Originally published in the Whitecourt Star
Lawson Schalm, the volunteer firefighter who pleaded guilty to four counts of arson in March, was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court on July 6.
“The offences are indeed grave and concerning for the court,” said Judge Charles Gardner in his sentencing ruling, referring to the 18 fires Schalm started.
The major arson committed by Schalm, 20, was burning down the CN trestle bridge in Mayerthrope on April 26, which Gardner said “caused what can only be described as catastrophic destruction.”
Repairing the bridge cost $7.5 million, Gardner added.
Some of the other fires were small, merely burning grass, while others destroyed property, but the “potential for greater loss … was very great,” he said, noting that one fire was started across the street from a gas plant.
Schalm volunteered as a firefighter from the age of 15. His position as a firefighter created a significant breach of trust that “is not a normal one,” Gardner said.
Other aggravating factors include the number of fires, significant damage, foreseeable risk and that the arsons continued after the trestle fire.
However, Schalm “quickly and forthrightly” confessed to the crimes when he was informed he was a suspect, which Gardner listed as a mitigating factor.
A psychological assessment commissioned by the defence came to the conclusion that Schalm was not a pyromaniac, nor was he bipolar, making the risk of recidivism minimal.
Instead, the psychiatrist said the accused “struggles with self esteem and significant cognitive deficits,” stemming from his upbringing.
Schalm was adopted when he was six years old, coming from a family marked by “neglect and domestic violence,” said Gardner.
He also cited Schalm’s “strong family and community support,” age and lack of a prior criminal record as additional mitigating factors.
“Clearly, a jail sentence is called for,” he said, sentencing Schalm to six months in jail for the first three counts and 18 months for the trestle fire, crediting the accused with three months time served.
Schalm also must pay the Town of Mayerthorpe $8,653.53 in restitution, as well as attend three years probation once his prison sentence is finished.
Gardner also imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which he said could be altered or lifted by Schalm’s probation officer.
Father, lawyer speak out
Schalm’s father, Albert, a Northern Gateway Public Schools trustee and former Mayerthorpe mayor, said the past year has been an extremely difficult one for his family but that they’re ready to move on.
“There’s always things that happen, there’s always things that go on that we have to live with, have to go with it and my son’s going to pay a price,” said the elder Schalm.
He said his son “has always been a good kid” and that he’s “always been proud” of Lawson, despite his poor decisions last year.
Lawson has been living with his parents and brother since his arrest and Albert said that his recent high school graduation demonstrates his effort at self improvement.
“Huge credit to the high school for allowing him … to finish. Huge credit for him to want to finish,” he said.
Albert described the sentencing as “fair” and “thorough.”
“We didn’t expect a pardon,” he said. “There’s no way that was going to happen.”
Albert also credited the Town for being “very patient” and forgiving.
“That’s how my son has been able to move on for the most part. It’s because people forgive him,” he said.
Edward O’Neil, Lawson’s defence lawyer, said he was similarly satisfied with Gardner’s ruling.
“It was a very humane sentence passed by a very fair-minded and very respected judge,” said O’Neil.
He added that this case was hard on all parties involved.
“It’s a very difficult case because it’s a very sad case. (Lawson) did something he sincerely regrets and comes from a wonderful family,” O’Neil said. “They’re fundamentally decent people.”