Suspect charged in Australian wildfire

February 13, 2009 10:37:05 AM PST
Police charged a man with deadly arson Friday in one of southern Australia's wildfires and put him in protective custody as survivors expressed fury that anyone could set such a blaze. Authorities also doubled the property toll, saying more than 1,800 homes have been destroyed in the Feb. 7 blazes. Officials say 181 people have been killed and expect that total eventually to exceed 200.

The suspect, whose identity was banned from publication by a magistrate because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family, was formally charged with one count of arson causing death, one of intentionally lighting a wildfire, and one of possessing child pornography, Victoria police said.

Detectives arrested the man near Churchill and questioned him for several hours before he was brought to nearby Morwell, police said. He was formally charged in magistrate's court, but did not appear in the courtroom, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

He was ordered held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, ABC said. He was taken to Melbourne, where another hearing was set for Monday.

The national news agency Australian Associated Press reported that some people outside the Morwell courthouse shouted abuse at a van that they believed was carrying him away.

"We have a very emotive environment out there," said Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney. "If we left a person there (in the area of the fires), it would only be a situation where the people may go to where they believe him to be held and I don't think they need the trauma."

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the possibility of arson in the fires as "mass murder."

Magistrate Clive Allsop banned publication of any details or photos of the man that could identify him, police said.

In interviews, residents who lost their homes expressed their anger at anyone who might have ignited the brushfires.

"Words can't describe how I feel about them," Ruth Halyburton of Marysville told The Associated Press. "I'm a Christian, but I don't think too kindly of people if they go light a match and destroy people's property and lives. They don't have a brain in their head."

Gavin Wigginton, whose home in Callignee was destroyed in the fire that police alleged the suspect started, said: "If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time."

"If he's culpable, if he's all there, he must have known that this was going to kill people and that clearly is murder," Wigginton added.

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge. Five years in prison is the maximum penalty for possessing child porn.

The arson charges were connected to a fire near the town of Churchill, about 125 miles southeast of Melbourne, that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that blackened 1,500 square miles of forests and farms in Victoria state.

Experts say arson can be very hard to prove. Physical evidence usually goes up in smoke or is taken away by arsonists, said Thomas Fee, a former president of the U.S. International Association of Arson Investigators.

Even more difficult to prove is murder by arson. Wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The scale of the disaster became clearer Friday, when the state government said it had reached a more thorough tally of homes destroyed and put that number at 1,831 - more than double its earlier figure of 762. The number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned also rose to 7,000, from 5,000.

Police say they believe at least one other fire - the one that all but destroyed the town of Marysville, about 60 miles north of Melbourne - resulted from foul play.

A group of about 300 Marysville residents met Friday in Alexandra, about 25 miles north of their village, to hear police and fire officials detail the extent of the damage. Many have not been able to return because police have sealed off the village to recover bodies and conduct an arson investigation.

At least 80 percent of the buildings in Marysville are gone - the primary school, the police station, a luxury day spa, and many others.

"It'll be hard," Ruth Halyburton said of the trip. "It'll probably be the hardest thing in my life."

She already knows her home is gone, and she and her husband, a pastor, plan to help counsel other residents.

"Our main aim - and we're all behind each other - is to go back and rebuild the town," said Bernie Culhane, 79.

Firefighters on Friday struggled to contain about a dozen blazes, one of which came within less than a mile of Healesville. The threat was downgraded after a few hours, but it served as a reminder that the disaster may not be over.

"You can't see anything. All you can see is smoke, and you can't even see where the fire is actually coming from," plant nursery owner John Stanhope told ABC radio from Healesville during the flare-up. "It's just thick smoke everywhere and everyone is just very much on edge."

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