Australia — A former Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteer has been found guilty of killing 10 people by deliberately lighting a bushfire on Black Saturday.
Brendan Sokaluk, 42, had been on trial in the Victorian Supreme Court for the past month, accused of deliberately lighting the Churchill fire on February 7, 2009.
Today a jury found him guilty of arson causing death.
Ten people were killed, more than 150 homes were razed, and 36,000 hectares of land were destroyed in the blaze.
The verdict means Sokaluk is responsible for the deaths, making him one of Victoria’s worst killers.
He has been remanded in custody to be sentenced at a later date.
Outside court, defence barrister Jane Dixon QC says she believes there will likely be an appeal.
“(He is) shattered, of course. I think he is a bit lost at the moment,” she said.
Sokaluk is autistic and has a mild intellectual disability. He told police he may have accidentally started the fire when he threw cigarette ash out of his car window
His police interview was central to the case.
Five days after the Black Saturday inferno swept through Churchill, Sokaluk was taken back to Jelleff’s Outlet, where the fire started.
Police filmed the re-enactment as he told them he may have started the blaze.
“Part of my cigarette thing fell on the floor, so I got a bit of paper out to grab it and stuff… I thought it was dead and I’ve chucked it out the window, but I didn’t know it had lit up,” Sokaluk told them.
But he strenuously denied deliberately starting the fire.
“I didn’t mean any of this to happen,” he told police.
“I thought it was out when I threw the paper out the window.
“I had no intention of this all to happen. Now I have to put up [with it] for the rest of my life and it makes me sad.”
Later, when asked what his mum’s name was, he simply replied “mum”.
When told he would be kept in custody that night, he asked if the beds were soft.
The cigarette ash explanation was pivotal in what was a largely circumstantial case.
On Black Saturday, the temperature in the Latrobe Valley spiked at 46 degrees Celsius, and wind gusts reached 70 kilometres per hour, creating an inferno.
The month-long Supreme Court trial heard that Sokaluk was seen in the area where the fire started – a fact he never denied.
He was one of the first to call triple-0, and his broken-down car was found burnt out the next day.
Prosecutor Ray Elston said Sokaluk gave various reasons for being in the area.
He said he created a web of deceit to try get away with arson, and the cigarette ash explanation given to police was a “furphy”, as the fire was ignited at two different locations.
But Sokaluk’s defence asked the jury to consider his alleged confession through the prism of his recently diagnosed autism and his mild intellectual ability.
Ms Dixon told the court autistic people are often pretty poor liars and have trouble keeping a story straight when trying to lie.
In her eyes, he was a “simple man who believed himself to be in very, very big trouble,” whether he started the fire accidentally or not.
“This is no contrived web of lies and deceit … frankly, Brendan Sokaluk would not be capable of calculating his way out a paper bag unless he had a map,” Ms Dixon contended.
“What Brendan does in that interview is tell the truth as he perceives it.”