'I still hear my own scream': Burn victim awaits sentencing of arsonists

A Manitoba man left scarred for life after suffering near-fatal burns in a Dauphin arson attack says a two-decade-long prison sentence prosecutors are fighting for in his case isn’t long enough.

Manitoba prosecutors seek 22-year-sentence for Sean and Seamus Nepinak

Clarence Houle still suffers immense pain nearly four years after he was almost killed in an arson in Dauphin. (James Turner/CBC)

A Manitoba man left scarred for life after suffering near-fatal burns in a Dauphin arson says the two decade-long prison sentence prosecutors are fighting for in his case isn't long enough.

Clarence Houle was 17 when he was trapped inside a Dauphin home that was destroyed in an intentionally set blaze in August 2013. He suffered third-degree burns to more than 95 per cent of his body, spent 10 weeks in a coma and a further 10 months in hospital. 

Nearly four years later, Houle still lives in constant pain and continues to relive the horror of the day the home he was sleeping inside was torched.

Seamus and Sean Nepinak are set to be sentenced in Dauphin next Tuesday after being convicted of several arson-related charges in a trial earlier this year.

The Crown has asked Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sandra Zinchuk to hand the men 22 years in prison. Houle says he believes that's letting them off easy.

"I'm dealing with a life sentence on my own now, because I'm stuck dealing with this for the rest of my life and they're not," Houle told CBC News on Wednesday. "And in 22 years – if that's what they get – they won't be burnt the way I am. They'll have normal lives again."
Clarence Houle is seen in this Facebook photo prior to suffering near fatal burns after his home was intentionally lit on fire in Dauphin in 2013. (Facebook)

Houle said along with the physical pain he endures, he can't let go of the memory of what happened when he caught fire. He's also had to testify twice during the court process.

"There's times when I'm about to fall asleep … I think about the moment the fire catches on to my body," he said. "I still hear my own scream echoing in my head … It's a terrifying feeling even just remembering something that happened almost four years ago."

What happened that day was tantamount to death. He's living a nightmare.- Crown attorney Erika Dolcetti on burn victim Clarence Houle

Three other people escaped the blaze inside the 6th Avenue NE home with minor injuries.

The Crown contends the Nepinak brothers, who at the time were gang-affiliated, had "animosity" towards Houle's cousin.

The fire was started when "light combustibles" were deliberately set alight in a cabinet at the base of the home's stairs.

It was a "well known fact" that the home was occupied on Saturday mornings, Crown attorney Erika Dolcetti said at a June sentencing hearing.

"They knew there was always people in this house," she said.

Dolcetti repeatedly referenced Houle's life-altering injuries as a reason for requesting a 22-year sentence.  

"The person who Clarence Houle was the day before the fire is not here today," Dolcetti said. "Yes, he's here, but somebody was murdered that day … That Clarence will never be back."

'Living a nightmare'

"What happened that day was tantamount to death," said Dolcetti. "He's living a nightmare."

Sean Nepinak's defence lawyer, Nolan Boucher, didn't dispute the injuries Houle suffered were "horrendous," but argued Zinchuk had to look at more than that to arrive at a fair sentence.

Sean Nepinak, 28, left, and Seamus Nepinak, 30, lost a bid to see their charges thrown out of court because of delay in getting their trial completed. (RCMP)

His client's intention was "less sinister" than the prosecution was implying, he said, likening the case to "a mischief gone wrong."

Nobody went to the house with a premeditated plan to start a fire, he said.

Boucher asked for a sentence of 7½ years.

Zilla Jones, Seamus Nepinak's lawyer, said a sentence in the range of time in custody to a further two years in provincial jail would be fit.

Both men have been behind bars since being arrested a few days after the fire.

Jones said what happened was "a tragedy," but that the court couldn't be vengeful in sentencing.

"This should not be a life for a life," Jones argued. She said the evidence heard at trial suggested the initial reason for the men to go to the home was to smoke marijuana, not to set it on fire.

The men were acquitted of charges the fire was set for the benefit of a criminal organization, the PK Mobsters street gang.

'Grateful to be alive'

Houle and his mother, Ann Marie Baptiste, say they plan to listen to Tuesday's sentencing via telephone in Winnipeg. Houle says despite his physical limitations, he's been keeping himself busy learning about science and chemistry via online videos.

He hopes to become a chemist, he said. 

He agrees with Dolcetti that the person he used to be was killed in the fire.
Clarence Houle, now 21, says a potential 22-year sentence for the two brothers who set the fire that burned 97 per cent of his body isn't long enough. (James Turner/CBC )

"The people who knew me before the fire would say I've completely changed," he said. "Sure I still smile, but I don't smile and laugh as much as I used to. I hide a lot in my room now. I barely go places."

Baptiste said it's been difficult to watch Houle battle with his pain and addiction to his medications along with dealing with financial struggles. 

Houle says he still feels lucky to be alive, and for the support his family — especially his mother — shows him.

"I'm a very lucky man. I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful for the doctors … I'm grateful that they fought to keep me alive," Houle said. "I'm very happy to be alive to this day. Sure I have to live a life like this, but it's still a life."  

Houle said he's "very nervous" about the sentencing result, but that he'll continue to keep dealing with the anger he still feels over what happened.

"I'm still looking forward to my future. I know it will get brighter," Houle said.  

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