British Columbia

B.C. mayor wants changes to prison-transfer system after alleged murder by escapees

The mayor of a Vancouver Island community where a man was allegedly murdered by two inmates who escaped from a minimum-security prison says they never should have been there in the first place.

2 suspects should never have been in a minimum-security facility, Metchosin Mayor John Ranns says

James Lee Busch, 42, and Zachary Armitage, 30, have been charged with first-degree murder in the death of a Metchosin, B.C., man. The crime is alleged to have happened while they were on the run after fleeing the William Head Institution. (West Shore RCMP)

The mayor of a Vancouver Island community where a man was allegedly murdered by two inmates who escaped from a minimum-security prison says they never should have been in the facility in the first place.

John Ranns says he's warning people in Metchosin to stay vigilant as long as there's a loophole allowing inmates to be transferred to low-security facilities through an override of their security classification when they still pose a risk.

"The wrong people got sent," said Ranns.

James Busch and Zachary Armitage are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Martin Payne, whose body was found in his Metchosin home on July 12, 2019, RCMP said Friday.

Police were alerted July 8 that the men had escaped from the minimum-security William Head Institution in the municipality, which is about 20 kilometres from Victoria.

An off-duty officer spotted the men while walking his dog almost two days later, leading to their arrest.

It was only when Payne, who was 60, failed to show up for work that officers found his body.

'Particularly troubling'

Busch, 42, was serving an indeterminate sentence for second-degree murder and assault. Armitage, 30, was convicted of offences including a violent aggravated assault and violent robbery.

In sentencing Armitage last November for the escape from William Head, provincial court Judge Roger Cutler said the inmate had served eight years of a 14-year sentence when he fled.

On July 7, during a walk by the water, the two prisoners decided to escape by walking along the shoreline of the ocean-front facility during low tide, Cutler's decision says.

William Head Correctional Institution, a minimum-security correctional facility in Metchosin, B.C., where two prisoners escaped last summer by walking along the shoreline of the ocean-front facility during low tide. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"Given [Armitage's] prior violent record and his history of escaping lawful custody, including four prior convictions, I was perplexed as to why at the time of his escape, the offender was serving his sentence at a minimum-security institution," writes Cutler in the decision.

"This situation was particularly troubling as the information provided to the court indicated that the offender had recently escaped in 2016, and less than two years later, in February 2018, he had been assessed as a medium security or moderate risk to escape."

A week after the assessment it was overridden, the decision says. Two months after that, Armitage was transferred to William Head.

Public expectations

Cutler says an internal Correctional Service Canada (CSC) report provided by the Crown recommended the override because Armitage had made positive efforts to rehabilitate himself. His case management team did not believe he posed an escape risk, Cutler says.

The escape is understandably disconcerting to the public, the judge adds.

"The public is entitled to expect that those incarcerated for violent criminal conduct and who have an extensive and recent escape history are rarely, and only with solid reasoning, placed in a position where escaping incarceration may be achieved by merely walking along the shoreline at low tide,'' he says.

"And, when such an escape occurs, the public ought to be provided a full explanation of the process leading to the decisions made by those responsible.''

Cutler added one year to Armitage's sentence for the escape, but at the time of sentencing the Crown had not alleged he committed any offences while at large.

Off-duty police officer John Ferguson recognized the two escapees while walking his dog, leading to their arrest. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

CSC review

On Saturday, CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly said an investigation has begun on how to prevent and respond to escapes, and measures have been taken to enhance security.

A written statement said escapes from federal prisons are uncommon, with nine across Canada in 2019-20. The last one at William Head was in 2014 and before that in 2004.

In a statement Tuesday, CSC said the investigation is in its final stages and all minimum-security inmates have had their security levels reviewed.

Policy changes include mandatory psychological risk assessments for specific inmates before they're assigned to a minimum-security prison and higher decision-making authority for their reclassification.

William Head Institution in Metchosin, B.C. Correctional Service of Canada says an investigation is underway on how to prevent and respond to escapes, and measures have been taken to enhance security. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

The assistant deputy commissioner is now the final decision-maker for the reclassification of any inmate convicted of a sex-related offence, or who was initially rated maximum security and who committed an offence causing death or serious harm and has three or more years before they are eligible to apply for day parole.

The assistant commissioner of correctional operations and programs, and the deputy commissioner for women remain the final decision-makers for the reclassification of a dangerous offender to minimum security.

'Major factor hasn't been addressed'

Ranns said he's disappointed that wardens don't get a say in the process.

"It just makes sense to me that the warden who understands that program the best and understands the community the best doesn't get a chance to refuse an inmate,'' Ranns said.

"While a lot of positive changes were made, the major factor hasn't been addressed and that is, those guys should not have been there in the first place.''

Ranns said William Head has been a "very good corporate citizen'' and communicates well with the community.

The prison has a strong program for preparing inmates to reintegrate into society in the final months before their release, Ranns said.

CSC did not immediately respond to Ranns' concerns. The warden at William Head could not be reached for comment.

To hear Metchosin Mayor John Ranns interviewed on CBC's On The Island, tap here.

With files from On The Island and Terri Theodore