Motivated by anger: Mount Forest arsonist jailed

Chester Lewis sentenced to two years less a day for arsons; six months for vehicle thefts, assault

GUELPH – A family left sleepless, a business nearly ruined, vehicles stolen, a man assaulted and a community left on edge.

What began with a vehicle theft in January last year, came to a fever pitch in the summer with several suspicious fires in Mount Forest.

A Wellington Produce Packaging building was reduced to ruins, leaving the business to contend with over a million dollars in damages, and the Vrooman family awoke to find their shed, car and Cork Street home on fire — all in the early morning hours of June 4.

In an interview with the Advertiser last year, Sarah Vrooman said the family and community had a good idea about who was behind the rash of fires – and their suspicion would prove to be correct.

On Jan. 3, days before his 22nd birthday, Chester Lewis was sentenced to jail for two years less a day (avoiding a federal penitentiary) on five counts of arson.

He was also sentenced to six months imprisonment on two counts of stealing vehicles in January and April, and a count of assault with brass knuckles.

Lewis appeared virtually on Wednesday from jail, where he has been held since July.

He pleaded guilty to the eight charges as his mother, Tracy Grant, and grandmother, Pat Grant, sat in Guelph court for Lewis’ sentencing.

At the defence’s request, Justice Matthew Stanley credited each day Lewis has been in custody since his arrest as one-and-a-half days toward his total sentence.

Given the time his case has taken to work through the system, plus the half-day “enhancement,” Lewis has a total of 15 months and 20 days behind bars before he will be released.

(Although technically a separate sentence, the six months for the vehicle thefts and assault is served at the same time as the sentence for the arsons.)

The nearly two-year jail sentence for the arsons — jointly proposed by the prosecution and defence, and accepted by the judge — is considered at the low end of the spectrum, which ranges up to 14 years.

“For the damage that’s been caused in the community, and [the] potential harm, this is as low a sentence as I think would be appropriate,” Stanley remarked.

Vrooman, who spoke with the Advertiser by phone on Jan. 4, learned of Lewis’ sentencing from a reporter.

She said she was “surprised he got such a small sentence” and expected more.

“I feel like he’s a dangerous person,” she added.

After Lewis serves the remainder of his sentence, he will be on probation for two years.

During that time it’s expected he will live with his mother, who no longer lives within Wellington County. He also has orders not to contact or be near a list of 13 people.

Fire damage at the home of Ryan Smithers and Sarah Vrooman on Cork Street in Mount Forest. OPP Twitter photo


The first fire

Court heard Lewis’ footprints tracked through the snow along a John Street home, where, in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, he started a fire under a Mazda 3 sedan in what would be the first of several fires in the coming months.

On June 4, also in the early morning hours, Crown prosecutor Tom Meehan said Lewis used a lighter to ignite loose cardboard beside a semi-trailer full of paper packaging at Wellington Produce Packaging on Sligo Road.

The fire spread from the trailer to a building and torched two vehicles and six semi-trailers, court heard, resulting in a damage estimate over $1 million.

A little over a kilometre south, he arrived at the Vrooman residence, Meehan said, where he set grass clippings on fire, igniting a lawn mower and a shed.

In an account given to the Advertiser last year, Vrooman said the family awoke at 3am to find their shed aglow with flames.

In an attempt to fight the fire, fiancé Ryan Smithers went to get a garden hose, only to find Vrooman’s Hyundai Tucson ablaze in the driveway with flames spreading to the garage.

Barefoot and in their pyjamas, the family fled their home into the night.

Vrooman’s daughter broke off a previous relationship with Lewis years ago.

“Setting fire to [the] shed and car was his way of getting back,” the prosecutor said.

The next month Lewis returned to Wellington Produce Packaging, setting fire to a semi-trailer, and the cardboard and paper packaging within.

Company president Paul Hincks wrote in a victim impact statement that the family hadn’t heard of Lewis before the fires.

The same July 10 night, court heard Lewis intentionally set fire to camper and sled trailers parked at a Durham Street West home, less than a kilometre away.

He was arrested later that day by police after brandishing brass knuckles and threatening staff at W-S Feed and Supplies on Queen Street West.

(Early reports suggested Lewis was also found with a taser, however facts read aloud in court did not clarify that detail.)

Court heard Lewis confessed to police “that he started these fires as payback to those who have done him wrong.”

A storage building at Wellington Produce Packaging on Sligo Road in Mount Forest was destroyed by fire on June 4. Submitted photo


‘The town was shocked’

Mount Forest defence lawyer Stephen Menzies struggled to make sense of Lewis’ behaviour.

“When I was first retained by this young man, it was on the car thefts,” Menzies told court.

He believed the “youthful indiscretions” of a “hard-working country boy” would be routine and simple to resolve.

“All of a sudden the news hit town that this factory, which is [a] well-known factory, had burned … and the town was shocked,” Menzies said.

The shock amplified once he learned his client was pinned for the fires.

“From that time on, I have struggled myself to try to come up, as my duty to this court, with some explanation for how this could have happened,” Menzies told the judge.

“I’ve not really been able to come up with one other than ultimately out of my own client’s mouth … that he just became angry with what he perceived to be unfair treatment that he had received in that town,” Menzies said, calling Lewis an “enigma.”

In all of the incidents, court heard Lewis was influenced by alcohol and cocaine.

Menzies advocated to have Lewis assessed, but told the Advertiser by phone it wasn’t possible.

“When you have a matter this serious … and we can’t get him in front of any type of professional to analyze and maybe give counselling or diagnose his issues, it’s really a disgrace,” Menzies said, adding “everyone would have benefitted.”

Crown prosecutor Meehan called Lewis’ behaviour “dangerous and troubling.”

“It needs to be addressed going forward or the court and the community would have understandable concerns,” Meehan said.

Given the chance to speak, Lewis said his recklessness was “totally not me” and said drugs were a “big play” in his behaviour.

“I’m not excusing the fact that I did this … I just know I need help, professional help,” he said, adding he had completed an anger management course while in detention.

With exasperation in his voice, the judge told Lewis his behaviour was “so out of proportion” to whatever motivated it.

“Community is an important thing, and these actions are what deteriorate that community,” Stanley remarked.

“Individuals that commit these offences need to understand that there are very real consequences to them, and there also needs to be specific deterrence for you, Mr. Chester.”

The judge added, “While there was some focus on you, and the sentence on you, it’s ultimately not necessarily about you, but the community, and the safety in the community.”

Following the sentencing, eight other criminal charges against Lewis, including an allegation of setting a yard waste bag on fire at a Colcleugh Avenue residence, were dropped at the Crown’s request.

The Hincks family, which owns Wellington Produce Packaging, declined to provide comment for this story.