Ruling in trial of Mount Forest man accused of arson expected in February

Rodney Grubb was charged with arson, weapons offences in 2022 after police allege he set clothing on fire in home

GUELPH – There were no signs of fire when volunteer firefighters Devon Bolliger and Adam Wilson arrived at the scene of a reported Mount Forest house fire in September of 2021.

Bolliger unspooled a red hoseline from a pumper truck and ran it past a group of people gathered on the front lawn of the North Water Street home.

Wilson joined Bolliger at the home’s front door as someone yelled an access code.

Once the door was opened the two firefighters were clouded by smoke.

The firefighters advanced to a basement apartment unit in the two-storey backsplit to find the source: a small pile of burning clothes on the floor.

It took only a blast of water to extinguish.

What happened next varies with the firefighters’ testimony in Guelph Superior Court last month, but what’s more certain is a man emerged from the smoke with eyes bulging from a soot-covered face.

The man tried screaming through a raspy voice that his mother was in the house, Wilson testified.

Nextdoor neighbours and Wellington OPP officer Steven Wing watched as a frantic and visibly upset Rodney Grubb exited the house.

No one else was found by firefighters in Grubb’s home; his mother was nowhere to be seen at the time of the fire.

At 6pm, around 45 minutes after firefighters responded to a 911 call made by the upstairs tenants who smelled smoke, Grubb was met by a doctor at Louise Marshall Hospital.

Dr. Julie Weinstein was partway through a weekly, 24-hour emergency department shift when she saw a man with a burnt finger and the tell-tale sign of smoke inhalation: blackening around the nostrils.

He was fully alert and oriented, except for the story he told Weinstein.

“Bikers” had broken into his home, wanting to cut off his arm and kidnap his mother, Weinstein recalled.

“The gist of it was that he described that his mother was screaming, that they were trying to kidnap her,” the doctor testified.

Grubb later divulged to Weinstein he started the fire because of the imagined intruders — and that he had used meth earlier that day.

“In my opinion … I felt that on the balance of all other things that I knew of him, that this was likely drug-induced (psychosis),” Weinstein testified.

Cause undetermined

The day after the fire, Sept. 20, provincial fire investigator Clive Hubbard joined Wellington OPP crime unit detectives executing a search warrant at Grubb’s home.

Hubbard found the basement walls and ceiling coated in soot. He sorted through what was left of the pile of red, blue and grey fabric, and found a small, ceramic candle holder and a burnt candle.

The fire’s origin in the basement, where Grubb lived, was certain. But Hubbard was unable to say exactly how the fire started: either from the candle flame, or a lighter or match held to the clothing.

Because neither could be scientifically eliminated, the fire cause was classified as undetermined.

‘He had soot on his face’

In January of 2022, Wellington OPP detective Heidi Pautsch received 31 pages of Grubb’s medical records, and arrested him the following month.

He was charged with arson-related offences, as well as unauthorized possession of homemade nunchucks and violating a 2014 court order not to possess weapons.

Grubb pleaded not guilty to all charges in Guelph Superior Court on Dec. 11, 2023.

It was the first of a four-day, judge-alone trial before Justice Cynthia Petersen.

Crown prosecutor Shane Wright asked Petersen to convict Grubb on all counts.

“Where’s the evidence that he deliberately set the fire?” the judge challenged.

“Mr. Grubb admitted setting the fire to Dr. Weinstein,” Wright said, noting Grubb’s finger burn. “He had soot on his face.”

“That’s not an admission he did it on purpose,” the judge countered, struggling with a legal issue of whether Grubb was reckless or intentional in starting the fire.

The judge also questioned if the fire had truly threatened the health of anyone else in a serious way, as was noted in one of the arson charges. Everyone besides Grubb was outside, she noted.

“Mr. Grubb acted without regard for the wellbeing of anybody else,” Wright said, arguing he made “no effort” to extinguish the fire.

‘She can’t be relied upon’

Grubb’s defence lawyer Gerald Punnett argued the doctor had “no memory of what happened” more than two years later.

“She can’t be relied upon,” he argued.

Punnett then switched his tactics, immediately relying on the doctor’s testimony to argue Grubb was “operating in a parallel universe.”

“A person could be saying something that person believes, but just is not true,” the lawyer said, suggesting Grubb’s admission to the doctor be ignored.

Without the statement, Punnett argued all that remained was circumstantial evidence.

“My client has raised reasonable doubt,” Punnett said, suggesting the judge find him not guilty on the arson charges.

Grubb did not testify during the trial, and Punnett made no arguments about the nunchucks found in Grubb’s home.

Petersen said the challenge comes down to determining intention and recklessness.

“I need some time to reflect,” she said, following a nearly 10-hour trial.

A ruling from the judge is expected next month.