Police lay charges in string of Mount Forest fires

MOUNT FOREST – Charges have been laid in connection to a string of fires in Mount Forest in the early morning hours of June 4.

In a July 14 press release, police announced 21-year-old Mount Forest resident Chester Lewis has been charged with intentionally or recklessly setting fire (arson) with a disregard for human life, and three counts of arson causing property damage.

None of the charges have been proven in court, and the accused is presumed innocent.

In the June 4 incidents, a storage building at Wellington Produce Packaging on Sligo Road was destroyed by fire, a Cork Street family awoke to find their shed and car ablaze, and a yard waste bag was found on fire at a Colcleugh Avenue residence.

The Advertiser asked on July 12 for an update into the police investigation, including whether police had laid charges or were considering any suspects or leads, but spokesperson Jacob Unger declined to provide details.

According to police, the accused is being held in custody until he appears for a bail hearing on July 18.

All the fires occurred in relative close proximity to each other in the early morning hours that Sunday, between 2:48 and 4am, according to police.

Sarah Vrooman was at her Cork Street home with her family when her fiancé, Ryan Smithers, awoke to find their backyard shed and family vehicle on fire.

The experience was traumatic for the family, including her three children, Vrooman previously told the Advertiser.

She also said the family had “an idea” about who may have been responsible.

Reacting to news of the charges by phone on July 14, Vrooman said she is “thrilled” and relieved.

“At the same time, I don’t think there’s a lot of hope that he’s going to be kept behind bars,” Vrooman said, in part, referring to the upcoming bail hearing.

“It does make me a little bit fearful.”

Bail is a right protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which ensures that anyone accused of a crime not only has the right to liberty but to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in court.

The burden of proof to have bail denied rests with Crown prosecutors during bail hearings, and the Criminal Code of Canada states conditions under which bail may be denied.

Since the fires, Vrooman has replaced her vehicle, and the smell of smoke has left the home – but the psychological effects linger.

“We’re all a little bit paranoid, we have the cameras up now and we check them a lot,” Vrooman said.

Police have acknowledged other residents are concerned about recent fires, including two on July 10 that occurred within 15 minutes of each other.

Police and local fire officials won’t say if the recent fires are deemed suspicious, nor are they saying if the fires are at all connected to any others.

“The investigation is still in its early stages, and I cannot speculate as to whether they are connected or not,” Unger stated in a July 12 email.

“Officers will follow the investigation where it takes them. ”

Unger acknowledged “there are more questions than answers” and suggested residents exercise caution and talk to fire officials for prevention tips.

“Wellington County OPP understands the public’s safety concerns and continues to work diligently on these investigations,” Unger stated.

“We must balance the public’s desire to know information with maintaining the integrity of the investigation.”

Police are calling on anyone with information to call the OPP at 1-888-310-1122.

Those wanting to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or submit an online tip at www.csgw.tips.