On Thursday, Fleming residents had an opportunity to confront and question two young men charged with the arson that destroyed the town’s historic Lake of the Woods grain elevator on February 9, 2010.
Charles Dron and Joey Yates were convicted of the crime, and each man was ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution. Dron, who was sentenced in Moosomin provincial court after a plea deal, was given a one-year suspended sentence, and Yates was sentenced to two years in jail in Manitoba provincial court, of which he has served 18 months. Both men were ordered to participate in a mediation session, facilitated by Westman Mediation Services.
Before Dron, who spoke to the public first entered the room, Mayor Phil Hamm cautioned the audience to handle the situation peacefully.
“I know that I have quite a bit of anger about this, but at the same time, I want to get answers and I don’t want to lose my cool, and I would ask that everyone else here do the same. We don’t want to experience a shouting match, we do not want the individuals to feel threatened,” Hamm says.
The mediation facilitator was Westman Mediation Services Co-ordinator Travis Blaine. He informed the crowd that according to the writing of the court documents, Yates and Dron had the right to leave if they received any allegations or threats, which would end the mediation session. As part of the court order, the accused could also request the media to not be present.
Charles Dron was the first to speak to the audience.
Before asking a list of prepared questions and allowing an open question and answer session, Hamm read a prepared statement to Dron about the elevator.
The elevator was a heritage site that the town of Fleming had been fundraising for and renovating to create into a tourist desitination.
Hamm spent a few minutes telling Dron about the history of the work on the elevator before he asked him questions. He explained the physical work and contributions that went into the elevator.
“For five years, our committee worked very hard,” Hamm says, “but noboby complained because for each of us this was a labour of love ... Not a thing remains as a testament to the generosity and work for the community because of a cowardly crime committed in the dark of night by you and your accomplices.”
Hamm proceeded to ask Dron a series of prepared questions.
Dron, when questioned said that he had no intention of burning down the elevator that night.
“There was no intention that I had of burning down this elevator that night. I thought we were coming to Fleming to see our girlfriends. A comment was made that we should stop and check out the elevator. My full understanding was that we were looking around,” Dron says.
Dron says he was on the opposite side of the building when the fire was started, and told the crowd that by the time he realized there was a fire, he could not do anything.
Dron insisted he knew nothing about the plan, and that he knew of no motive to burn down the elevator, insisting he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” When questioned about why he pleaded guilty, Dron told the audience “I pled guilty to end this. It was costing more money to take this further. This is what my lawyer told me to do.”
Following the question and answer session, Ruth Oliver on the Elevator Committee told Dron she forgives him for what happened.
Dron responded, “I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry for what has happened, honestly, I am.”
For Joey Yates’ session, Yates requested that the media be removed from the meeting and allowed to return following the Mediation session to speak to the public.
According to members of the audience, Yates’ mediation session ended abruptly when an inappropriate question was asked of Yates, and he left.
Media were able to re-enter the hall following a heated argument between a member of the public and Yates’ brother regarding the terms on which the mediation session ended. Following the explanation from Blaine why the mediation was over, Micahel Yates, Joey’s father, spoke up, responding to a criticism that Yates had not paid back any of his $30,000 restitution, which he says is because Yates had been in prison, not able to earn an income.
“You guys make him out to be a monster, and that’s fine, it is your opinion, but you don’t know him,” Yates told the audience.
Despite the heated discussion between Michael Yates and the public, what happened next was unprecedented.
“I think we have to look a little deeper inside ourselves and say what is the best thing for us all moving forward, and I think the best thing we can do is this.”
Hamm stood up, shook hands, and hugged Michael Yates. Immediately afterwards, others members of the public who expressed anger followed suit.
Shelby Yates, Joey’s brother, who had left after the argument that ended the session, returned.
“It’s like this — Joey was crucified tonight, and it’s been like that since the beginning. He was the only one to plead guilty right at the beginning, and he’s been a scapegoat this entire time, while Dron got the walk,” Shelby Yates says.
Despite coming back and sharing a mutual apology with Ricky Hamm, who argued with Yates before he left, he says he doesn’t have closure.
“I would have liked this to go a little more successful tonight, and be more to the point ... but I think that this is just people grasping at straws, and trying to get whatever closure they can out of this. I think they are just looking for a resolution, and because they can’t deal with this issue. It’s avoiding the issue. This was supposed to be an apology, and instead, more tension was created and it took away from the initial feelings of remorse Joey had.”
Joey’s father Michael says he was glad the meeting ended how it did.
“I feel as if closure is closer for everybody involved now, and everybody here has a better perspective of who Joey and Charlie are, and what they did, and that they are not monsters. They are kids, and they have families, and every family has problems, and everyone has to just do what they need to do to move on.”
Yates says that he felt the justice system failed his son, but he’s come full circle and that his son is ready to move forward.
“I just want people to know that Joey has had a tough life, but now he wants to go on and be a productive citizen, he’s not mad at these people, he just did something stupid, and now he’s paying for it, and wants to get on with his life.”
Yates says that the session gives him a sense of closure.
“We’ve talked to these people who I didn’t know, and they are just like me. I’m hoping they understand now that these guys are not monsters. I hope that they can move on and rebuild here, and we can do what we have to do back home to move on.”
Hamm says that he agrees it’s time to move on.
“Everything disintegrated, and I was very upset by that, almost sickened by it. But I thank Michael Yates and the other family that stayed after. Because Mr. Yates started telling us about Joey from a father’s point of view, I think positive things emerged from negatives,” Hamm says, “I think that because there was an emotional upset from both sides, it brought us to a level where all of a sudden, it was possible to see that we are all the same here. That olive branch resulted in realizing we can’t change the past, and we are sorry about the past, but we want to move forward and achieve something positive here.”
“We are now, I think, going to be able to put a lot of this behind us. We’ve got some closure,” Hamm adds, “Sometimes it takes very mysterious ways to come to a miraculous ending, but tonight, I feel it was close to being a miracle, because it went from being very bitter and confrontational to people saying ‘enough of this.
“Let’s move past this, and let’s be bigger people, and let’s forget, and respect each other’s position and do what we can to mend the fences and to turn this bad situation into something positive.’”
Hamm says that the reassurance that Yates is working towards paying back his restitution fee gives Hamm hope.
“We can’t bring back this building, but we can still do something to honour the people who put so much into this, and create a positive lasting legacy for future generations.”