By Keith Lacey
A Sudbury woman who deliberately caused a $100,000 fire while heavily under the influence was spared a jail sentence Monday after court heard she has stopped drinking and taken major steps to turn her life around.
Justice Ian Gordon said he had no problem accepting a joint submission that Sheila Nootchtai, 34, be given a conditional sentence for one year to be served in the community after she pleaded guilty to arson endangering life.
Conditions include Nootchtai abstain absolutely from consuming alcohol or any intoxicating substance, continue substance abuse counselling, adhere to a daily 11 pm to to 6 am curfew and not communicate in any way with her former lover.
Court heard Nootchtai was a "chronic", daily alcohol abuser the evening she visited her former girlfriend Jan. 8, 2000.
The woman lived in a six-apartment complex on Murray Street in Sudbury and all other units were occupied with a dozen people inside the building the night of the arson.
Both women were heavily involved in substance abuse and Nootchtai was on a probation order to not have any communication with the woman, but both agreed to ignore the order repeatedly, said assistant Crown attorney Andrew Slater.
The night in question, Nootchtai came to the door, but wasn't let in, so she kicked in the door believing the woman had a male friend inside, said Slater.
A fight ensued and Nootchtai's eyeglasses, which she needs badly to correct poor eyesight, were knocked off, he said.
Nootchtai took out a lighter and set her own clothing on fire, tried to ignite a pile of clothes and then proceeded to set fire to a upholstered chair inside the apartment, said Slater.
While Nootchtai passed out inside, the other woman ran out of the apartment and flagged down a passing motorist, who ran inside the building and made sure all units were evacuated, said Slater.
Members of the Sudbury Fire Department attended and found Nootchtai lying on the floor. She was rushed to hospital and treated for smoke inhalation and burns and ended up spending five days in hospital.
Nootchtai was the only person who suffered any physical injuries as a result of the fire.
The fire caused extensive damage to the apartment and smoke and water damage to the rest of the building, which forced tenants to find alternative housing for about a week.
The total damage was estimated at around $100,000.
The Ontario Fire Marshal's office determined the fire was deliberately set.
Defence counsel Berk Keaney said Nootchtai was heavily intoxicated and has "very spotty memory" of what happened.
Since being arrested and released on bail 12 days after the arson, his client hasn't touched a drop of alcohol and has made tremendous strides in her life, said Keaney.
Not only has her large family been supportive, but the N'Swakamok Native Friendship Centre has shown great support and Nootchtai recently received her high school equivalency diploma and found a full-time job, he said.
Nootchtai's "life was on a severe downward spiral" when this incident occurred, but she's made dramatic changes, has had no contact with her former lover and "it's highly unlikely she will be appearing before about court any time in the future," said Keaney.
Slater said this was an extremely serious incident and it was through good fortune no one else was hurt.
However, Nootchtai deserves credit for turning her life around and doesn't pose any threat to the community as long as she abstains from alcohol, he said.
In passing sentence, Gordon commented more than once the native friendship centre, its counsellors and staff deserve a great deal of credit for helping Nootchtai on her road to recovery.