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Date for verdict expected to be announced in March 0

Tracy McLaughlin

By Tracy McLaughlin, Special to QMI AGENCY

More than five years after a giant explosion and fire rocked downtown Barrie, the trial delving into who started the blaze has finally come to an end.

On trial is John (Giovanni) Cartolano, 65, former owner of the Riviera Restaurant. He is charged with endangering lives and arson that caused the fire to engulf several downtown businesses on Dunlop Street on Dec. 6, 2007.

“That no one was injured or killed was a good fortune,” Crown attorney Ann Tierney said in her written closing submissions to the judge.

“The igniting of this fire placed the lives of tenants, civilians and firemen alike in mortal danger.”

Throughout the trial, Tierney submitted more than 100 photographs showing how up to 75 firefighters battled the blaze that engulfed the restaurant and adjoining businesses for two days.

Photos also showed the downtown area looking like a war zone, with storefront glass blown out and restaurant stools and debris blasted into the streets.

Tenants who lived in upstairs apartments and who lost everything they owned, including pets, testified how they heard the initial blast that shook like an earthquake and ran for their lives out of the building into the smoke-filled streets, shivering in the frigid night with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Inch by inch, the charred rubble was excavated from several burned-out buildings that resembled a bomb scene, until investigators found liquid gasoline residue on the blackened floor of the basement of the Riviera — where the Crown alleges Cartolano poured gasoline after he removed his computer, paintings and other belongings from the restaurant.

Tierney argued that Cartolano was in dire straits in the months before the fire; financial pressures were coming to a boil, staff was not getting paid and the business escalated downhill.

Key to the Crown’s case was Cartolano’s ex-fiance, Lavern Williams, who ran the restaurant with Cartolano and who testified in court against him.

Court heard Williams was initially jointly charged with fraud after she and Cartolano tried, but failed, to claim the $300,000 in insurance money.

Williams received a suspended sentence for fraud in a plea deal after agreeing to testify against Cartolano.

“John said he blew up the restaurant,” she said in her statement to police.

Williams insisted she never knew he planned the arson.

“Honest to God — and I do believe in God — I did not know John was going to blow up the restaurant,” she said.

Williams also testified she was afraid of Cartolano, and that he threatened her not to tell anyone. “He said I would be followed by cops and that I should follow his lead. … He told me he knew where my mother lived — and my children.”

At one point during her testimony, Cartolano became enraged, jumping up from his seat in court, shouting, “You’re a liar!”

But defence lawyer Walter Fox insists that it is Williams who is lying, and that she only crumbled under the pressure during an aggressive, three-hour police interrogation two months after the fire when police threatened that she could go to prison for the arson.

“Her statement is completely unreliable,” said Fox, who also pointed out that Williams has a criminal record for fraud-related crimes.

Fox argued that the fire started in the adjoining Royal Thai restaurant and has accused the fire investigators of being “biased,” and only running with their arson theory after Williams pointed the finger at Cartolano.

Cartolano himself testified, insisting he did not start the fire.

“I think anyone who would do that has a sick mind,” he said on the witness stand.

The case will be back in court March 7 when Regional Senior Justice Michael Brown will set a date for his verdict.

barrie.news@sunmedia.ca


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