London

City worker charged with River Road arson attack was a firefighter whose previous home burned down

The city fleet supervisor charged with arson in the fire that damaged the clubhouse at the River Road Golf Course used to be a firefighter and lost a previous home on the outskirts of London to a blaze, CBC News has learned.

Michael Peter Belanger, 54, is charged with arson in the Nov. 7 blaze at River Road Golf Course

Michael Peter Belanger owns the home at 2255 River Road, three doors down from the River Road Golf Course. (Facebook.com)

The city fleet supervisor charged with arson in the fire that damaged the clubhouse at the River Road Golf Course used to be a firefighter and lost a previous home on the outskirts of London to a blaze, CBC News has learned. 

Michael Peter Belanger, 54, used to work as a captain with the Zorra Township Fire Department. He worked out of the Embro Fire Hall as part of a volunteer crew. 

Earlier this week police announced they had charged Belanger with arson after a Nov. 7 fire that caused $1-million damage. 

The golf course and clubhouse were to be used for an Indigenous-led winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Belanger and his spouse, Susie Dietrich-Belanger, live three doors down from the golf course property and recently put their home up for sale for $1.6 million. They took the house off the market on Tuesday. 

Dietrich-Belanger was one of several people living near the golf course to write letters of opposition to the city expressing concerns about safety and property damage should a shelter open. 

Fire began in basement

Belanger began working as a volunteer firefighter in 2010, and resigned when he moved to London seven years later, Zorra Township officials told CBC News.  

In July 2012, a rural home near Embro, which Zorra Township property records show was owned by Belanger and Deitrich-Belanger, burned to the ground.

The first call came into the Zorra fire department in the afternoon. The fire started in the basement and was started by overheated electronics, the fire call log shows. There was fire damage in the basement and smoke damage throughout the home. A second call came in at 2 a.m. when the fire restarted, Zorra's spokesperson says.

When crews arrived in the middle of the night, the fire was fully engulfed and the structure was a total loss. There were no charges laid as a result of the fire and no one was hurt, officials say.

A home on that property was rebuilt and in 2017 Dietrich, a real estate agent, sold it.

Investigators mum on details

Police, fire, and city of London officials will not confirm what evidence led them to Belanger. 

The clubhouse of the River Road golf course sustained $1-million in damage after a fire that police say was deliberately set. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

However, the city has working security cameras on its buildings, including at the River Road Golf Course clubhouse, said Dave O'Brien, London's director of security and emergency management. Cameras at that location were "in working order" the day of the fire, O'Brien said. 

Rene Caskanette, a private fire investigator who runs a consulting firm and used to work for the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office and testified in criminal prosecutions, said arson cases can be difficult to investigate and prove. 

Court on Feb. 7

"It depends on how the fire started, who had the motive to start it, and who had the opportunity to do so," Caskanette said. "Motive in arsons is usually financial, but not always." 

Caskanette was speaking to CBC News broadly about arsons and arson investigations. He does not have inside knowledge of the clubhouse arson case. 

But he said if a building is still intact — as the River Road Golf Course clubhouse is — that can make an investigation easier, he said. 

"That gives you more access to evidence. Was there an accelerant? Are there multiple points of origin? If the building is destroyed, it's difficult to gather that evidence." 

It can take years before a case is finally brought to trial, Caskanette said. 

Belanger was arrested on Nov. 12 and released on an undertaking, basically a legally binding promise to appear in court at a later date. His first court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 7. 

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