2 charged with murder for fatal rooming house fire connected to gangs, drug trade
Victims were not intended targets of July 2016 fire, police say
Two men have been charged with second-degree murder and arson for a rooming house fire in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas neighbourhood that killed two people, police said Friday.
Jonathon Graham Barstad, 34, and Edward Wade Beardy, 35, both of Winnipeg, are each charged with two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of arson with disregard for life.
The fire broke out in the three-storey home on Austin Street North near Jarvis Avenue on July 7, 2016.
Police believe the fire was set to target a resident or residents who had connections with street gangs and the illegal drug trade.
Instead, the fire claimed the lives of Brenda Campbell, 51, and John McKinnon Bendon, 61. Police say the pair were not the intended victims and had no connections with gangs or the drug trade.
"They truly were victims in this matter," said Sgt. Wes Rommel in a press conference on Friday.
- 2 die in rooming house fire in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas
- Fatal rooming house fire in North Point Douglas being investigated as homicide
Campbell, who went by the name Jeanette, was later added to CBC's missing and murdered Indigenous women database. The mother of several children was remembered as kind, with a strong spirit. She was from Winnipeg but had roots in Duck Bay and Camperville, Man.
Rommel said police met with Campbell and Bendon's family on Thursday evening to tell them about the arrests.
"Of course, like any family, I think [they're] thankful that there is some degree of closure, but I think that closure brings up everything," he said.
"I know that in those discussions last night when our member notified them, they were very aware and alert to the fact of what today is, that it was the one-year anniversary [of the fire], and I think having some natural emotions with today."
Death toll could have been higher: police
Police spent the last 12 months gathering evidence on the case, Rommel said. Neither of the accused are believed to have lived at the home.
Connections with gangs and the drug trade added a layer of complexity to the investigation, he said.
"When you have those types of investigations, getting that information from people who have it becomes sometimes problematic," he said. "They may not want to come forward for fear of safety, concern how they'll be perceived in their neighbourhoods."
When fire crews arrived at the time of the fire, the blaze had already spread to every floor of the building.
There were seven people in the house and five escaped, police said Friday. Last year, it was reported that there were 15 people inside and 13 escaped.
Rommel said the death toll could have been higher.
"It easily could have turned into more. It's a matter of seconds, probably."
'There is some closure'
A year after the deadly fire, the house has been worked on and much of the exterior has been replaced. But the home located directly beside it still has melted siding.
Sel Burrows, chair of the Point Douglas Residence Committee, said he has conflicting emotions about the arrests on the anniversary of the fire.
"We were ecstatic that people have been charged and arrested for killing two people in our community," he said.
But Burrows said it also brought up emotions as he remembered the "horrible day" when the two died.
People still stop in front of the house and lay flowers to remember their community members that were lost, he said.
Burrows hopes the arrests send a message to others that "fire is deadly and you can go to jail for a long time if you kill somebody in a fire."
The fatal blaze prompted a conversation about how often rooming houses are inspected.
Before the fire, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service conducted a full inspection of the property in November 2013 and it was found to be in full compliance during a follow-up visit in February 2014, a city spokesperson told CBC News last summer.
- Vigil honours woman killed in Austin Street North rooming house fire
- Sky lanterns grounded under new Winnipeg fire-prevention rules
The fire paramedic service is not required to inspect rooming houses every year, but it started making an effort to do so in 2015.
In April, a new fire prevention bylaw passed which brought in new fees for inspections of illegal rooming houses to fund an increase in fire safety inspectors.
More from CBC Manitoba:
With files from Aidan Geary