Crown considering next steps after hung jury in sex assault trial for former fire chief
Robert Bennett found not guilty on two counts, jury deadlocked on third
A former fire chief in Fort St. James, B.C. has been found not guilty on two counts of sexual assault, but could still face another trial after a jury failed to deliver a verdict on a third count, which is now being reviewed by Crown counsel.
The jury released its ruling on all three charges on Dec. 16 in Prince George after three and a half days of deliberation.
The charges stem from a period of time in which Robert Harold Bennett served as fire chief in the small community of Fort St. James in northwest B.C. and, by his own admission, was drinking regularly to the point that his speech and behaviour were affected, even while at the fire hall.
Three women who served as volunteer firefighters under Bennett alleged the former chief had sexually assaulted them during this time.
Two women, Kirsten Rudolph and Lisa Button, said he would make sexually charged and vulgar remarks and on several occasions grabbed their breast, buttocks and crotches, which Bennett denied.
A third woman, Joy Reierson, alleged Bennett had invited her into a private room for a meeting at which point he kissed her, pinned her against the door and held her by the wrists on the floor, also denied by Bennett.
A 12-person jury determined there was enough reasonable doubt in the case of Reierson's allegations to find Bennett not guilty. The jury also found enough reasonable doubt to find Bennett not guilty of sexual assault against Rudolph, though they were unable to reach a verdict on the lesser included offence of assault stemming from testimony Bennett had repeatedly poked Rudolph.
The jury was hung on the allegation of sexual assault against Button and no verdict delivered.
The jury has been discharged and a spokesperson for the B.C. Prosecution Service said the file will "likely" return to court in 2018 to set a new trial date for the charges stemming from Button's allegations. In the interim, Crown counsel is reviewing the case to determine if they will still pursue the charge.
Two male witnesses, who also acted as volunteer firefighters, testified they'd seen Bennett grab Button — one said he'd seen Bennett grab Button's buttocks and another said he'd seen Bennett grab Button's breasts.
One of those witnesses also testified he'd seen several occasions of Bennett playing with Rudolph's hair and at least two instances of Bennett sliding his hand down to Rudolph's buttocks to grab it.
Though Bennett admitted to being a "pest" to female firefighters, he denied any instance of sexual touching or assault.
He also testified his drinking affected his behaviour and speech, but not his memory.
Several witnesses testified on Bennett's behalf, including another former female firefighter who said he would be the "last person" to engage in sexual assault.
In closing arguments Bennett's lawyer argued testimony against Bennett was made up, while the Crown lawyer questioned why five people would fabricate their stories.
This was the second trial Bennett faced for these charges. Previously, Mr. Justice Glen Parrett found Bennett guilty on three counts of sexual assault based on testimony from the three female complainants and several witnesses, and sentenced the former chief to nine months imprisonment followed by two years probation.
That ruling was dismissed and a new trial ordered after the Court of Appeal found Justice Parrett to be dismissive of the testimony of a male firefighter who was supportive of Bennett.
"In this case, the judge's intervention would lead a reasonable and informed observer to the conclusion that he had closed his mind on a material issue and prejudged the evidence of a witness favourable to the defence," said the Court of Appeal ruling.