Keith Charles: Not a question of if, but when, a tragedy would happen on London group home operator’s watch, justice of the peace says

When Keith Charles was sentenced to 20 days in jail, the memory of David MacPherson was on the mind of London’s chief fire-prevention officer.

Wendy Cowdrey was in court Monday when Charles, the operator of the group home where MacPherson died after a blaze, was dealt what’s believed to be the first jail sentence in London for fire-safety infractions.

Charles also was given two years of probation and ordered not to have more than five unrelated people in each of his group homes.

Cowdrey’s mind turned back to the hours before MacPherson, 72, suffered fatal injuries in the group home fire on Nov.3, 2014, to when London’s fire department was making a plan to shut down the three-storey firetrap operated by Charles’ organization, People Helping People.

For months, Charles had been racking up infractions — ­broken smoke detectors and emergency lights, clogged hallways and propped-open fire doors — some of them while he was on probation for other convictions involving another of his leased buildings.

That morning, London fire-­prevention officials and Chief John Kobarda had met to put a call into Ontario’s Fire Marshal for an order to close Charles’ property at 1451 Oxford St. There were 22 bedrooms in the 11-unit building and it was full of people. Ten minutes later, the fire call came in.

“It was very devastating for us to have that happen,” said Cowdrey.

The tragic fallout and Charles’ trial have highlighted the often-woeful conditions of unregulated housing for the mentally ill and those battling addictions.

 

 

In the 20 years since Ontario began closing psychiatric institutions, many such people have ended up in substandard group homes, boarding houses and cheap hotels.

That’s also the case in London, but the deadly fire also fueled pressure for London to step in and regulate such housing, which it now has under a strict new bylaw that took effect late last year. Among other things, it requires such group home operators to have care plans for their residents at least $5 million in liability insurance.

Charles was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served on weekends, for 12 fire code convictions — a first.

Justice of the peace Peter Aharan recommended he be considered for a community program that would allow him to work off his sentence.

Kobarda said the sentence “sends out a whole new message to the community.”

“This is the first time, to my recollection, that actually somebody in London (who’s) been charged with fire code (violations) has gotten a jail sentence out of it,” he said.

The sentence took into account that Charles, who in court appeared more concerned about the daily care of his clients than the state of his housing, had bitten off more than he could chew when he ran the Oxford Street building.

“Mr. Charles, you took on an operation of alarming size and scale,” Aharan said. “The risk posed to a group of extremely vulnerable people is obvious.”

Charles accumulated charges from April 2014 until the fire.

Aharan said his decision had to address Charles’s neglect of the fire code and send a strong message to the community.

“it’s not if a fire tragedy was going to happen, it was when,” he said.

Charles said he’s become a changed man since he was found guilty in March.

“I take full ownership of each count and I’ve taken steps to improve,” he told Aharan.

Charles said he’d cut his agency down from seven homes to three — severely limiting his income — and reviewed a daily fire safety checklist he developed.

He said he’s made fire safety “my number one priority.”

He even tacked a copy of his 12 convictions on the wall and told residents that if he didn’t follow the fire code, he could go to jail. He wanted probation and fire-safety code education.

Sitting in the courtroom was an entourage of some of London’s most vulnerable, a small group of mentally ill group home residents there to support Charles.

Among them was Tammy Baker. She’d testified for Charles during his long trial, when he acted as his own lawyer. At one point she wandered to the front of the courtroom to proclaim, “It’s not his fault, it’s my fault,” before she was escorted out.

It was a reminder of how fragile and at-risk Charles’ clientele is.

Earlier in the process, Aharan had suggested that instead of the prosecution’s suggested $60,000 fine — which Charles could never likely pay — he might consider a 30-day jail sentence to be served on weekends.

But at sentencing, he gave Charles credit for changing his tune on fire safety in the last month.

Still, Aharan said his fear is that Charles’ building was “the tip of the iceberg” in bad housing for mentally ill people.

“This may be the canary in what might be a very dark coal mine,” he said.

Aharan told Charles that during his two-year probation, he can’t have more than five residents in each of his group homes. An exception was made for an Edmonton Street address because eight people already live there. Those limits were considered in the bylaw.

Aharan said Charles is “sufficiently far along” in rehabilitation, but the jail term had to be included.

Cowdrey said she wished Aharan had mentioned MacPherson, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t thinking about him.

What the sentence does, she says, is pay attention to the people in need.

“It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved. Mr. Charles still has to support the people that he does,” she said, saying the sentence gives him that chance.

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Source: Charles jailed for fire-safety infractions | The London Free Press