Inferno: Firefighters battle the blaze as it destroys much of Pedro Gonzales Fruit and Garden on Sept. 9

Arsonist sentenced to two years and six months in jail

Pedro Gonzales Fruit Stand: Employee steals cash, tries to cover his tracks by setting fire to business.

An ill-conceived attempt to destroy a non-existent security camera led to the fiery destruction at Pedro Gonzales Fruit and Garden Ltd. in September last year.

Adam Michael Schultz, 39, of Salmon Arm, pleaded guilty on Dec. 8 in provincial court to one count of theft over $5,000, as well as one count of arson.

Schultz was charged with stealing $7,000 cash from Pedro’s on Sept. 7, 2013, where he had been employed for more than six months as a labourer. He was also charged with one count of arson in relation to the huge blaze that erupted just after midnight on Sept. 9, 2013. The fire destroyed the main building and an adjacent storehouse at the business situated on the Trans-Canada Highway near 30th Street SW.

Crown counsel Bill Hilderman outlined the events leading up to the fire for Judge Mayland McKimm.

Hilderman said Schultz telephoned Nicole Ruth, part owner and bookkeeper, on the afternoon of Sept. 7, saying he wasn’t able to find his paycheque. He was told  it would be redone when she returned later that afternoon as the initial cheque had included pay for a day he had taken off.

Earlier in the day, co-owner Greg Ruth had placed an envelope with about $7,000 cash in the small office off the main building. That Saturday was a busy day and he didn’t want the tills overflowing with cash.

Hilderman termed it “kind of an unfortunate situation,” because the business had purchased a newer safe but didn’t have the combination, so it wasn’t being used.

When the Ruths returned and Nicole was preparing the cheque, she discovered the cash missing. Just a few employees were working that day, the court heard – a couple of young women on the tills, Schultz, one man who had been asked to keep an eye on the office and a member of the Ruth family.

Hilderman said Greg Ruth searched the trucks of Schultz and the other man as they had access to the office, but nothing was found.

Later that evening, Ruth phoned Schultz, suspecting he had taken the money, and asked to meet him at Tim Hortons.

“He said to him that was bad money to take, inferring it came from some kind of nefarious activity, hoping to scare him into returning it,” Hilderman said.

The court also heard that Ruth told Schultz there were cameras in the office that perhaps he didn’t know about and, on Monday, he was going to get someone to download the tape to see who stole the money. The criminals involved would then know who to target.

The next day, Sunday, Schultz worked a shift and “apparently everything went fairly normally,” Hilderman said.

However, just after midnight on Sept. 9, Schultz drove to within a quarter of a mile from Pedro’s and walked to the back of the premises, his intent to break in to steal the camera. When he got there, he realized the only way to break in would be to smash a window, which would set off an alarm.

Schultz then decided to start a small fire near the office, in hopes the smoke might damage the camera, or perhaps he would have a chance to go in and get it,  Hilderman told the court.

Since Schultz did maintenance-type work at Pedro’s, he knew where a couple of gas cans were. However, his plan to start a small fire contained a glaring flaw.

In his panic he didn’t take into account the propane, the five-gallon containers of isopropanol and all the fertilizer the business housed.

“When the fire went ‘woof,’ as he put it, he got scared and ran off home,” Hilderman said.

Judge McKimm stated: “Shortly after starting the small fire, he realized what he had done was far more serious when the building essentially exploded. He had arrived home and could hear the explosion… The building went up in a conflagration of enormous proportions…”

Schultz’s spouse soon received a text about the fire, so Schultz, pretending he knew nothing, called over to see if he could be of assistance.

The court heard that at one point Schultz confessed to a police officer, but the confession was not admissible.

Later police told him the confession would not stand but, after what the Crown termed a “very good police investigation,” Schultz opted to confess again, a factor the judge said weighed in his favour.

The court also heard Schultz was in a cell with an undercover officer when he admitted he started the fire “to cover up his tracks.”

The money was never recovered and Schultz contended initially that he threw it out the window of his vehicle but later said he used it to pay off his daughter’s drug debt.

The court heard  Schultz had grown up in Revelstoke, a difficult early life dealing with an alcoholic father. His history included becoming a good father figure to three children whose two mothers he had befriended and supported, as well as to his own son.

In court, his parents, his son and his former spouse were present to show their support, which was outlined in glowing letters read to the court, as well as one from a local restaurant, his current employer.

The court also heard the devastating impact the fire had on the Ruths, losing operations for six months, as well as what they had worked to build over 50 years.

McKimm sentenced Schultz to six months in jail for theft and two years of federal time for arson. McKimm denied the request of defence lawyer Julian van der Walle that the time be served concurrently.

Schultz must also pay back the $7,000.

In sentencing, McKimm referred to the “brazen theft” and the “entirely ill-conceived” arson, but also considered Schultz’s genuine remorse and his intention that no one would be put in jeopardy by the fire. McKimm stated he does not consider Schultz to be a risk to public safety.

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