHaight, 49, had pleaded guilty in September to three counts of arson for fires in Bay d'Espoir on Jan. 17, 2017 — fires he deliberately set to make up for an unfair life.

MacHaight was sentenced Thursday morning in provincial court in Grand Falls-Windsor.

In his decision, Judge Robin Fowler said he found remorse in MacHaight's various comments to the court about the crime, including his insistence to repeat his guilty plea directly.

"I would suggest that this has been an articulate effort," Fowler said Thursday during the sentencing hearing.

The judge also noted that although MacHaight attempted to avoid hurting anyone in the fires by picking a cold and snowy night, "One doesn't need much of an imagination to come up with a scenario where this could have ended badly in terms of human life." 

Accounting for time already served in custody, MacHaight has about two and a half years left in his sentence. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

MacHaight had submitted a 25-page handwritten statement that detailed his life story, including a deep depression that he said was caused by the provincial government's refusal to compensate him for damage to his home during flooding in October 2016.

MacHaight also wrote about his appearance, the death of his mother and father, his childhood, his life as a "shut-in" and his diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder.

Fowler said Thursday that the diagnosis was to be treated as a mitigating factor in the crime.

"Prior to his actions, he was living a life of misery, but could not really explain why. He reported that it was a way to strike back, retribution for the way he was treated," Fowler said, quoting from a pre-sentencing report prepared for the court.

Restitution request denied

The RCMP had petitioned the court to order MacHaight to pay close to $1.5 million dollars in restitution, to compensate for damage to the Bay d'Espoir detachment.

"It's a large amount, but the building has to be restored," explained Crown attorney Karen O'Reilly, whose office presented the restitution claim.

"The restitution request itself would lay out specifically how they came to that figure. But given the amount of destruction, it's not unusual."

Fowler denied that request Thursday.

"Mr. MacHaight does not have the means to pay this amount, and for an individual with his mental health and anxiety issues, it would — in my opinion — constitute a cruel and unusual punishment to order that restitution order." 

Firefighters survey the damage from the fires set by Donald Craig MacHaight in January 2017. (Submitted by Samantha Kearley)

However, Fowler did comment on the three victim impact statements submitted to the court by employees of the Town of Milltown—Head of Bay d'Espoir, Bay d'Espoir Academy and the RCMP.

He suggested the statements indicate the impact of arson in rural communities.

"In addition to concerns that could be expected with this type of offence … the community is additionally concerned as to if they will lose these precious resources for good. There are concerns of the school being rebuilt, the detachment coming back in."

Extensive time served

With credit given for time spent in custody, MacHaight has 911 days — or just under two and a half years — left in his sentence. 

MacHaight has been in custody since he was arrested the night the fires were set on Jan. 17, 2017.

O'Reilly said after the ruling that while her office has 30 days to consider an appeal, the judge's decision was within the normal range of sentences given out for similar crimes.

Crown Attorney Karen O'Reilly said the four-year sentence was within the range given out for similar crimes. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

O'Reilly had asked for a five-year sentence on behalf of the Crown, while the defence asked for four years.

MacHaight's lawyer declined to comment following the sentence.

About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

With files from Dan MacEachern